Photo by Phil Eil
by: Phil Eil • 630WPRO.COM
Lincoln Davenport Chafee has been a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat. He has been a city councilman, a mayor, a US senator, and a governor. He is the son of one of the most famous politicians in Rhode Island history (former Governor, US Senator, and US Secretary of the Navy, John Chafee), and father of a son who threw one of the most infamous house parties in Rhode Island history.
That graduation bash at the Chafee home in Exeter in 2012 is one of many memorable events that mark the 61-year-old’s lone term as Rhode Island’s 74th Governor. (Chafee announced he wouldn’t run for reelection at a 2013 press conference outside Cranston’s Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters.) There have been much-touted legislative achievements (pension reform in 2011, the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013), a showdown with the federal government over a murderer’s fate (Jason Pleau), a natural disaster (Hurricane Sandy), a PR disaster (the Christmas tree/”holiday tree” fiasco), and, of course, the taxpayer-funded, megamillion-dollar meltdown of 38 Studios.
Chafee was mum about his post-office plans when we sat down with him at the State House on Tuesday, seven weeks before Governor-elect Gina Raimondo’s inauguration on January 6, 2015. But he was happy to speak on a variety of other subjects, including his frustration with what he sees as the local media’s lack of in-depth, “intellectual discussions” on critical topics.
With Chafee’s lament in mind – and to give 630wpro.com readers as much info and insight as possible – we’ve included more than 4,500 words from our 50-minute interview here. If that sounds long, feel free to do a word search for “38 Studios,” “Christmas tree,” or “approval ratings” to skip to the bits that interest you most. If not, settle in to explore Governor Lincoln Chafee’s state of mind as he prepares to exit Rhode Island’s political stage for perhaps the last time.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
WHEN PEOPLE LOOK BACK ON LINCOLN CHAFEE’S TIME AS RHODE ISLAND GOVERNOR IN 50 OR 100 YEARS, WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY’LL SEE?
I think two things: a very ethical, scandal-free, and competent four years. We came in with high unemployment, labor unrest throughout the state, and methodically and competently and ethically moved the state forward.
The unemployment numbers are the most important. And all the indicators that the federal government track[s] are showing that 2014 is the best year in 30 years. Whether it’s the number of unemployed; the number of employed; the [unemployment] rate, which has declined 1.7 [percentage points], so far – it’s the best start to a year since 1983, thirty years ago.
BUT EVEN SO, IF YOU LOOK AT HOW OUR UNEMPLOYMENT RATE COMPARES TO OTHER STATES, WE’RE STILL DARN-NEAR LAST. EVEN IF WE HAVE IMPROVED AGAINST OURSELVES, WHY ARE WE STILL SO DOWN NEAR THE BOTTOM?
Well that’s a question that a lot of people have been asking for many years: “What is it about Rhode Island?”
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
I think it’s a mix of a reputation, which is unfortunately one of unethical [behavior] and corruption. As you travel around the country, [it’s] very, very unfortunate – I don’t think fair in some ways – but different scandals that have occurred here over the years that make national news: Brian Sarault, Buddy Cianci, [Governor] DiPrete. Central Falls. These things make national news.
And [also] our demographics. We’re one of the highest elderly populations in the country. So it’s just a combination of [an] older economy, manufacturing – textile, jewelry – [in] transition. Ohio and other manufacturing economies have transitioned. We’ve just been slow.
WHAT DID YOU AND YOUR ADMINISTRATION DO TO TRY TO BOLSTER THAT ECONOMY? AND DID THOSE THINGS WORK?
I think if you followed what I’ve said ever since I’ve been running, and for four years, you’d know that I’ve consistently, consistently talked about the building blocks of a good economy. And it’s invest in education, invest in infrastructure, invest in workforce development to close the skills gap. Employers are looking and people [are] looking for work, and I think government has a role to play.
I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk. And it takes resources when you’re talking about investing in education. It’s not just talk; it’s putting the money in my budgets, year after year [for] four years, into the K-to-12 and into our public institutions of higher education: URI, RIC, and CCRI. I’ve done it.
And on infrastructure, every two years we used to go to the ballot box and vote for a bond issue. And you can look this up: every two years, during an election, we would vote for a bond issue for DOT to cover. The way the system works is the federal government gives you 80 percent of highway money, but the state has to come up with their 20 percent. And we would bond; we were the only state that would borrow for our 20 percent. It didn’t make any sense to me. Let’s use that interest we’re paying to borrow on our roads and bridges and fiber optics and utilities – our infrastructure that we depend on. And we got off that. But that took resources. Putting in the budget. Paying for us to get off the borrowing.
What I did on that [was], to get your driver’s license and register your car, we raised those fees and put that money to get us off the borrowing. So, [in] 2012, we didn’t go and vote for a DOT bond issue; 2014, we did not go. I’m very proud of that.
WHY DIDN’T YOU RUN FOR REELECTION?
When I first was thinking of running for governor, in 2010, I even brought it up with the campaign team that, “I’d like to just do one term. Put 100 percent of my energies into four years of taking this great state of Rhode Island and improving it.”
And everyone was [saying], “No, you don’t want to do that. You’ll be a lame duck for your whole entire four years!” But it was always in the back of my mind: I want to do just 100 percent effort.
WHY WAS THAT?
With the economy that we have here and the climate of people really struggling, I knew it would just take a lot of work. And whether I could do 100 percent for eight years, or 100 percent for four years, I just wanted to do for four years
YOU ANTICIPATED THAT IT WOULD BE PRETTY DRAINING?
AND YOU’RE HAPPY WITH THAT DECISION?
Yes…I am a very competitive person. I like a challenge. But once I made the decision not to run, I was very happy with it.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I want to finish my term here and making sure it stays competent and ethical. And then I’ll make some decisions after that.
NO PREVIEW FOR WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO DO?
I WANT TO TALK ABOUT A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS, AND WE’LL EVENTUALLY GET TO 38 STUDIOS. BUT LET’S START WITH A QUESTION ABOUT YOUR CAREER IN POLITICS. YOU’VE BEEN A COUNCILMAN, YOU’VE BEEN A MAYOR, YOU’VE BEEN A U.S. SENATOR, AND NOW YOU’VE BEEN A GOVERNOR. THAT’S AN EXTRAORDINARY ARRAY OF PUBLIC OFFICE EXPERIENCE. WHERE DO YOU THINK A PERSON CAN BE MOST EFFECTIVE IN POLITICS?
They’re all so different. [As] a councilman, you’re concerned about the potholes in the streets. You’re concerned about the zone change that’s going into a neighborhood. You’re concerned about making sure that the trash is picked up, [that when there are] barking dogs in a neighborhood the Animal Control officer comes over and tells the person to put their dog inside. Really local issues.
As a United States Senator, you’re making world decisions, voting on going to war in Iraq being, of course, the highest-profile one. National decisions.
And then as governor, it’s your state.
So they’re all very different. You make a difference in each one. That’s why people run for them. I know that’s why I ran: to make a difference.
WAS THERE ONE POSITION THAT YOU FELT YOU WERE MORE ADEPT AT THAN OTHERS?
My style has been the same through all my career. And I get criticized for my style.
WHAT IS YOUR STYLE?
[I’m] not a chest-thumper. It’s more enjoyment of the nuts and bolts of making government work. That’s what I enjoy.
[Chafee reached for a stack of recently-signed certificates thanking state employees for lengthy records of service. On the top certificate thanking one employee for “25 years of faithful service to the people of Rhode Island,” he had written “Thank you!” below his signature.]
All governors do this. All state employees get their certificate. “Twenty-five years.” “Ten years.” “Twenty-five years.” And there’s a big stack over there. And I sign them. I put a special “Thank you!” on it. I enjoy that.
At public works when I was mayor [of Warwick], I would go in the morning and bring coffee and donuts to the crew that’s about to go out, as they punch in. I’d get there about 6:30 in the morning. And get morale and camaraderie and teamwork. That’s what I enjoy.
YOU’VE FREQUENTLY EXPRESSED FRUSTRATION WITH VARIOUS ASPECTS OF POLITICAL LIFE, INCLUDING TALK RADIO. DO YOU STILL BELIEVE THAT THE BEST WAY TO BEST AFFECT THE SOCIETY WE LIVE IN IS BY BEING IN OFFICE? DO YOU STILL BELIEVE IN THE POLITICAL SYSTEM?
Yeah, you have to.
It’s made us the greatest country in the world. We’re going through some bumps in the road, as a country. Your question about talk radio and some of the stupid stuff that gets chewed over – and over and over – might be a detriment for people running for office. And that’s regrettable. Because you want talented people to step up and put their name on the ballot and run for office. But’s that’s the system. And it ebbs and flows. Back in the early 1900s, “muckraking” was the term. The politicians lamented [that]. It’s cyclical.
We’re in a bad cycle of a lot of stupid stuff being [focused on].
BUT YOU YOURSELF TICKED OFF VARIOUS PEOPLE AND PLACES IN RHODE ISLAND THAT HAVEN’T PLAYED BY THE RULES OR WERE CORRUPT. WHETHER IT WAS BUDDY CIANCI IN PROVIDENCE OR CHARLES MOREAU IN CENTRAL FALLS. 38 STUDIOS. JUST YESTERDAY THERE WAS A NEW REPORT ABOUT FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL PATRICK LYNCH, WHO IS APPARENTLY UNREGISTERED AND LOBBYING THE CURRENT ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO A YOUNG PERSON LIKE ME, A YOUNG RHODE ISLAND CITIZEN WHO IS FED UP AND ALREADY, AT AGE 29, VERY CYNICAL ABOUT RHODE ISLAND POLITICS? WHY SHOULD I MAINTAIN FAITH AND HOPE IN THIS STATE’S GOVERNMENT?
That’s easy. You look at the stellar, ethical elected officials that we have here. Start with Governor Chafee and four years of scandal-free administration. Barely a pimple of controversy, as far as ethical government.
And then Jack Reed, and Sheldon Whitehouse, and David Cicilline, and Jim Langevin, and Lieutenant Governor Roberts, and Ralph Mollis, and Gina Raimondo, as our Treasurer. Angel Taveras.
BUT IS THAT ENOUGH? IS IT ENOUGH TO JUST BE SCANDAL-FREE? ARE WE REALLY ACHIEVING THAT MUCH?
Well, why are you cynical? We’ve had some issues with Charles Moreau and Brian Sarault and different [politicians] in our past, but we’ve prosecuted them.
I, FOR ONE, AS A RHODE ISLAND CITIZEN. HAVE SEEN VERY LITTLE ACCOUNTABILITY AND VERY FEW ANSWERS WHEN IT COMES TO 38 STUDIOS. IF YOU ASK ME WHY I’M CYNICAL, THAT IS EXHIBIT A. IT’S THE BIGGEST SCANDAL IN RECENT HISTORY, MAYBE IN STATE HISTORY, AND YET WE HAVEN’T REALLY SEEN ANYTHING TO FIX IT.
Well, I vigorously opposed it. I would say it’s more stupid than scandalous.
IT’S BOTH. DON’T YOU THINK IT’S BOTH?
What happened in the General Assembly was unethical because the members weren’t told that the money was targeted for one company.
WE DON’T KNOW WHO KNEW WHAT AND WHAT MALFEASANCE OCCURRED. AND HAS ANYONE BEEN HELD TO ACCOUNT FOR THAT?
Well, my role was to get the money back, and I’m pursuing that. And we have a U.S. Attorney that looked at it and we have an Attorney General that looked at it [and] did not pursue any criminal charges.
WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OFFICIALLY, DO WE? THE U.S. ATTORNEY HAS PUBLICLY SAID, “WE LOOKED. WE DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING.” THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, AS FAR AS I KNOW, HAS SAID, “MAYBE WE ARE. MAYBE WE AREN’T. IT’S STILL ONGOING.”
Until the statute of limitations, or whatever, happens, you never say never.
But I just want to make sure I’m clear about my role. My focus was to get the taxpayers’ money back, and it’s possible that we might not only do that, but also find out through the course of the lawsuit answers to your questions…What’s better than that: getting the taxpayers money back and getting the answers you want?
WELL, NEITHER OF THOSE THINGS ARE GUARANTEED AT THIS POINT.
That’s right. But that’s what I’m pursuing.
NEAR THE END OF YOUR TERM NOW, WE HAVE A PRETTY SMALL PERCENTAGE OF THE MONEY BACK.
Yes. We’ve got one settlement.
WE’VE GOT ABOUT $4.5 MILLION, OF, WHAT, $90 OR $100 MILLION THAT WE’RE MISSING? ADMITTEDLY THERE ARE MORE DEFENDANTS OUT THERE, BUT THAT’S NOT SO MUCH OF THE MONEY BACK. DO YOU THINK WE’LL GET IT ALL BACK, FROM THIS LAWSUIT?
We’re vigorously pursuing the restitution of the taxpayers’ money. And I can’t make a prediction on a lawsuit that we’re aggressively pursuing. All I know is we’ve got settlement already, and that’s positive, and we’ve got others – bigger fish in the ocean out there – that we’re continuing to pursue.
YOU CAN’T SAY WHETHER YOU’RE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT GETTING IT ALL BACK?
I’m putting every bit of energy into this pursuit. And we have a terrific team: Max Wistow…a proven team of winners.
And I want to add something else on 38 Studios. And you’re saying you’re cynical, you’re frustrated, you’re not getting answers. Don’t forget that the so-called “business leaders” of this state supported this investment. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce supported it. The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council – one of the largest public expenditures in Rhode Island history, they supported this.
RIPEC responded to this assertion via Twitter on Thursday, November 20: “Gov. Chafee should know RIPEC never supported the 38 Studios loan guarantee, nor do we support any indiv. loans/guarantees.”
DO YOU THINK THEY WERE WRONG TO DO SO?
Absolutely! Absolutely! It’s insanity!
SO WHY DID THEY DO IT? MY CYNICISM ISN’T LIMITED TO GOVERNMENT.
I’m trying to answer your question, as to why we didn’t get answers. And that added to it.
BECAUSE EVERYONE WAS EMBARRASSED?
Yes. And they wanted to change the channel. And it was very frustrating for me. Because I was the main opponent [of the deal], and they just wanted to change the channel. And they did that…they changed the channel. Because they didn’t want the bright lights of scrutiny on their support for this.
ARE YOU ANGRY THAT YOU HAD TO INHERIT THIS PROBLEM?
Absolutely! I had to put money in my budgets! This last time was $12.5 million I had to put in my budget to pay off this moral obligation bond. What I could have done with $12.5 million! The good things, either lowering taxes, or good investments in education or infrastructure. That made me angry!
WHOM DO YOU BLAME FOR THAT?
Who do I blame?
[Chafee stood up and rummaged in a pile of papers on a bookshelf next to his desk.]
This is who I blame. Let’s see if I can find it. Because I’ve given a lot of thought to it. What happened? How did this happen? How could this happen? How could we give a retired baseball player with no business experience $75 million of our hard-earned taxpayer money? And after a lot of thought, I said it was groupthink.
[He returned to the table with a piece of paper that read, in big, bold letters: “Irving Lester Janis (26 May 1918 – 15 November 1990).
“Irving Lester Janis was a research psychologist at Yale University and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley most famous for his theory of ‘groupthink’ which described the systematic errors made by groups when making collective decisions.
“Janis made important contributions to the study of group dynamics. He did extensive work in the area of ‘groupthink,’ which describes the tendency of groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas. His work suggested that pressures for conformity restrict the thinking of the group, bias its analysis, promote simplistic and stereotyped thinking, and stifle individual creative and independent thought.”]
SO THAT’S WHAT THIS WAS, “GROUPTHINK”?
It was groupthink.
This is exactly what happened. Listen to this. “…minimize conflict…” Exactly what happened. “…without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating…pressure for conformity…” That’s exactly what happened.
During the [2010 gubernatorial] campaign, when I was speaking out about this – and it’s on the record; the press were there at a Providence Chamber of Commerce breakfast, in October – I said, “Be careful, because there’s some precedent…” I said this to the audience. [The candidates] were all there – Frank Caprio and Ken Block and John Robitaille, during the campaign – and they were asking about 38 Studios and the investment was still ongoing. I said, “Be careful, because there’s precedent for lawsuits, if this does not work out…Some Wall Street shareholders are suing the board of trustees of the companies, for bad investments.” And I said that. There had just been an article about that.
And, it’s even in the press accounts of that breakfast, [there was] this audible gasp from the audience. “Chafee! He’s threatening lawsuits!”
It was this pressure for conformity. “Stay in the box! Don’t think outside the box!” That’s what happened there. We never had an intellectual discussion about 38 Studios. They changed the channel…and talked about amorphous words like “leadership.”
WHEN YOU DID INHERIT THAT COMPANY, DO YOU THINK YOU DID ENOUGH TO HELP IT SURVIVE?
I went down and visited with Curt Schilling, even though we had sparred during the campaign. We broke bread. I said, “Anything you need, let me know.”
I WANT TO ASK TWO MORE 38 STUDIOS QUESTIONS AND THEN WE’VE GOT A LOT OF OTHER STUFF TO COVER. ON MAY 26, 2012, THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL REPORTED THAT YOU WERE SEEKING A FORENSIC AUDIT OF WHAT HAPPENED. AND YOU SAID AT THAT TIME, “WE JUST WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING POSSIBLE…THE TAXPAYERS HAVE TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS INVESTED IN THIS COMPANY. IT HAS BEEN DIFFICULT TO GET ANSWERS FROM THEM. WE WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING POSSIBLE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO EVERY PENNY OF [THOSE[ TAXPAYER DOLLARS.”
TWO YEARS LATER, IN AUGUST 2014, I ASKED YOUR OFFICE WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT FORENSIC AUDIT. THIS IS THE RESPONSE I GOT: “AS FOR THE FORENSIC AUDIT THAT GOVERNOR CHAFEE ORDERED DURING THE FAILING COMPANY’S FINAL DAYS, THERE WAS NO AUDIT. ONCE 38 STUDIOS FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY AND A TRUSTEE TOOK CONTROL, THE FOCUS TURNED TO LIQUIDIATION OF A CLOSED COMPANY AND RECOVERY THROUGH POTENTIAL LEGAL AVENUES.”
TO MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC, NOW, WHO AREN’T NECESSARILY SATISFIED WITH THAT ANSWER, BECAUSE IT’S A LITTLE BIT VAGUE AND CERTAINLY BRIEF, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FORENSIC AUDIT THAT YOU WANTED SO BADLY IN 2012?
Well, that was during the attempt by 38 Studios to get more money. They were seeking film tax credits and during that process, before we authorized any more money, I wanted to know how solvent [they were].
AND WHAT HAPPENED?
Then they didn’t make their last payment and they went into bankruptcy, just as my [office’s] answer [indicates]. That’s exactly right. Once they went into bankruptcy, then all the process unfolds and then I switched gears to restitution of the taxpayers’ money. And answering those questions, also.
ONE MORE QUESTION ABOUT 38 STUDIOS. YOU ASKED WHY I’M CYNICAL, AND PART OF IT IS I SEE SOMEONE LIKE FORMER STATE REPRESENTATIVE AND FORMER HOUSE FINANCE CHAIR STEVEN COSTANTINO, WHO WAS ONE OF THE SPONSORS OF THE BILL THAT ALLOWED 38 STUDIOS TO HAPPEN, NOW HAS $140,000-A-YEAR POSITION IN YOUR ADMINISTRATION, AS THE SECRETARY OF THE EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES.
HE NOT ONLY DIDN’T FACE ANY ACCOUNTABILITY, SEEMINGLY, HE GOT A PROMOTION. HE GOT A HANDSOMELY PAID TAXPAYER-FUNDED JOB. DO YOU SEE WHY PEOPLE MIGHT SEE THAT AND BE UPSET?
Yes, I do. From my vantage point, I appointed him the secretariat of the human services agencies and that’s where the lion’s share of our state tax dollars go. And, as chair of the Finance Committee, he understands this system.
BUT WASN’T HE ALSO THE ARCHITECT OF…
That’s true. That’s true. But he has helped us in our cuts that we have needed to make in this very, very expensive area of government. Prior to my taking office, the one area of growth and expenditures under the Carcieri administration – there were cuts to the cities and towns, cuts to higher education – this area grew 13 percent. And we needed to make changes and reforms and cuts. So, give him the criticism that might rightfully be directed at him, but give him the credit for what he’s done on cuts into our human service areas of government.
NOBODY ELSE HAS THE SKILL SET HE HAS? YOU COULDN’T FIND ANYONE WHO DIDN’T HAVE TIES TO THIS ROTTEN DEAL?
I had already appointed him and I was working well with him, in this capacity. And that was my decision to continue.
OK. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STATE THAT YOU ARE HANDING OFF TO GOVERNOR-ELECT GINA RAIMONDO?
I’m handing off a much better state than I inherited. I know that for a fact.
We’re down four points in our unemployment [rate]. We were at 11.4 [percent]; we’re getting close to 7.4, four points down. Everyone talks about
“creating 20,000 jobs.” We’ve done it.
[Also,] labor peace. Not having these wars with our teachers and our state employees.
WELL, PENSION-REFORM LITIGATION IS STILL TIED UP.
Yeah, we’re going to try and resolve that. We came very, very close to a mediated settlement. We were close.
BUT CLOSE DOESN’T COUNT!
Well, we’ll see. Maybe by the time inauguration comes, we’ll be well on [our] way. Boy, we came close. We got teachers, retirees, state workers, state police, everybody – firefighters – to agree. And one little sliver…
The truth is, we’re handing over a very different state, four years later, to the next administration. Everything from the little things like the Department of Motor Vehicles, where you can go down and register your car and get your license in a humane atmosphere, to the number of people that are working in the state.
ISN’T THE COMPUTER SYSTEM AT THE DMV STILL A DISASTER?
Yeah, we’re still working on that. Did you hear my story about that?
This goes way back. This was in 2007 or something, when they bought this computer system. It never worked. And Hewlett Packard was the vendor. And so we got Meg Whitman, the CEO of a 300,000-employee and, I dunno, $30 billion – whatever it is – company to come to the Cranston DMV. She came here.
BUT DID IT DO ANY GOOD?
Of course it did! We got the CEO to say, “I’m here to pledge our entire company’s resources to get this fixed.” Can you get any better than that?
BUT DID IT WORK?
We’re working on it. That’s what I’m very proud of: taking inherited problems, not whining about them, just fixing them.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR GOVERNOR-ELECT RAIMONDO?
The same thing I’ve said: get good directors. And that’s the most important thing you can do.
IT’S OFTEN SAID THAT THE RHODE ISLAND SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE IS THE “MOST POWERFUL POLITICIAN IN THE STATE.” THAT PROBABLY DOESN’T SIT TOO WELL WITH THE GOVERNOR, BUT DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT?
Oh, yeah. Under our constitutional system, our General Assembly is very powerful. We don’t have a line item veto for the governor. They just can pack everything in a budget, which they did. They combined the Board of Governors and the Board of Regents in the  budget. I would have loved to have line-item-vetoed that and at least put some scrutiny of daylight and then they could have passed it, overridden my veto. But at least people could say, “What are you doing! There have been no hearings! You just combined these two in the middle of the night?”
SO YOU SUPPORT A LINE ITEM VETO?
Of course. I support way strengthening of executive powers. And my first elected office was as a delegate to the  constitutional convention, where we tried to do that and were defeated. Rhode Island has an imbalance between our executive and our legislative branches.
DO YOU THINK THAT HOLDS BACK THE STATE?
I do. Absolutely.
And I know what I’m running, so I’m not whining. This is the way it is. You elect a governor, put shackles and leg braces [on him] and say, “Go govern.”
[In Warwick,] I had a strong mayor charter and you can get much more done when you have strong executive powers. You always want the check of a legislative body, but when you elect someone, let them govern.
YOU’VE HAD A NUMBER OF SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS IN THE PAST YEAR AT VARIOUS COLLEGES AROUND THE COUNTRY. WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN TELLING THESE STUDENTS AND AUDIENCES?
It’s a mix of promoting Rhode Island, which I certainly do, and sharing my political experiences with them. The students like to hear from people that have had the local, the federal, the state experience, as well as my political experience being a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat. So, it’s a mix. I’m out there promoting Rhode Island, but I’m also having a good discussion about government nationally, internationally, locally.
I’ve enjoyed it. And I think they’ve liked it.
SPEAKING OF YOUR CHANGES IN PARTY AFFILIATION, CAN YOU TELL ME SOME OF THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF YOUR POLITICAL BELIEFS? HAVE THE PARTIES CHANGED, OR HAVE YOU CHANGED?
It’s an easy answer: I have not changed. I always talk about five things, my five basic tenets of what I believe in.
The environment. I stand for clean air and clean water. And the government has a role to play in making sure we have clean air and clean water.
I stand for fiscal responsibility. Throughout my whole career: pay for the things you buy. Don’t send them off to the next generation or the next administration. I voted against all the [George W.] Bush tax cuts. [They were] too deep.
Personal liberties. I’ve always stood up for personal liberties. If you’re gonna tap our phones, go get a warrant. That’s the Fourth Amendment. It’s very clear. It’s easy to get a warrant. Go get a warrant. I’m strong on that, personal liberties.
Opposition to our adventures overseas…that’s number four. I’m very averse to foreign entanglements and quagmires. I’d call myself a pacifist and an advocate for the United Nations.
Five is very important: a strong belief that government can be a force for good in people’s lives. And that’s a big debate going on. Using the tools of government to help the less fortunate; I believe in that. And I believe it has worked. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We’re celebrating 50 years of building a strong middle class. The Eisenhower years. The GI Bill. These are government programs – Pell Grants, Head Start – that made a vibrant middle class. That’s what every community should be striving for.
Those things have never changed. I’ve been a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat. But those are things I believe in.
YOUR APPROVAL RATINGS IN OFFICE HAVEN’T BEEN PARTICULARLY HIGH. IN FACT, THEY’VE BEEN SOUTH OF 30 PERCENT AT SOME TIMES. WHY DO YOU THINK THOSE HAVE STAYED SO LOW?
I think that what I called “stupid stuff” got magnified in a whole cloud of irrational negativity. At one point, I said, “There’s no Walter Cronkite out there asking to have some kind of an intellectual discussion about the benefits, for instance, of giving in-state tuition to our undocumented students.” That was a huge distortion of what’s good for Rhode Island. The loud voices of opposition just got all the airtime.
And then Jason Pleau. I did not interfere in that; I did not proactively go to the federal government and ask. They came to me and said, “Sign here to release Jason Pleau to expose him to the death penalty.” I said, “In Rhode Island, we’re opposed to the death penalty. I’m not signing.” We never had a discussion about the death penalty.
And then of course the Christmas tree is the piece de resistance. They should have had an intellectual discussion about Roger Williams and religious entities in public buildings. Let’s have that discussion.
BUT IN AMERICA – AND RHODE ISLAND, SPECIFICALLY – INTELLECTUAL DISCUSSIONS ARE NOT WHAT PREVAIL, NECESSARILY. DO YOU BLAME THE MEDIA, THEN, FOR YOUR LOW APPROVAL RATINGS?
No. You asked me a question and I’m just saying that this is what happened. These things just blew up into this diversion. I ran [for office] to get our economy going. And even [with] gay marriage, it was hard to get any traction on what I firmly believed to be true: that marriage equality is relevant to growing a good economy.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO DOING, AS A PRIVATE CITIZEN?
I kept a fair balance in my time as governor, but it’s hard to really relax, because you never know what might happen. Just the phone could ring and something terrible has occurred in your state. Governor Malloy [in Connecticut] had Sandy Hook. Governor Fallin in Oklahoma had tornadoes rip through towns. Governor Carcieri had the Station fire.
That’s probably what I’m looking forward to, more than anything: true, 100-percent relaxing. Not [hearing] the phone call ringing, tightening up.
THE FLIP SIDE TO THAT QUESTION: WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO MISS ABOUT BEING THE GOVERNOR OF RHODE ISLAND?
Probably the team. That’s what I like in all the offices I’ve had – the team effort. Directors and state employees trying to accomplish something good.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL MESSAGE FOR YOUR CONSTITUENTS, THE PEOPLE OF RHODE ISLAND?
This is a great state. And going way back even before the Europeans came here, this was a very special place. The native people were some of the most advanced native people, just because of the bounty that we had here.
So, we’re going to be OK. Rhode Island’s going to be fine. Our DNA is good.
Phil Eil is the former News Editor for the Providence Phoenix. Eil grew up in Providence and is a Rhode Island Press Association Award recipient. He is a regular contributor to 630WPRO.COM.