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Gov. Chafee discusses his political journey
with students at Flanagan Campus

June 25, 2014

Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks to a political science class at the college's Flanagan Campus on June 24. Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks to a political science class at the college's Flanagan Campus on June 24.

Sometimes, it’s best to go straight to the source. That’s one of the lessons that students from adjunct instructor Matthew Ulriksen’s “State and Local Government” political science class at the Flanagan Campus learned yesterday afternoon as they enjoyed a lecture from a special guest: Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

“I invited Gov. Chafee because his record of public service runs the gamut,” said Ulriksen, noting that Chafee started out as a constitutional convention delegate and moved on to city councilor, mayor of Warwick and U.S. senator before taking his post on Smith Hill. “He really encapsulates everything we cover in this class, and I wanted him to be able to relate his experiences as well as a meta-analysis of how local, state and federal governments work together in the formation and implementation of public policy.”

The small class, in conjunction with other guests from the CCRI community in attendance, listened intently as Chafee traced his journey back to the beginning.

“I was really wearing out my shoes, going door to door,” he said of his experience as a constitutional convention delegate in 1984. He spoke of being frustrated by the fact that divisive national policy issues that had already been ruled upon at the judiciary’s highest level – as with the issue of abortion and the ruling Roe v. Wade – dominated what should have been the chance for local politicians to move the state of Rhode Island forward on issues that would affect residents of the state. “But I loved it,” he said of his first experience in public service, fully ready to make an impact in his own community.

The trajectory of Chafee’s ascendancy from Warwick City Council to the State House is familiar to many Rhode Islanders, but he offered Ulriksen’s class a unique insight into what it took to overcome the highly partisan environment in which he needed to operate.

Chafee, now a Democrat after being elected as an independent, quite famously started out as a Republican in one of the nation’s most historically liberal states. But he said his desire was first and foremost to serve the people he represented in Warwick, and “made a name for himself” as someone who was willing to go against the grain to stand up for what he believed in. This didn’t mean that he was unable to compromise, though; he knew that to get things done in as mayor of a Democratic-run city, he would need to reach across the aisle.

“I needed to plow snow, I needed to pick up trash. I needed to get a good director of public works,” said Chafee, noting that the relationships he formed with his Democrat-approved staff were some of the smartest moves he made as mayor. “I made friends with the workers. I’d get up and meet them with doughnuts as they came in to work. And I got re-elected.”

Gov. ChafeeChafee would take this spirit of compromise and relationship-building with him to the Rhode Island State House and then the U.S. Senate. He related some of his inside experiences and insights on Capitol Hill to the students, who nodded knowingly as he described some of the tumult facing the country at the time.

He emphasized that he had to do a lot of soul searching and “suffered physically” during the period following the 9/11 attacks, when he thought that his party’s leadership were doing “a lot of damage to our country, fracturing valuable alliances around the world.”

Turning his attention to resuming his career in state politics following his failed re-election bid for Senate, Chafee spoke of some of the negativity he had to overcome when working within Rhode Island’s legislative structure, which, he explained, gives more power to the speaker of the house than it does to the governor.

But Chafee shared that one of his strengths has been the flexibility and willingness to change, despite some of that political inertia. He laughed as he recalled walking in to the local Board of Canvassers to change his party affiliation to independent, the clerk giving him a hard time about it before he finally convinced her he was serious.

Now, at the close of his final term, Chafee said he was focused on “handing the state off to its next governor in the best shape possible.” He told the class that while governing hasn’t always been smooth, each year has brought more positive change, and that recent triumphs, such as marriage equality and his latest budget, have helped to fulfill his aim of leaving a positive legacy.

Despite the challenges he has faced, Chafee said he enjoyed all of his public service positions, and encouraged the students to get involved in the government process at whatever level they could.

Business major Alex Sharkey of Providence, who asked the governor what his favorite post was during the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, said that he found Chafee’s talk to be informative. “It was a really unique insight into how everything works,” he said. “And it’s really interesting looking at government from a local level.”

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Last Updated: 12/17/14