WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — Long before he was a Republican U.S. senator, the nation's only independent governor or a newly minted Democrat eyeing a second term, Lincoln Chafee wrestled for Brown University, a solo pursuit that foreshadowed a career often spent grappling on the political edges.
On Thursday, Chafee cast his lot with the Democrats, long the state's dominant political party. Chafee said he shares many priorities with Democrats and respects the leadership of President Barack Obama. He also acknowledged that "joining a team" would allow him to collaborate with the Democratic governors in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, and raise money for his bid for a second term.
"I've got a home and it feels good," he told reporters after changing his party registration at City Hall in Warwick, where he got his political start as a city councilman and mayor. "There comes a time when the issues are so big, you want to be part of a team."
Chafee becomes the nation's 20th Democratic governor. There are 30 Republican governors.
Critics accused Chafee of a calculated political move designed to shore up support and funds for the 2014 governor's race. But those who know Chafee well said the switch is another example of his insistence on doing things his own way.
"We've all seen him be an independent, a free-thinker," said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a longtime Republican ally whose first job was working for Chafee's father, John Chafee, the former U.S. senator, governor and naval secretary. "I think this is a part of that. But it will be weird to me that he'll be on a primary ballot and I won't be able to vote for him."
Though Chafee insists his switch came down to conviction, pundits wasted little time in analyzing the move's implications on next year's Democratic primary, already expected to feature Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Gina Raimondo as candidates.
State Republican Party Chairman Mark Smiley said Chafee's decision was based on politics — though he added that he believes the Democratic Party was always a better fit for Chafee.
"He's trying to save his job," Smiley said. "He's got the lowest approval rating of any governor in the country."
Chafee, 60, has never been a master of political expediency. He was the only Republican in the U.S. Senate to vote against the Iraq War, and crossed his party again to vote against Bush-era tax cuts. He left the party in 2007 after losing his seat in the U.S. Senate to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
As the nation's only independent governor, Chafee tussled with conservatives over what to call the Statehouse Christmas tree, insisting on calling it a holiday tree and even canceling the lighting ceremony. While the act endeared him to some members of his base, it turned off hundreds of voters who rallied in protest at the Statehouse.
He won few defenders for his strenuous — and fruitless — fight to prevent a murder suspect from being handed over to federal authorities because unlike Rhode Island, the federal justice system may impose the death penalty.
He's butted heads with the General Assembly, pushing unpopular proposals to broaden the state sales tax and rein in municipal pension problems long after they were dismissed by state lawmakers.
Chafee's stubborn streak extended even to his announcement that he was switching parties. Chafee planned to announce his decision Thursday, and he refused to confirm the news early, even after it was substantiated by Obama and his own staff.
"Linc Chafee is probably one of the most honest people in the world; but you don't always like what he says," said Donald Morash, a Warwick resident who years ago was appointed to the city zoning board by then-Mayor Chafee. Morash said he respects Chafee but not the party switch. "I'm not happy about it. I'm not an Obama man, and Chafee supports Obama."
Chafee said he's been looking for a new "political home" ever since he became disenchanted with the rightward drift of the GOP as a senator. And as governor, he said, he noticed with some envy the collaborative approach taken by Democratic governors. He said he would have considered joining the party even if he wasn't running for a second term.
Bill Lynch, former head of the state's Democratic Party, said he's not surprised that Chafee made the switch, as his views have long been better aligned with Democrats than Republicans.
"I think the biggest thing holding him back was that his dad and his family had such a proud history in the Republican Party," he said. "But that party doesn't exist anymore. They left people like Linc Chafee behind."