It’s official: Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is a Democrat.
Chafee, in his second affiliation switch in six years, signed papers at Warwick Town Hall on Thursday changing from independent to Democrat.
He left the Republican Party in 2007 and until Thursday had been the only independent governor in the United States.
The move could lead to a three-way gubernatorial primary next year among General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. The latter two have not announced their intentions yet, but both have begun fundraising.
Some political observers say Chafee, whose poll numbers have been low, might do better in a crowded field.
“We shall see,” Chafee told reporters three times after signing papers at the Warwick Board of Canvassers office. “It all depends upon how Rhode Islanders feel about their daily lives and it’s my job to make it better.”
Chafee, the son of the late Gov. John Chafee, is a former Warwick mayor and councilman. He served in the U.S. Senate until his 2006 loss to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Chafee spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention despite his independent label.
“His decision to change parties for the second time doesn’t really influence my decision at all,” Raimondo said in a local television interview. “Whether you change parties for political advantage isn’t really relevant. What’s relevant and important is who’s going to move the state forward.”
Taveras said in a statement that he would remain a Democrat.
“It has long been clear that Governor Chafee has embraced many of the ideals of the Democratic Party, such as investing in education, responsible budgeting, and fighting for the middle class,” Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said in a statement. “I will leave it to others to speculate how this decision by the governor will [affect] future political races.”
Regardless of who runs, the economy looms as a major issue in a state that has been home to public pension overhaul debates, municipal financial distress, the Central Falls bankruptcy and the 38 Studios fiasco.
Chafee and Raimondo worked together to help enact the state’s pension overhaul bill in 2011. Five public-sector unions are challenging the law in court. Taveras, meanwhile, finalized a pension compromise with Providence public-sector retirees earlier this year.
Central Falls filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2011, citing an $80 million pension liability, and exited a year later.
Rhode Island taxpayers are on the hook for roughly $110 million, due to a loan guarantee to 38 Studios, backed by the state’s moral obligation.
The video-game company, owned by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in 2012. Chafee, Raimondo and other state officials say Rhode Island should pay the moral-obligation debt. Chafee, while running for governor in 2010, criticized the deal.
Two bills are pending the state legislature that would prohibit Rhode Island from paying the debt.