R.I. Governor: On Education, Voter ID Bill
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up we've got a new book for your beach bag. It's "The Latte Rebellion." It's a novel. You can find it in the so-called young adult section. It's about a young high school girl who shakes things up at her school trying to give a voice to kids from mixed race backgrounds. It's the latest installment of our Summer Blend Book Club series where we're digging into fiction about the mixed race experience and we'll speak with the author in just a few minutes, but first to our weekly political chat.
Governors from across the country are gathering this weekend for their annual meeting. It's their 103rd such meeting held this year in Salt Lake City, Utah. We decided to check in with the governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee. He's serving his first term as governor of Rhode Island. He has the distinction of being the only independent governor currently serving in the U.S. and if his name sounds familiar that's probably because he previously served as U.S. Senator from Rhode Island.
He was a Republican then but he officially parted ways with the Republican Party in 2007, and in 2008 he endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama for president. We caught up with Governor Chafee as he was about to head out to the governor's association meeting but he was nice enough to stop by member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, to speak with us. Governor, thank you.
Governor LINCOLN CHAFEE: Good to join you, thank you Michel.
MARTIN: It's interesting that a lot of the sort of national stories are obviously converging in Rhode Island as well but before we talk about your work as governor I wanted to get your thoughts about the top story in national politics - of course, this ongoing negotiations about raising the debt ceiling and the budget negotiations. It seems that a number of your former colleagues, people you served with and the president are at an impasse here. And I just wondered based on your experience in Washington, you know, why you think that is?
CHAFEE: Well, it is very unfortunate and I do believe there was the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission that made some strong recommendations in order to fix the deficit which in my view is causing us all our economic problems, that huge deficit. The Republicans unfortunately just will not address the revenue side. And I find that hypocritical because they're responsible for the deficits coming back. I was there, as you said, in the United States senate in the 2001, 2002 when we had surpluses and went on a tax cutting spree at the same time going on a spending spree.
That's not good math if you're cutting your revenue and spending more. And that's what happened in the Republican House, Republican Senate, and Republican president. And now I find it very, very hypocritical that they're saying we won't address the revenue side. They're responsible for the deficits.
MARTIN: Is there a path away from this though? I mean, because they're arguing that they have a mandate from the voters to pursue this course and that that's what they're doing?
CHAFEE: Well, don't forget H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush gave his famous on read my lips and he did have to go back on that and address the revenue side. The deficits are the most harmful element in my view to our economy, and the Republicans just have to face up to you can't do it all on cuts. We do need certain services and some of it has to come from the revenue side.
MARTIN: Well, I guess just one more question on this point: Why can't you do it all on cuts in your view? Their argument is that they have a mandate for cutting. They don't have a mandate for raising revenue.
CHAFEE: Well, you have to look at where those cuts are going to go and I think that we'd want to continue to invest in our country. And what made America great in my view is that we have a strong middle class and right now the middle class is just getting crushed. And what makes a strong middle class? Opportunities for education. Opportunities to - such as subsidized child care so people can go to work. Certainly the wealthy should not be the ones that just get the chance to go to prekindergarten and Head Start's a very valuable program.
It gets everybody to get that pre-K experience. Pell grants another great program that allows not just the wealthy to go to college. These are all valuable social programs that are getting squeezed now and I think squeezing the middle class and I think it's to our long term detriment.
MARTIN: Well, you know, that leads to the next question I wanted to ask you and if you're just joining us you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with the governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee. He's the only independent serving as governor currently and we're speaking just ahead of the meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend. And one of the agenda items the association tells us that they want to talk about is education.
In this year, your first year as governor, you've taken the unusual step of increasing financial support for public education at a time when many localities are cutting back. For example, you fully-funded the states new public education formula that standardizes allocation of state aid to cities and towns. Your budget this year ended three years of cuts to aid to cities and towns and public universities and colleges. And you also persuaded the legislature to restore some of the cuts previously. How were you able to do that when so many other people were saying that they have to cut?
CHAFEE: I just have a different philosophy. I'm former mayor. As mayor of my city and I know how to run a large organization efficiently. I believe I was providing those services in my community at an affordable price for the taxpayers, so I'm confident in my ability to do that. But at the same time I do want to invest in infrastructure. I do want to invest in education. These are keys to a long term future and that's where I think the national Republican Party is wrong in saying we're not going to invest in this long term investment in our country.
And in my situation here in Rhode Island, it's in the state. I want to make sure that our community colleges are affordable. If you're continuing to cut the state aid to higher education it just means higher tuitions. It means it's more unaffordable for everybody to go on and get that valuable community college education or that middling Rhode Island College education or the University of Rhode Island. Those are our three public institutions here and around community college, Rhode Island College and University of Rhode Island and I want to make sure they stay affordable.
In my view, the ability to go into the state college system is what made America great and I want to make sure it stays affordable.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk to you about another bill that's another issue that's gotten national attention that is also part of your recent session there; that's the voter ID law that you just signed. A lot of people were surprised by that. Starting in 2012, it would require people to show some form of identification in order to vote. Now, supporters of this bill including - for example, the Rhode Island Tea Party - are saying that this is necessary in their words in a statement that they put out.
They say it provides the first step toward freedom from the manipulation of votes meant to benefit politicians and special interest agendas particularly in our urban areas, that's a quote. On the other side of it people like your fellow governor from North Carolina, Bev Purdue, former President Bill Clinton, a number of civil rights groups have criticized these kinds of bills saying that they are racist. You didn't talk a lot about this before you signed the bill. Why did you decide to sign it?
CHAFEE: Well, I regret to say that Rhode Island has a reputation for corruption, but despite that, I did not think we had a widespread issue with the election corruption. But after the legislature passed the bill, two African-American legislators a senator and a House of Representatives member came into my office and advocated for my signing the bill. And they said, yes, we do have some election fraud issues especially in the urban primaries which decide elections and the urban sends the primaries decide the elections that there usually isn't a Republican candidate in the general.
And that means not only usually the general might have low turn out but the primaries have very low turn out. And by simple research you can find out who's registered but who does not tend to come out in primaries. So there's a whole pool of voters that are eligible to take their names. They know they're not going to come out and vote by past performance and by past record and hand their names to other people to go into vote. That's what they alleged. And so I went ahead and signed it...
MARTIN: So, you're saying that you did this on the support of these two African-American Democrats? They were both Democrats?
CHAFEE: Yes, they are.
MARTIN: And what about those who say despite (unintelligible) who say that this really - this affects poor people, the elderly, the disabled?
CHAFEE: Well, I do think in this day and age most people have an identification. To think you can just go in and vote without showing who you are, I don't think that's that draconian and the Rhode Island-passed bill is very liberal in that if you don't have an ID you can cast a provisional ballot and show up later with your ID. You will not be turned away. And, frankly, my mind was changed by the testimony that I heard after the legislature passed the bill.
MARTIN: And, finally, one other national issue that's obviously being visited and addressed in Rhode Island is the whole question of same-sex unions. Earlier this month, you signed a law authorizing same-sex civil unions. Now, obviously, you know, issues like this obviously around the country, really, around the world, have generated a tremendous amount of intense feeling on all sides now.
Some people say that the law doesn't go far enough. Some people on the other side say that, you know, marriage should be between a man and a woman, one man, one woman. That they feel that this really undermines kind of core value. How did you come to a decision on this?
CHAFEE: Well, I'm embarrassed to say that Rhode Island does not have full marriage equality. And we're the state founded by Roger Williams. And the greatest liberties ever granted to any colony in the world back in 1663, I now - we're trailing on other New England states. New Hampshire legislature passed it. Vermont, of course, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York recently, and Rhode Island, just not giving full marriage equality.
But when you factor in the demographics of Rhode Island, we're a very high elderly state. And so change comes a little more slowly and we are the highest in the country, a Roman Catholic state. And so those two demographics certainly came to play in just getting that half (unintelligible) civil unions.
MARTIN: So you would've preferred full marriage equality. You just felt, what, the votes weren't there?
CHAFEE: Yes. I was pushing for it. I believe it could've gotten through the House of Representatives and maybe not through the Senate. But I would've liked to seen the roll called and see whether these members of our legislature want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history. And I think it's a - Rhode Island, we want the state to be a hip, happening place. And certainly marriage equality is part of that.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask about your thoughts about the job that President Obama is doing. Of course it was certainly eye-catching for many people when you endorsed him in 2008. And a number of his earlier supporters are saying that they've had their differences with him in the ensuing couple of years. So I wanted to ask, how do you feel about the job that he's doing? And are you likely to support him again in 2012?
CHAFEE: Well, I have to say, my hands are full here in the state. That used to be that, as a senator, the national issue was in the front burner of my consciousness and following everything that's happening around the world. And now here in Rhode Island, I've got so many complex issues as governor as we try and get our economy going. I haven't focused as much on the national stage. And I know the elections are coming up. Everybody's getting out there and running.
The biggest, of course, disappointment for me are the wars, these expensive wars around the world. And I thought that the president was going to take a different path and get us back to where we're getting along with everybody and certainly that was the case before September 11th, where countries around the world respected, admired the United States of America. I think that's changed. And sometimes getting into these conflicts are regrettably not in our long-term best interest.
MARTIN: Lincoln Chafee is the governor of Rhode Island. He is currently the nation's only Independent governor. He joined us on the line from member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Governor Chafee, thank you so much for joining us.
CHAFEE: Thank you.
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