- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Outgoing Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has often confounded voters and political pundits, bucking his own party repeatedly while in the U.S. Senate, proposing more taxes during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign and refusing to call the evergreen erected in the Statehouse every December a Christmas tree.

But the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat said he believes people will remember him for his convictions - even though they sometimes got him into trouble.

“I don’t like hypocrites, and I don’t want to be one. I don’t like jelly, jellyfish spines,” he said in a conversation with The Associated Press about his legacy, the challenges he has faced during his three-decade political career and the future.

Chafee, 61, chose not to run for a second term, exiting the Statehouse after four years. His successor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, a former political rival, takes office Jan. 6.

Chafee said he also believes people know he has an ability to listen, and will remember him for honesty, something he picked up at the knee of his father, the late Sen. John Chafee, who used the idea as a campaign slogan.

“I heard that from my father, ‘Trust Chafee.’ I think if he were alive, he would say, ‘Linc carried it on honorably, that promise to our voters,’” Chafee said.

Chafee attended his first Republican National Convention at age 11. He graduated with a classics degree from Brown University, then worked for several years as a blacksmith for harness racetracks in the U.S. and Canada. After returning to Rhode Island, he won his first elected position in 1985, serving as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention.

He went on to be elected Warwick city councilman, then mayor. After his father, a former governor, died while in the Senate in 1999, the younger Chafee was appointed to his seat.

Chafee won re-election the following year but did his own thing. He cast the lone Republican vote against the Iraq war and refused to vote for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

Despite approval ratings above 60 percent, Chafee lost the seat in 2006 to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in a year of voter discontent with Republicans.

Chafee spent four years out of politics, working at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and quietly became an independent. He ran for governor in 2010, winning a four-way race.

While his independence was attractive to many voters, Chafee said it made things difficult in office, especially when taking controversial stands he became known for: his refusal to hand over a suspect charged in a deadly bank robbery to federal authorities because of the possibility he would face the death penalty, his support of giving in-state tuition at state colleges to students in the country illegally, and his plan to broaden and lower the sales tax.

“No one had my back. And I was a solo practitioner out there talking about these issues,” Chafee said.

Even after he became a Democrat last year, that didn’t help much, he said.

“Rhode Islanders, and especially members of the House and Senate here, still consider me Republican,” he said. Still, he feels he has found his political home as a Democrat.

The controversy that seems to flummox him the most was the yearslong battle over what to call the Statehouse Christmas tree. Chafee called it a “holiday tree” during his first two years in office, as had been done in the past. He said he was honoring Rhode Island’s history as a sanctuary for religious diversity. But the term angered some who believed it was disrespectful, and attracted national attention and protests.

Asked why he thinks it blew up, Chafee responds: “Maybe because I dug in?” He added that he believes America is changing and becoming more sensitive to issues of religious diversity.

“I’m probably ahead of my time,” he said.

One of his biggest challenges, he said, was what he called “irrational negativity” that swirled during his time in office, infecting editorial pages and the public debate about issues that he believes would have benefited from a more intellectual discussion.

He said that negativity helped contribute to his decision last year not to run for re-election, as did low approval ratings and the satisfaction of what he says is progress made under his leadership on issues like the economy and starting up the health exchange, which has been praised for its smooth rollout.

Chafee said he has no plans for after leaving office, other than to relax with his family in January. He and his wife, Stephanie, will celebrate their 25th anniversary with a vacation, and they’ll visit Florida to watch their daughter compete for a slot on the Olympic sailing team.

Chafee wouldn’t rule out eventually running for office again. In the meantime, he said does not have a job lined up. He said he loved his time at Brown’s Watson Institute and has enjoyed giving talks on college campuses in recent months. When asked if he’d consider a job in Washington or out of state, he said he wouldn’t until his youngest daughter, a high school junior, graduates.

“I don’t know what job opportunities are out there,” he said, adding, “That’s the challenge we all face. What can you do that you love that will make you money?”

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