Rivals May Cast Chafee as Party Captive
By Thomas B. Edsall
Chafee, 76, is a Rhode Island institution. A patrician Republican, Chafee has held statewide office here off and on since 1963, serving three terms as governor and four in the Senate.
Even defeat in 1968 helped him secure voter loyalty: In his failed bid for a fourth term as governor, Chafee warned that the state would need an income tax. The voters tossed him out of office. Eighteen months later, the victorious Democrat proved Chafee right and introduced an income tax.
In the Senate, Chafee is the senior member of a small band of New England GOP moderates, including Vermont's James M. Jeffords and Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, and he is the last of a generation of Eastern Republicans who once exerted great power both in the Senate and in GOP presidential politics.
Democratic political leaders in Rhode Island are tentatively exploring a challenge based on Chafee's affiliation with a party they describe as dominated by the right wing.
"The Republican Party has been hijacked by the right. They are driving the bus right now, and in many ways Senator Chafee is just a passenger on the bus," said state Secretary of State James R. Langevin, the most likely Democratic challenger.
But if conversations with voters last week are an indication, Langevin and Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch, another possible adversary, will face an uphill struggle to convince 51 percent of the electorate that Chafee has been either captured or intimidated by the conservative wing of his party.
After Chafee commended workers at the Raytheon plant for producing such high-quality work that the corporation is moving some of its operations from Seattle and San Diego to Portsmouth, Bill Berry, a manager of the mine warfare program, reciprocated with praise for Chafee, who voted to acquit President Clinton of both impeachment articles.
"I think it [impeachment] is stupid," Berry said. "I do a lot of international work, and I have no customers in the international community who thought we were doing anything smart relative to this whole issue of impeachment."
Frank Ackerman, 56, who was at Raytheon's security desk, said, "I'm a registered Democrat, and I've voted for him every time he ran. I go to the 4th of July parade and who's there? He walks the whole route. He's an honest, trustworthy guy."
There is, in fact, no one in Rhode Island whose roots go deeper. The Chafees were one of the first five families to settle the state. Despite the history of hostility between the once-powerful Protestant Republican establishment and the Irish-Italian Catholic Democrats who came to power during the Depression, Chafee has been able to remain apart from the ethnic fray.
Voters see Chafee as someone with no need of elective office, who is generous and "doing the people a favor" by serving, said M. Charles Bakst, the Providence Journal's political columnist.
At Angelo's, in the heart of ethnic Providence, politically active men and women had nothing but kind words for their senior senator.
"I've always voted for Chafee, and I'm very proud of what he has done. I just like him. I've always voted for him," said Maria Trihan, who took early retirement from her job at a jewelry company.
"He comes in here all the time," said Angelo DiPalma, 75, who handles customers at the front door of Angelo's. "I've always voted for him. I'll vote for him again."
At the Newport Daily News, the questioning was friendly but pointed. Is it hard for Chafee to remain a Republican, editor David Offer asked, and what does Chafee have to say to Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), who recently accused Chafee of "masquerading as a Republican moderate who does deals with the right wing in order to maintain his leadership status"?
"I have no interest in what he has to say," Chafee replied. "I find those remarks ill-tempered and juvenile."
Despite the fact that he is out of step with the majority of his own party not only on impeachment but on abortion, tax cuts, gun control and a host of environmental issues, Chafee told Offer: "I'm happier being a Republican than a Democrat. That doesn't mean I'm happy with everything the Republicans do, but that doesn't mean I have any problem remaining a Republican."
The most important question concerning Chafee's future is whether he will run again. He says he will decide soon. Meanwhile, he has a $400,000 campaign fund but is doing little or no fund-raising, which often signals a politician is considering retirement.
If Chafee runs and wins, he pointed out, he would be 84 at the end of his fifth term.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company