Former Rhode Island senator and Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, a Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat who has first-hand experience with some of the Obama administration’s education programs, has formed an exploratory committee in preparation for tossing his hat into the ring as a Democratic presidential candidate.
“During the next weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts about the future of our great country,” Chafee said in a two-minute online video Thursday that focused mainly on foreign policy.
“Over the last six years, President Obama has led admirably,” Chaffee said. “Throughout my career as mayor, governor, and United States senator, I’ve exercised good judgment on a wide range of high-pressure decisions—decisions that require level-headedness and careful foresight.”
Chafee doesn’t have a long record on education issues, but he has been supportive of the Obama administration’s education agenda. As governor, he oversaw the rollout of the state’s $75 million federal Race to the Top grant and a $50 million grant specifically for early-learning programs.
And he was an important supporter of Deborah Gist, the former state education commissioner in Rhode Island and a nationally watched leader for her aggressive efforts to improve schools in her state, whose job it was to implement many of the policy changes driven by those grants. In 2013, his support was crucial in extending her contract amid pushback from teachers who were particularly upset about Gist’s role in helping to develop new teacher evaluations that rely heavily on high-stakes tests. In February, Gist accepted the superintendent position at Tulsa public schools.
Chafee was also on hand back in 2011 when, during his governorship, Obama officially announced he would be granting states waivers from the most burdensome provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act—an event in the East Room of the White House that was packed with more than 200 education policy players.
Chafee got his first taste of education politics back in 1994. Then the mayor of Warwick, R.I., he helped right a flailing school system—deemed the “school system from hell” in the local town paper—that was beset by teacher strikes and numerous legal skirmishes between school and union leaders.
Chafee was the mayor from 1992 until 1999, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. He held that position until 2007, the year he left the Republican Party, citing misgivings over the GOP’s increasing conservatism.
He was elected governor of Rhode Island in 2011 as an Independent. Chafee spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention while he was still an independent and slammed the Republican Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket, saying in part that Head Start, the Pell Grant program, and others that assist middle- and low-income people would be eliminated under their watch.
Chafee switched party affiliations to become a Democrat in 2013 and did not seek re-election when his term ended this past January.