Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee enter the crowded field of candidates seeking the White House on Wednesday, pledging to lift the ban prohibiting transgender people from serving openly in the U.S. military on the first day of his campaign.
The Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat, who’s served as both U.S. senator and governor of Rhode Island, declared his candidacy at the George Mason School of Policy, Government and International Affairs Center for Politics & Foreign Relations in Arlington, Va.
“Today, I’m formally entering the race for the Democratic nomination for president,” Chafee said.
Following his prepared remarks, Chafee took questions from the audience. In response to a question from the Washington Blade on whether he’d lift the transgender military ban, Chafee said he would and talked about his record on LGBT rights.
“I’ve had a great record of supporting LGBT issues,” Chafee said. “To me, it wasn’t only a civil rights issue, it was also an economic issue, and we genuinely want a tolerant society if you’re going to attract the best people in the military.”
As governor of Rhode Island, Chafee signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013, making the state the final jurisdiction in New England to obtain marriage equality — a point that Chafee enumerated.
“As governor, I pushed for marriage equality, gay marriage,” Chafee said. “My state took a while. It was very, very controversial. We finally got it through, but I always thought not only was it fair, a rights issue, doing the right thing, it was going to help our economy.”
Chafee concluded his response by pivoting back to the military, saying, “The same is relevant to your question about the military. We want the best, and to your question about transgender, absolutely. We want the best fighting men and women in our military.”
Asked to clarify if that response means he’ll lift the ban, Chafee replied, “Yes.”
The only other presidential candidate to declare support for lifting the ban on transgender service is Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who made the commitment during a Blade interview. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House have expressed support for ending the policy, but the ban remains in place.
During his tenure a U.S. senator representing Rhode Island, Chafee twice voted against a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In fact, he’s credited at that time with the distinction of being the first Republican U.S. senator ever to come out in favor of marriage equality.
In op-ed published in the New York Times at the time, Chaffee said only three other U.S. senators at the time supported marriage equality: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
But a statement from Chafee in 2004 at the time the Federal Marriage Amendment was rejected indicates he supported civil unions and believed each state should be free to make its decision on the issue.
Meanwhile, Clinton didn’t publicly expressed support for same-sex marriage until 2013. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed marriage equality into law in 2012, but his critics on LGBT issues say he was late in pushing the effort.
A major theme of Chafee’s campaign announcement was what he called “extricating ourselves from expensive wars.” The former senator highlighted his vote against military operations in Iraq. In comparison, Clinton voted to authorize conflict in the country during her tenure as a U.S. senator.
“It’s bad enough that the so-called neocons, most of whom had never experienced the horror of war, were so gung ho,” Chafee said. “But worse yet, was that they didn’t have the guts to argue their points straight up to the American people. They knew there were no weapons of mass destruction but wanted their war badly enough to purposely deceive us.”
Other policy initiatives Chafee endorsed were prohibiting capital punishment, labeling carbon dioxide as a pollutant, allowing Edward Snowden to return home, ending extrajudicial executions by drone strikes and adopting the metric system in the United States.
Concluding his remarks, Chafee said he think he stands out among other candidates running for the Democratic nomination because of record, character and vision.
“The eagle on our great seal holds both arrows and an olive branch,” Chafee said. “Let’s lead responsibility with a commitment to our unwavering defense and peaceful purposes.”