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Sen. John Chafee Dies of Heart Failure
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 1999; 1:48 p.m. EDT
John Chafee, 77, a Republican senator from Rhode Island and former governor of that state who served as secretary of the Navy in the Nixon administration, died Oct. 24 at Bethesda Naval Hospital of congestive heart failure. He lived in McLean and Warwick, R.I.
"He went to the hospital yesterday, and he was not seriously ill," said Jeff Neal, an assistant press secretary in Mr. Chafee's Washington office.
Observers say his son Lincoln, now the mayor of Warwick, will be appointed to his seat by Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond. Lincoln Chafee has been the only Republican contender since Mr. Chafee said in March he would step down after his term expires in 2000.
The governor's office said any appointment would not be made today.
Mr. Chafee, who was elected in 1976, served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He first joined the committee in 1977 and made environmental matters a chief concern, often breaking with his party to the delight of conservation groups.
"His fingerprints are over all the major environmental legislation passed in the last 20 years," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University who studied Rhode Island politics and interviewed Mr. Chafee last year.
Among the bills Mr. Chafee fostered while in the minority was the Clean Water Act of 1986, the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. He also was an architect of the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites as well as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Frequently following a moderate path, Mr. Chafee was pro-choice on abortion and supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. In recent weeks, he was in favor of debating on the Senate floor the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but that effort was killed largely by more-conservative Republicans in the Senate.
Earlier this fall, Mr. Chafee unsuccessfully sponsored with Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida a compromise health-care reform bill featuring an independent appeals process and the ability to sue health insurance companies in federal court.
His moderate stances increasingly alienated him, West said. Still, he said Mr. Chafee as of September had an approval rating of 63 percent, one of the highest in the state.
"He felt increasingly lonely in the Senate," West said. "Most of his friends in the Senate are gone. Martyr Republicans are a vanishing species, and Chafee felt under extreme pressure from the Republican right."
Mr. Chafee in 1990 lost his position as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the party's third-highest leadership post by one vote. In an election, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran beat Mr. Chafee 22 to 21.
"John Chafee proved that politics can be an honorable profession," President Bill Clinton said in a statement to the Associated Press. "He embodied the decent center which has carried America from triumph to triumph for over 200 years."
Mr. Chafee sat on the Select Committee on Intelligence and was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Health Care, but his biggest imprint was on environmental concerns.
"He was a pillar of strength defending environmental protections against the erosion being called for by the leaders in his own party, for example, protecting wetlands, defending the Clean Water Act," said Brent Blackwelder, the president of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group.
"Whenever you needed a defender and you looked to the Republican Party in the Senate, he was the No. 1 Republican leader," Blackwelder added. "This prevented a world of damage from being done, so the American public owes him debt of gratitude."
Blackwelder also was a squash partner of Mr. Chafee's until the senator stopped playing about seven years ago. "He was a vigorous man," Blackwelder said.
John Lester Hubbard Chafee was born Oct. 22, 1922, in Providence to a wealthy and politically active family. His great-grandfather, Henry Lippitt, was a Rhode Island governor and among his great-uncles were a Rhode Island governor, Charles Lippitt, and United States senator, Henry F. Lippitt.
Mr. Chafee was in the Marines during World War II and was a Marine rifle company commander in the Korean War.
In 1940, he graduated from Deerfield Academy, a private school in Massachusetts. He also received degree from Yale University in 1947 and Harvard University law school in 1950.
Mr. Chafee became active in behind-the-scenes Rhode Island politics by helping elect a mayor of Providence in the early 1950s.
He successfully ran for a seat on the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1956 and later became the minority leader. He was reelected in 1958 and 1960, the latter a year when many Republicans were swept from office in his state.
Mr. Chafee was elected governor in 1962, helping create the state's public transportation administration as well as what was known as the Green Acres program, a conservation effort. Mr. Chafee was head of the Republican Governors' Association in the late 1960s.
He was defeated in his gubernatorial bid in 1968, and his appointment as secretary of the Navy in 1969 was a "consolation prize to keep him in public service," said West, the Brown professor.
Mr. Chafee left the Navy department in 1972 to run, unsuccessfully, against Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell. In 1976, he filled the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. John Pastore, who resigned.
His last major act was authoring and sponsoring the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which authorizes funding for transportation programs for the next six years. It was signed by Clinton last summer.
Survivors include his wife, Virginia Coates Chafee, of McLean and Warwick, R.I.; a daughter, Georgia Nassikas of McLean; four sons, John Jr., of Los Angeles, Lincoln, of Warwick; Quentin of North Kingstown, R.I.; Zechariah of Providence; three sisters; and 12 grandchildren.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company