Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican-turned-independent, will become a Democrat, a spokesman confirmed late Wednesday.
“Tomorrow the governor intends to join the Democratic Party,” deputy press secretary Christian Vareika said by phone.
The governor has scheduled a press conference for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Warwick City Hall.
“I’m delighted to hear that Governor Chafee is joining the Democratic Party,” President Obama said in a statement issued through the Democratic National Committee. Chafee has supported Obama and spoke at last year's Democratic national convention.
Chafee’s latest switch could set up an interesting three-way primary in 2014 if General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras decide to run for governor. All three have supported pension overhaul efforts.
“I have been a Democrat and a Red Sox fan my whole life, and I don't intend on changing either,” Taveras said in a statement. “I remain focused on bringing people together to make necessary but difficult decisions that will move our city and state forward.”
Chafee, elected in 2010 as the only independent governor in the United States, has had to cope with a struggling economy in Rhode Island, where the unemployment rate topped 10% for four years before slipping to single digits in December.
A Brown University poll released in February showed Chafee with only a 25% approval rating.
“The Democratic Party has always been about inclusion, so I am certainly pleased that Governor Chafee has joined our ranks,” said House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence. “I have not had the opportunity to discuss his decision and his future plans, but I look forward to talking about it with him soon.”
A message seeking comment was also left with Raimondo.
A pension-overhaul law, passed late in 2011, and municipal financial distress have been hot-button issues in the Ocean State. Eight communities received downgrades in 2011 from Moody’s Investors Service.
Five public-sector unions are challenging the pension law, with arbitration talks under way. Providence overhauled its pension plans for police and fire retirees last year and other cities are weighing changes as well.
Moody’s rates Rhode Island’s general obligation bonds Aa2, while Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s assign AA ratings.
Chafee, the son of the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, served in the Senate as a Republican before leaving that party in 2007. He also served as mayor of his native Warwick.