Ask anybody who's not from Rhode Island if they can name a single famous politician from the Ocean State, and they'll probably say "Buddy Cianci."
And if you say, "Well everybody knows about that guy, name somebody else," they will look at you like you are crazy, because Rhode Islanders are a famously secretive lot who seldom stray outside the confines of their tiny state, due to the language barrier.
But if you persist, maybe somebody has heard of Lincoln Chafee, son of John Chafee, a former senator and Rhode Island governor. John Chafee represented the last of the great New England Republicans, a band of fiscally conservative bluebloods who ventured no opinion on "social issues" because it was beneath their dignity to consider what people did with their clothes off. He became one of the most revered political figures in Rhode Island, to say nothing of Washington DC, where Democrats and Republicans both loved him.
So when John Chafee died and his son Lincoln (a Republican like his dad) was appointed to serve out the remainder of his Senate term, people were pretty happy with the arrangement, and Lincoln easily won his own Senate seat a year later. But then Linc Chafee turned out to be too liberal for the modern Republican party, with his pro-choice, pro gay rights, anti death penalty leanings. Washington Republicans hated him because he pretty much just voted like a Democrat, and Rhode Island Democrats thought he was an OK guy but preferred to vote for an actual Democrat when Chafee ran for re-election in 2006.
Which brings us to today, or rather yesterday, when Chafee announced he was starting an exploratory committee to look into running for governor in 2010. He'll probably win, as Rhode Islanders do still love them some Chafees. They also tend to elect Republican governors, which Chafee is not -- he changed his registration to independent a couple years ago -- but at least he hasn't turned Democrat.
Then, to truly complete the trajectory of any Rhode Island politician worth his salt, Chafee will have to find himself embroiled in a racketeering/graft scandal, preferably one involving highway or construction contracts, plus a mistress, and then resign in shame before launching a dramatic comeback by marketing his own brand of spaghetti sauce and running the state, quietly and unofficially, from the corner booth of an Italian restaurant on Federal Hill.
Maritime historian and Rhode Island politics expert Sara K. Smith writes for NBC and Wonkette.