PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has another Governor Chafee.
Independent Lincoln Chafee outpolled a seven-man field Tuesday to win the office his father, the late Sen. John H. Chafee, held more than 40 years ago. He is the first candidate to win the governorship as an Independent.
“Roger Williams would be proud,” Chafee said in his acceptance speech, referring to man who founded of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1663.
In an unexpectedly nail-biting race that see-sawed back and forth for hours between Chafee and Republican John Robitaille, Chafee ultimately emerged with 36 percent of the vote to Robitaille’s 34 with Democrat Frank Caprio finishing a distant third with 23. Ken Block, finished fourth with 6 percent, but preserved his Moderate Party of RI as an official political party in Rhode Island for at least the next four years. He needed at least 5 percent of the vote to do that.
Also in the race were Independents Todd Giroux, Joseph Lusi, and Ronald Algieri who each received less than 1 percent of the vote.
“Rhode Island is making history tonight,” Chafee told whooping supporters at his Warwick victory party.
“We all know what a special place this is, but we also know the challenges we now face — high unemployment, daunting budget deficits, high foreclosures — but ultimately, what this election was about was honesty. The honesty to say how we are going to pay for a civil society and a public education system.”
A civil society, he said, means fair safety net, humane prisons, clean parks, good roads and bridges, swift and fair judicial proceedings, “and yes, no seven-hour waits at the DMV.”
“You gave me your vote and I give you my word,” Chafee promised. “I will always be honest with you, I will always listen to you, and I will always do what I believe is right for Rhode Island.”
Robitaille told supporters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, “I do wish Lincoln Chafee all the good luck in the world because Rhode Island is in trouble; we know that. He is going to have to make the right decisions and I pray to God that the General Assembly and the new governor can get together and get the state back on the right track.”
“It’s a great night for Democrats, I’m sorry I’m not going to be part of it,” Caprio said in his concession speech to Democrats gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence. “The campaign was a long campaign, the four major candidates, we spent a lot of time together, I got to know them well. They are all good men and I wish them all well.”
Perhaps the turning point in the election came last week when Democrat Caprio, who had been running neck-and-neck with Chafee throughout the campaign and was largely thought to be the frontrunner, was miffed when President Barack Obama decided to stay neutral in the race and Caprio said he could take his endorsement and “shove it.”
Almost immediately, polls started showing Caprio tied for second place with Robitaille or slightly behind the Republican.
The four major candidates appeared together at numerous debates and forums throughout the campaign, sketching the broad outlines of what they hoped to do and achieve as the state’s chief executive.
Chafee focused on his experience as a city councilman and mayor in Warwick, and as a United States Senator, saying he would put that to use working with the Democrat-dominated General Assembly and with the labor unions representing state workers.
A controversial proposal that came to define his campaign was Chafee’s idea for a 1 percent sales tax on items such as food, clothing and over the counter drugs that are currently exempt from the state’s 7 percent sales tax. He said he would use that to avoid pushing the state’s budget woes down to cities and towns, which forced them to raise property taxes.
Caprio, who had clear sailing to the Democratic nomination after Attorney General Patrick Lynch dropped out of the primary race, nonetheless had his Democratic credentials questioned several times during the race. He was accused of visiting the Republican National Committee in Washington DC to court Republican support for his gubernatorial bid, but he has denied that on several occasions.
Caprio ran on a platform of assisting small businesses and not raising taxes.
Robitaille proudly billed himself as the conservative Republican in the race. He called for cuts in spending on human services, and for shrinking other parts of state government.
Robitaille said he would avoid raising taxes at all costs and wanted to eliminate the car tax.
Block, a software engineer by trade, boasted that he developed systems that saved Texas $1 billion in its human services budget and said he would apply the same principles to eliminate fraud and abuse in Rhode Island’s welfare system.
He consistently tried to focus the race on jobs and taxes, deriding many of the other issues that arose in the campaign as “knucklehead stuff.”
Chafee’s own campaign wasn’t without its own bumpy stretches.
Chafee proposed the 1 percent sales tax on the day he announced his candidacy. The idea was never very popular and Chafee’s opponents continually hammered him on it in debates and in campaign ads.
Also, an Associated Press investigation determined that Chafee’s senate campaign did not pay all the taxes it was owed.
The candidate said it was an honest mistake on the part of campaign workers who misinterpreted the tax rules for campaigns.
Just weeks before the election, Chafee lost his campaign manager and longtime aide J.R. Pagliarini after Pagliarini became embroiled in a controversy over whether he collected unemployment compensation.
Questions were raised about whether Caprio’s father, Frank Caprio Sr., the Chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, where Pagliarini worked before going on unemployment was involved in releasing confidential information about Pagliarini’s unemployment compensation, but they were never resolved.
The senior Caprio also became involved in other controversies linked to his role in hiring the wife of a former state legislator who soon after hosted a fundraiser for Caprio’s campaign for governor and securing a job with health insurance for popular boxer Peter Manfredo Jr. at the Community College of RI.