Four years after losing a bid for re-election in "The Thumpin" of 2006, former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island will be back on the ballot as a candidate for governor this November.
Do not, however, look for an 'R' or a 'D' after his name: Chafee is running as an independent.
"I believe that running as an independent will free me from the constraints that party politics impose on candidates," Chafee said Monday while announcing his gubernatorial run in Warwick, R.I., the town where he served as mayor before being appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by his late father in 1999. The next year, Chafee was elected to a six-year Senate term in his own right.
"What we need in Rhode Island is someone not associated with either party," said Chafee in a telephone interview with ABC News which was conducted on New Year's Eve.
Although independent candidates are typically unsuccessful, Chafee sees his unaligned status as a major selling point. For starters, fully half of the state's registered voters are unaffiliated with either party. Furthermore, Chafee thinks state government has been hurt by the lack of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. Finally, as one of the best-known brands in Rhode Island politics, he is not worried about qualifying for the ballot.
The Rhode Island governor's office will be vacant in 2010. Gov. Don Carcieri, the Republican incumbent, is barred by term limits from running again. Democrats running to succeed Carcieri include Attorney General Patrick Lynch and General Treasurer Frank Caprio. Republicans are still looking for a candidate after businessman Rory Smith dropped out of the race last month.
If Chafee makes it to Providence, R.I., he says his top priorities will be tackling a state unemployment rate which is one of the highest in the country and closing a looming budget deficit of $500 million.
To close the state's budget gap, Chafee says that a combination of spending restraint and higher taxes will be needed. While promising to hold the line on what he calls the "insidious" property tax, Chafee says that Rhode Island needs to raise new revenue through its sales tax.
Rhode Island's sales tax is already the nation's second highest, surpassed only by California. But as he noted during his announcement speech, Rhode Island also has one of the broadest lists of exemptions, including things such as food, clothing, and over-the-counter drugs.
Chafee, who voted against the Bush tax cuts when he was in the Senate, is hoping that eliminating sales tax exemptions and implementing a two-tier system will generate increased revenue and make it possible to lower the overall sales tax rate.
"Rather than forcing our property taxes to rise across Rhode Island, we should carefully examine a two-tier sales tax," said Chafee. "Illinois has a 6.25 percent sales tax but a separate 1 percent tax on food and over-the-counter drugs. Tennessee has a 7 percent sales tax but a 5.5 percent tax on groceries. Working together, we can find the right formula for Rhode Island."
When it comes to spurring job creation, Chafee is hoping to take advantage of his state's location between the economic giants of New York and Boston. In particular, he wants to persuade corporate leaders to build their headquarters in Rhode Island because of the state's "ease of travel." During his announcement address, he touted a new train station in Warwick, R.I., which is being linked to T.F. Green Airport. "This unique intermodal development will serve as a national model for connecting air, rail and highway travel," said Chafee.
Chafee also sees vocational education as central to his economic strategy. He is promising to adopt a proposal by Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) which would merge the state's vo-tech high school and community college systems into a unified "Middle College System."
Chafee, who worked as a blacksmith at harness racetracks before entering politics, grew up in the Republican Party: his now deceased father, a World War II veteran, is a former GOP governor and senator.
In his 2008 book, "Against the Tide," Chafee writes that the "great history" of his party belongs to "Rockefeller Republicans" like himself not just to "the newcomers" who changed the GOP into what he calls "the Old Dixie Club."
Although Chafee decided to stick with the Republican Party in 2006 when he faced a tough primary fight from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey and ultimately lost the general election to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, there was no chance that the former senator was going to run for governor on the GOP ticket in 2010.
Chafee thinks the GOP has been captured by the Hard Right and that it has "abandoned" people like himself who are "pro-choice, pro-environment, antiwar, and fiscally responsible."
Asked about former Vice President Dick Cheney telling Politico that Obama is "trying to pretend" that the U.S. is not at war, Chafee said, "The former Vice President has no credibility. He is an individual who is not familiar with telling the truth, particularly with getting us into Iraq."
Chafee, who backed Barack Obama for president in 2008, considered running for governor as a Democrat. He ultimately decided against it, however, because he has been disillusioned with the president's handling of foreign affairs, particularly his decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Chafee, who was the lone Republican senator to vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq, worries that the U.S. is once again "slipping deeper and deeper into another quagmire."
"It just baffles me," said Chafee, referring to Obama's Afghanistan decision. "Sometimes, it is smarter to turn off the war machine. I don't understand why this president has taken that course. Certainly, that was a big part of his appeal in the election in 2008."