By Jackie Kucinich - 09/06/06 12:00 AM EDT
WEST WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND - Waving to the crowd dressed in a tan blazer, slacks and a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) waved both hands to the crowds gathered for the Feast of the Holy Ghost parade on Labor Day.
As Chafee continued down the crowded street, he passed a man in a blue plaid shirt furiously shaking hands in the crowd.
Chafee hopes to defeat that man this November, but he must first win a spirited campaign for the GOP nomination.
“Hey Sheldon — I want you to meet my neighbor,” said former state Senator and West Warwick native Buddy Alves, who was acting as an ambassador between parade-goers and senatorial candidate Sheldon Whitehouse (D). “Hey Frankie, I want you to meet our new senator — are you registered to vote? Good. Vote twice if you can.”
Whitehouse, smiling humbly, shook the man’s hand and introduced himself.
“We need change in Washington,” he said to the man, who nodded.
As Chafee and his primary challenger, Stephen Laffey, spend the next week sprinting to the finish line for the Sept. 12 primary, Whitehouse is quietly preparing for the general election.
Whitehouse, born in New York in 1955, grew up traveling the world with his family and his father, who was a foreign service officer.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, he moved back to Rhode Island to begin practicing law until he became Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun’s (D) counsel. A few years later, he was appointed by then-President Clinton as the U.S. attorney for the state.
It was after his term ended he decided to run for Rhode Island attorney general, after determining that the Republican candidate who could potentially win the race was inadequate.
“Well, I can do something about that,” he said he thought. “Like any new candidate I wasn’t sure what I was getting into.”
He described the experience as exhilarating, and was elected in 1998.
It was during his tenure as attorney general that he was instrumental in creating the Rhode Island Quality Institute, a statewide organization that seeks to improve healthcare quality.
Another Rhode Island Democrat who cares deeply about healthcare issues praised Whitehouse.
“That is a real issue and he helped create that system,” Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) said.
Kennedy, who met Whitehouse when he was a roommate of Kennedy’s cousin Bobby at University of Virginia law school, said, “He has gone through a lot of personal growth as a political leader since I met him.”
After losing a gubernatorial primary in 2002, Whitehouse went back into private law practice. But he still yearned for public office.
“Government is suppose to do the right thing, treat people fairly and fight for what’s right,” he said, sitting in his campaign office in Cranston, R.I. “It’s kind of corny, but that’s how I was brought up.”
He added, “In my experience there is a certain standard of conduct that I’m not seeing [in Washington].”
Whitehouse’s message of change and government reform is a harder sell in Rhode Island than in other states because his potential opponent is Chafee, known widely to vote independently on a range of issues regardless of pressure from his GOP leadership.
While Whitehouse shares a stand against the war with Chafee, he charged that the incumbent should have done more to hold the Bush administration accountable — such as advocating the removal of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Chafee has not called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, while Laffey has.
On Monday evening, as Whitehouse made his way through the crowd at “An Evening with the Rhode Island Philharmonic” in Bristol, an elderly voter asked him about the price of prescription drugs.
Whitehouse reiterated a promise to lower prescription drug costs, a pledge echoed in his campaign ads.
“I would have never, never, never voted for [Medicare] Part D,” he said on Tuesday, and said if elected he would work for prescription drug reform to keep the costs low for seniors and people with disabilities.
A June Brown University poll shows Whitehouse leading in a possible race against Chafee. Whitehouse would be a huge favorite over Laffey in the general election.
Brown University professor and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy Darrell West said that Whitehouse is the beneficiary of a general feeling of anger from the Democratic base in Rhode Island.
“Rhode Island voters are concerned with the direction of the country,” he said. “Public opinion is with the Democrats this year.”
He said the challenge for Whitehouse, should Chafee win the Sept. 12 primary, must give voters a clear reason to fire their centrist senator.
“He has to make the case why a Democrat would do a better job,” he said. “It’s never easy to beat an incumbent.”
Whitehouse also faces a primary challenge from businessman Carl Sheeler, but has raised significantly more money and has received the endorsement of several state officials and most county Democratic parties.
Whitehouse adamantly explained that although Chafee does sometimes buck his party, he is still a Republican, and will still vote with Republicans on key issues such as political appointments. Whitehouse said he would have voted against Bush’s Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Chafee voted for Roberts while opposing Alito.