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Chafee joins R.I. gov's race as an independent

Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee has formally joined the Rhode Island governor's race as an independent candidate.
Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and later quit the Republican Party.ALEX WONG / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who succeeded his father in the Senate but repeatedly broke ranks with party leadership until a Democrat defeated him, announced Monday that he will run as an independent candidate for governor of Rhode Island.

Chafee, 56, pledged fiscal responsibility in a heavily battered state economy as he entered an already competitive race untethered to either major political party and dogged by questions about whether he could raise enough money to remain a viable candidate.

But he touted himself before a roomful of supporters Monday as a strong fiscal conservative who had more leadership experience than other candidates and had the best ideas to revive a state facing massive budget deficits and nearly 13 percent unemployment.

"Running as an independent will free me from the constraints that party politics impose on candidates," Chafee told supporters at a hotel in Warwick, where he served as mayor before joining the Senate. "This freedom will allow me to bring in the best people from both major parties to solve our problems."

Chafee said that if elected, he would work to repeal costly mandates on cities and towns, such as school bus monitors, control spending, and focus on job training.

He proposed studying whether Rhode Island should have a two-tier sales tax. He suggested a tax on items now exempt from the state's existing 7 percent sales tax, such as groceries, clothing and over-the-counter drugs. He said taxing such goods, but at a very low rate, was preferable to raising property taxes.

"The most important objective is to develop a strategy that ends the spiral downward, where problems are pushed from the state level, to the cities and towns, and ultimately to the doorsteps of property taxpayers," Chafee said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch called Chafee's proposal "onerous and debilitating."

Chafee's campaign had bumpy moments even before its official start. In April, he pronounced himself a candidate on "The Rachel Maddow Show," only to withdraw the statement a day later and say he wasn't prepared to announce his bid. He has already loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign.

Chafee has acknowledged the need to raise more money, and on Monday attributed his difficulty to the overall economic climate and to persistent questions among supporters about whether he was actually running or not. He still has substantial personal wealth to draw on.

"This is my 12th run for office. I've been competitive in every run, from councilman to U.S. Senate and now for governor," Chafee told reporters. "It's not going to be any different."

Chafee was appointed to the Senate in 1999 after the death of his father, Sen. John Chafee. He was elected to his own term the following year.

He voted against the Iraq war and the Bush administration's tax cuts and made himself vulnerable to a fierce challenge in the 2006 Republican primary from the more conservative Stephen Laffey.

Chafee defeated Laffey but lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election and later quit the Republican party. He has been a visiting fellow at Brown University.

He endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president and called the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a "cocky wacko" during a 2008 speech in Washington.

The Democratic candidates include General Treasurer Frank Caprio and Attorney General Patrick Lynch. Republican Gov. Don Carcieri is barred by term limits from seeking a third term.

The Republicans' lone declared candidate, Rory Smith, withdrew from the race last month, and some in the party are urging Laffey to run.