Chafee sworn in as 1st independent RI governor

MICHELLE R. SMITH - Associated Press
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator, gestures after taking the oath of office as Rhode Island's first independent governor on the steps of the Statehouse in Providence, R.I., Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 4, 2011 as his wife Stephanie looks on.  (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator, gestures after taking the oath of office as Rhode Island's first independent governor on the steps of the Statehouse in Providence, R.I., Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 4, 2011 as his wife Stephanie looks on.

Lincoln Chafee completed his political comeback Tuesday, being sworn in as Rhode Island's first independent governor four years after losing the U.S. Senate seat he held as a Republican.

Chafee becomes the state's 58th governor, succeeding term-limited Republican Don Carcieri, and follows in the footsteps of his father, the late Sen. John Chafee, who served as governor of Rhode Island in the 1960s.

"F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in America. Fortunately, he was not a political sage," Chafee said in his inaugural speech on the Statehouse steps.

Chafee succeeded his father in the Senate upon his death in 1999 and quickly became one of its most moderate Republicans. He was bitterly defeated in 2006 by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and left the Republican Party the following year, saying it had moved too far to the right. He won the four-way race for governor in November with 36 percent of the vote in a crowded field that included Democrat, Republican and Moderate Party candidates.

During his speech, he called for greater political collaboration to solve the state's problems — which include a looming state budget deficit approaching $300 million, and an 11.6 percent unemployment rate as of November.

"Our present condition has not developed overnight. It has been decades in the making and it is the shared legacy of Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, liberals and conservatives. Finger pointing and blame will do nothing to alleviate our situation," he said. "The time for irresponsibility has ended."

Chafee also called for Rhode Island to legalize gay marriage, and asked the General Assembly to quickly consider and pass legislation doing so.

Such legislation has repeatedly been introduced and died as Carcieri and legislative leaders have opposed it. But this year, with Chafee and Democratic House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, in office, there is renewed hope from advocates of gay marriage. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, however, has opposed such legislation in the past.

Chafee repeated a campaign promise, to applause and some boos from a small group of protesters, to rescind Carcieri's executive order cracking down on illegal immigration.

"However well-intentioned it may have been, it has caused needless anxiety within our Latino community without demonstrating any progress on illegal immigration, an issue I strongly believe must be solved at the federal level," he said, promising to rescind the order on Wednesday.

The order, signed by Carcieri in 2008, requires state departments and state contractors to use the federal E-verify system to check the legal status of new employees, and directs State Police to assist with immigration enforcement, among other measures.

Later Tuesday, Chafee signed his first executive order, which focuses on ethics and calls for state employees who answer to the governor's office to commit to a series of "ethical principles" that include not using their public position for private gain and to serve the public with respect.

Also sworn in Tuesday were the four other general officers, all Democrats: Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, who both begin their second terms, and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who replaces term-limited Patrick Lynch, and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, replacing Frank Caprio. Caprio and Lynch ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Roy Dempsey, 62, a retired auditor from Warwick, was among the scattered protesters who stood on the edge of the crowd of several hundred. He said he believed Carcieri's order was an important way to control state finances. He said he was unhappy with several of Chafee's other stances, including his proposal to institute a 1 percent sales tax on items that are exempt from the state's 7 percent sales tax, a proposal he says will help close the budget gap.

"When you appeal to only a small group in Rhode Island, I think you do a disservice to the 64 percent of people that didn't vote for you," Dempsey said.

He said he supported Chafee's father, but the younger Chafee was too liberal in his views.

"His father, I thought, was a decent man," he said. "He's not his father."

Doreen McConaghy was one of several advocates for the disabled who wore a red scarf to show their support for the new governor. She said she also liked Chafee's father, a supporter of rights for the disabled.

"I believe Lincoln Chafee has that same commitment," she said. "He will not lie to us."

Catherine Sparks, of Foster, who works at the state Department of Environmental Management, said she was delighted to see Chafee sworn in, and said she thought he was coming in at a time that he could do some good for the economy.

"I like his temperament and his tone," she said. "I think it's a great day for Rhode Island."