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Chafee elected RI gov, Cicilline heads to Congress

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Independent Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island in a triumphant return to politics for the former U.S. senator, while Providence Mayor David Cicilline beat Republican John Loughlin to keep the state's congressional delegation in full Democratic control.

Chafee, who left the Republican Party in 2007 after losing his Senate seat, on Tuesday defeated Republican John Robitaille, Democrat Frank Caprio and Moderate Party candidate Ken Block. He will replace Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, who could not run again because of term limits.

Chafee became the state's first independent governor on the same night that voters picked Cicilline, the first openly gay member of Congress to represent Rhode Island, and Angel Taveras, the first Hispanic mayor of Providence, the capital city.

"Rhode Island is making history tonight," Chafee told cheering supporters in his acceptance speech.

Democrats held their ground in Rhode Island, where they outnumber registered Republicans nearly 4 to 1, despite a national wave of anti-incumbent fervor that put the GOP in control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Democratic candidates won the four general offices besides governor on Tuesday, as Peter Kilmartin, a retired Pawtucket police officer and state lawmaker for 20 years, beat Republican Erik Wallin and three other candidates to win the attorney general's race.

Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts fought off a challenge from independent Robert Healey, who ran on the platform of eliminating the office as a cost-cutting measure in his third -- and most competitive -- bid for the position. Healey had the support of the state Republicans, whose own nominee dropped out of the race after the primary and endorsed him. Healey said before the election that a loss would likely be the end of his political career.

Incumbent Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis narrowly defeated Republican challenger Catherine Taylor to win a second term, while Democrat Gina Raimondo beat Republican Kernan King in the general treasurer's race. Raimondo succeeds Caprio, who left after one term to run for governor.

Voters on Tuesday said the economy, education, health care and job creation were key issues for them, which is hardly surprising since Rhode Island's 11.5 percent unemployment rate is among the nation's highest.

The governor's race was a hard-fought contest and centered largely on Chafee's proposal to impose a 1 percent tax on items currently exempt from the state's 7 percent sales tax, like groceries and prescription medication.

Robitaille, a former top aide to Carcieri who had never held elected office, had called for tax cuts and spending reductions. Caprio said he would focus on encouraging small businesses to add jobs, but his campaign never recovered from his comment last week that President Barack Obama could "really shove it" for not endorsing him during a visit to Rhode Island. Obama said he stayed neutral out of respect for Chafee, who endorsed him in the 2008 presidential race.

Block received just over 6 percent of the vote, which guarantees the new Moderate Party a spot on the next ballot.

Doug Johnson, 54, a math teacher who lives in Barrington, said the state was "in an economic mess" and that he was searching for the candidate best able to improve the economy. He said he voted for Chafee, partly because he appreciated his honesty in calling for more taxes.

"I think he was honest in that he said we need to raise taxes. I don't know how you can fix this mess without raising taxes," said Johnson, a Democrat who said he votes across party lines.

The other closely watched race was for the congressional seat vacated by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who announced in February that he would not seek a ninth term in Washington.

Cicilline, a two-term Providence mayor, led Loughlin, a Republican state representative, in fundraising for the entire race and survived a sometimes-bitter four-way Democratic primary in September and attacks on his record.

In Rhode Island's only other congressional district, Rep. Jim Langevin cruised to a sixth term, easily beating Republican Mark Zaccaria.

Rhode Island voters also faced four statewide questions.

In the most controversial question, they voted not to change the state's official name -- "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" -- despite concerns from some that it evoked images of the slave trade. Supporters of the name said it had nothing to do with slavery and instead referred to the 17th century merger of settlements into a unified colony.

Voters also approved a ballot question authorizing $78 million in bonds and notes to fund major projects at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. They approved a $14.7 million bond issue that includes money to buy the remaining 82 acres at the former Rocky Point amusement park in Warwick and preserve it for public use. And they endorsed millions of dollars to improve the state's roadways, bridges and bus fleet. 

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