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This week on “What’s Up With Lincoln Chafee”: Did Linc use $7.96 in public funds on frogs?

The Linc, debating his ass off.
The Linc, debating his ass off.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Welcome to What's Up With Lincoln Chafee, a somewhat-less-than-weekly series at Vox in which we check in on the life and times of former moderate Republican senator turned independent governor of Rhode Island turned underdog Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee.

It's been a rollicking ride, the Chafee 2016 campaign, but no week to date has been as action-packed as the past one. The Chafster's appearance at the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday let him make his case before 15.3 million viewers, by far his biggest audience to date.

Were there memorable moments? Hell, what moments weren't memorable! It's hard to know where to start. But let's start with frogs.

The Great Chafee Frog Imbroglio of 2015

Linc's biggest moment of the night came when moderator Anderson Cooper asked him to comment on Hillary Clinton's email scandal. Chafee explained that because the Iraq War was waged on false premises, Clinton's preferred method of email management is therefore bad:

Absolutely. We have to repair American credibility after we told the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he didn't. So there's an issue of American credibility out there. So any time someone is running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue out there with the world. And we have repair work to be done. I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president. That's how I feel.

Cooper then asked Clinton if she wanted to respond, and got a terse "no" as a reply.

Chafee's answer called back to his opening statement, in which he bragged that "over my almost 30 years of public service, I have had no scandals. I've always been honest." The trouble is that Chafee actually has had a scandal in his almost 30 years of public service. And the scandal was about frogs.

Specifically, the allegation is that during Chafee's tenure as mayor of Warwick — which lasted from 1993 until his appointment to the Senate in 1999 — he used taxpayer money to maintain a fish tank in his office. He also used the money to purchase four (4) frogs at a unit cost of $1.99 per frog, leaving the city of Warwick with total frog outlays of $7.96. Chafee was using a $6,000 fund offered for discretionary use by the mayor; other uses included gifts like toboggans for children of city workers, theater tickets to local play productions, and unspecified "charitable causes," per a 2000 report in the Providence Journal.

Rep. Robert Weygand (D-RI), Chafee's opponent in the 2000 general election, made an issue of the fund during the race. He assailed Chafee in a debate for buying "pet frogs, toboggans for children of his friends and theater tickets … at the same time you raised taxes five times on the property owners in the city of Warwick," and called the purchases a "private use of public funds." In response, Chafee decried Weygand for raising the issue and alleged that the Weygand campaign had leaked info on the frog purchases "in manila envelopes in the middle of the night."

He clarified that the theater tickets went to children other than his own, as did all the funds. Here's Chafee:

The public came forward. They asked questions about it. The Democratic council asked questions about it. They said we want a mayor active in the community and every penny of that money was used for some charitable cause, whether it was toboggans for the employee benefit … or for the children to go see A Christmas Carol.

Okay, but back up — what about the frogs? "Having an aquarium with fish and frogs in it was very, very popular with the children" who tagged along with their parents on errands at City Hall, he explained. And such an aquarium cost at least $40 a month to maintain, per the Daily Beast's Gideon Resnick.

Debbie Rich, Chafee's presidential campaign spokesperson, explained in an email to me that much of the cost involved hiring an outside service to work on the aquarium:

The contingency fund in question was an office account approved by the Warwick City Council for mayors to use at their discretion for office expenses such as refreshments for public events or condolences.

Mayor Chafee used the fund for these purposes and in addition, also paid for an outside service to replenish and clean the public reception room fish tank.

Real scandal? Hardly. But then again, the Clinton emails, Benghazi, and Whitewater were all pretty fake scandals, too, so it's unclear how this gives Linc one up on Hillary.

Shattered Glass-Steagall

Chafee's other big debate moment came when Anderson Cooper challenged Chafee to defend his vote for the 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which eliminated the ban on investment banks engaging in commercial banking that had existed since the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Many have argued that Gramm-Leach-Bliley was a contributing factor in the financial crisis.

Chafee's defense was … less than compelling:

CHAFEE: The Glass-Steagall was my very first vote, I'd just arrived, my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office, it was my very first vote.

COOPER: Are you saying you didn't know what you were voting for?

CHAFEE: I'd just arrived at the Senate. I think we'd get some takeovers, and that was one. It was my very first vote, and it was 92-5. It was the...

COOPER: Well, with all due respect, Governor...

CHAFEE: But let me just say...

COOPER: ... what does that say about you that you're casting a vote for something you weren't really sure about?

CHAFEE: I think you're being a little rough. I'd just arrived at the United States Senate. I'd been mayor of my city. My dad had died. I'd been appointed by the governor. It was the first vote and it was 90-5, because it was a conference report.

On the one hand, points to Chafee for honesty. Senators and members of Congress often don't understand the legislation they're voting on, and that's not necessarily a bad thing: Spending all day boning up on every bill's specifics — rather than building coalitions around legislation to get it to the floor or designing your own proposals — doesn't seem like a particularly efficient use of a legislator's time. On the other hand, this was a rather consequential act, and even if you don't think legislators should read every bill, they should probably have a working understanding of what the major bills they vote on do.

Then again, in Chafee's defense, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act's effects have been dramatically exaggerated. The Glass-Steagall Act, as originally passed, barely existed by the time GLB became law in 1999, as Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve carved out loophole after loophole. Jonathan Macey, a corporate finance expert who teaches at Yale Law School and School of Management, told me two years ago that the loopholes had grown so big that Goldman Sachs was defined as not in the securities business, and thus able to affiliate with commercial banks.

And even the original act wouldn't have prevented the 2007–'08 financial crisis. As Andrew Ross Sorkin notes at the New York Times, Bear Stearns, the first bank to fall, was an investment bank with no involvement in commercial banking. So was Lehman Brothers, which fell next, and Merrill Lynch, which fell after that. Then came AIG, an insurer also unaffected by Glass-Steagall rules. Really, the only company whose collapse you could attribute in any way to Glass-Steagall was Citigroup, which only got into trouble after the shit had hit the fan. Glass-Steagall might have made the crisis less severe, but it couldn't have stopped it.

That's not to say that bringing back Glass-Steagall wouldn't be a good idea. A less severe crisis would have been better! Bringing back the law would probably decrease financial risk on the margin, and it's certainly become an effective rallying point for activists concerned about Wall Street's excesses. But beating up on Chafee for his Gramm-Leach-Bliley vote seems a little shortsighted.

Hungry like the Wolf

After the debate, Linc had a not-very-pleasant interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who demanded an explanation of why he's in the race. Honestly, I thought Chafee's response was pretty good:

THE WOLF: Here's how two major newspapers reviewed your performance last night. The Washington Post titled their article, "How to disappear completely, by Lincoln Chafee." The Boston Globe called it, "Lincoln Chafee's no-good, very bad night." Here's what worries me, governor, that, you know, because of your distinguished career, you're going to wind up looking silly if you keep going on like this. At what point will you decide, you know what, there are other things for me to do instead of a futile effort to try to get the Democratic presidential nomination?"

THE LINC: Well there was certainly a lesson last night, to appear there and only get nine minutes out of two hours, and it reaffirmed what I thought when I got into the race: that the establishment just does not want to hear an antiwar voice. That motivates me even more to continue this campaign. Yes, I've had a distinguished career. I've served at all levels of government. I've been a United States senator and a governor. But these issues are so important. I want to continue to raise them, and I will.

THE WOLF: Bernie Sanders is antiwar, he makes that case, and he's generating a lot of support. He's raising millions and millions of dollars, he's doing remarkably well. You're not, though, right?

THE LINC: No, I disagree. I've been at many events with Senator Sanders and he rarely talks about international issues. That's my issue that I'm talking about. Senator Sanders has not talked about what's happening in the Middle East and across North Africa, at least the times I've seen him. He does mention it, but very, very fleetingly.

THE WOLF: At what point will you drop out?

THE LINC: I'm in it as far as I can raise these issues. They're important, and I feel strongly about that.

We like to have fun here at "What's Up With Lincoln Chafee," but this is actually a serious, important rationale for his candidacy. He clearly does not think he's going to win. He's not delusional. But he does think Hillary Clinton is far too hawkish to be president — and indeed, she's more hawkish than our current Democratic president and more hawkish than most of the Democratic Party. She voted for the biggest foreign policy mistake since Vietnam, and Chafee was the only senator of his then-party to vote against it. She supports the Obama administration's anti-ISIS airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; Chafee opposes them. Her State Department helped develop the legal rationale for the drone war; Chafee calls drone strikes "extrajudicial assassinations."

Bernie Sanders agrees with Chafee on much of this, and also got the Iraq vote right — but he, as Chafee says, barely talks about foreign policy. Chafee is really the only candidate in the race staking out a consistent, principled dovish position on these issues, a position that's closer to his party's base than Clinton's is. You don't have to agree with Chafee on these matters to think that's a valuable and important role for a candidate to serve in this race.