Senator John H. Chafee (R-RI) was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1922. He earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School. Upon the United States’ entry into World War II, Chafee left Yale to enlist in the Marine Corps, and then served in the original invasion forces at Guadalcanal. In 1951 he was recalled to active duty and commanded a rifle company in Korea.
Chafee began his political career by serving for six years in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, during which time he was elected Minority Leader. He was then elected Governor by a 398 vote margin in 1962. He was reelected in 1964 and 1966—both times by the largest margins in the state’s history. In January 1969 he was appointed Secretary of the Navy and served in that post for three and a half years. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1976.
As Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Senator was a leading voice in crafting the Clean Air Act of 1990. He led successful efforts to enact oil spill prevention and response legislation and a bill to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act. Senator Chafee was a longtime advocate for wetlands conservation and open space preservation and was the recipient of every major environmental award.
As senior member of the Finance Committee, Senator Chafee worked successfully to expand health care coverage for women and children and to improve community services for people with disabilities. In 1990, Senator Chafee spearheaded the Republican Health Care Task Force. He went on to lead the bipartisan effort to craft a comprehensive health care reform proposal in 1994.
Senator Chafee also was a leader in efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit and cochaired the centrist coalition that produced a bipartisan balanced budget plan in 1996. He was an active proponent of free trade and was a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He served as Chairman of the Republican Conference for six years.
The Senator received awards and endorsements from such organizations as the National Federation of Independent Business, the American Nurses Association, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, Handgun Control Inc., Planned Parenthood, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the National PTA.
On October 24, 1999, Senator John H. Chafee died from congestive heart failure. He is sorely missed.
This is a chapter from Climate, Poverty and Health: Time for Preventive Medicine (Lecture).
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