In the winter of 1933, Bruce Sundlun and John Chafee were at Camp Yawgoog and playing with a group of boys on a frozen pond. Suddenly the ice broke and Bruce plunged through into the frigid water. All of the boys—except for John Chafee—ran off the pond to get help. Chafee, “doing exactly the right thing,” laid his body flat against the ice and pulled Bruce out of the icy water using a hockey stick. Even at 11 years old, John Chafee was an incredibly brave boy and had the presence of mind to do exactly the right thing.
The story would always give me the chills as Governor Sundlun told it– thinking not only of these young boys facing danger, but about how much of Rhode Island’s political future was riding on that thin ice that day. As I look back, I realize that we could have lost three future governors (along with more than 30 years of Senate service, two World War II heroes, a Secretary of the Navy and one hell of a blacksmith) in a matter of minutes. Governor Sundlun liked to tell the story, and found the opportunity to recount it frequently as he told people why he would never speak ill of John Chafee, despite their political differences.
Now 80 years later, another Chafee is on thin ice and hoping that his political future can be saved – this time by Democrats reaching out a helping hand. This week, the entire RI congressional delegation is hosting a D.C. fundraiser in support of Chafee’s reelection.
Insiders are atwitter wondering why the whole delegation would make this surprising show of support for Chafee – particularly when there appears to be a plethora of good candidates from their own party ready to challenge him in 2014. As someone who is party-free, I guess I should be toasting the shifting sands and the fact that Rhode Island’s leading Democrats are throwing party loyalty aside supporting an “I” in his re-election effort. But I don’t think that a wave of non-partisan fervor has swept the delegation. I think that Governor Chafee is putting the last pieces in place before he switches parties and becomes a Democrat.
I am not breaking any news – he’s alluded to a switch before, noting that it’s much easier to raise money when you have a national party to back you. So perhaps this is why the debut party is in D.C., not Rhode Island. For Democrats on the national scene, a Chafee switch is a good thing – they can count one more governor’s office as their own and have a great “he saw the light” story to tell about the son of a Republican legend.
The reality is that Chafee polls best as a Democrat and if he changes parties, he will reap the benefits of being a sitting Democratic governor. The Democratic Governors Association will invest in keeping his seat – just as the Republican Senate Campaign Committee poured money into his 2006 U.S. Senate loss to Senator Whitehouse. Changing parties may be a no-brainer for Chafee, but this sign of support is a bit riskier for the congressional delegation who could face the ire of the many “real” Democrats who want nothing to do with Chafee and his evolution – and were planning to support some of the young guns (like Raimondo and Taveras) in what was shaping up to be the Democrats’ best shot at the governor’s office in 20 years.
As the clock ticks down to the fundraiser, are leading Rhode Island Democrats crossing party lines or do they already know that Chafee’s “team to be named later” is really their own?
Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. An unaffiliated voter, serial ticket-splitter and enthusiastic Red Sox fan, she believes that in politics—and baseball—game changing action occurs in the middle, creating opportunity on the ball field and compromise and coalition-building in the halls of power. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, at http://straightupthemiddle.blogspot.com/ and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.