PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza threw his support behind Democratic gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes on Thursday, arguing the former CVS executive is the only candidate promising a break with Rhode Island’s status quo.
Elorza — who considered running for governor himself last year — made the announcement during a news conference at the Southside Cultural Center, where Foulkes also touted endorsements from former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and former state Rep. Joe Almeida.
Elorza said he was backing Foulkes in part due to her “courage.” He singled out her pledge not to run for re-election if she hasn’t gotten K-12 test scores above pre-pandemic levels by the end of her first term.
“I want the next governor of Rhode Island to be willing to take on the hardest issues, regardless of the personal, and sometimes political, cost,” Elorza said.
“Every time you push for change, there are invested stakeholders — folks who are invested in preserving the status quo — and you’re not always going to make everyone happy,” he said. “But if you have the courage, the humility, and the drive to keep pushing, you can be the leader that meets the moment. And that’s what I believe Helena is.”
The mayor’s decision to back Foulkes over incumbent Gov. Dan McKee was no surprise, given the two men have clashed repeatedly over the last year about the state-controlled city schools. But it was also a snub of Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who would be the first Latina governor of Rhode Island.
Elorza said he believed Foulkes would be the best choice for the entire state, including the Latino community.
“If you speak to Latinos, if you speak to people throughout the city, the two issues that they care about are education and the economy,” he said, adding, “There is not a single family — and especially Latino or immigrant family — in our state that doesn’t have their entire hopes and dreams for their family resting on the quality of their kids’ education.”
Kennedy has mostly stayed out of Rhode Island politics since leaving office in 2010. He has since gotten married and moved to New Jersey, his wife’s home state, and had five children who all joined him at Thursday’s event.
But Kennedy has repeatedly stepped up to help Foulkes, a longtime family friend whose uncle, former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, was a close friend of Kennedy’s father, the late Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.
“If you’re fine with the status quo, stick with what’s safe — stick with the incumbents,” Kennedy said, arguing that Foulkes was the best-prepared candidate to grow the economy.
Kennedy also argued Rhode Island is “blessed” that she decided to run. “She didn’t need to step forward,” he said. “She had a comfortable life, successful career, top of her game, at the highest echelons of corporate power, including leading one of our state’s biggest employers.”
The endorsement news conference was the most high-profile public event the Foulkes campaign has held yet. A recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed Foulkes gaining ground but still trailing the two frontrunners, Gorbea and McKee, ahead of the Sept. 13 primary.
“I’m feeling real momentum,” Foulkes said. “It’s great. I’m out every day, all day, all night, meeting people. I think that’s the key. I think when people meet me they realize the level of my conviction, the fact that I care so much. I want to make a big difference.”
McKee’s campaign has expressed increasing optimism in recent weeks, buoyed by the response to his first TV ad, which features a star turn by his 94-year-old mother. He has also been racking up union endorsements, including from the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and the National Education Association Rhode Island.
Asked about Elorza’s endorsement of Foulkes at an unrelated event Thursday, McKee told reporters, “I don’t have any comment on that.”
Gorbea’s campaign has tried to build on her lead with a focus on policy, airing a new TV ad that emphasizes her commitment to more housing, and earlier this week releasing a 19-page plan laying out how she would address climate change.
Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, who was also on hand Thursday, echoed others who have compared Foulkes to former Gov. Gina Raimondo, her longtime friend. She said she was looking for a candidate who would match Raimondo’s dedication to passing laws such as the RhodeWorks infrastructure plan.
“I’ll admit, right off the bat I wasn’t quite sure about Helena,” said Goodwin, D-Providence. “But every time we met, and every time we spoke, I became more and more impressed with Helena Foulkes and all that she had to say.”
“Leadership is really the key word here,” she said. “The General Assembly is going to do what the General Assembly does. … But when you have a real leader in the room, that’s really what will propel and help to move the state forward.”
Also on hand to back Foulkes was former state Rep. Joe Almeida, a Providence Democrat who is currently mounting a primary challenge against state Sen. Tiara Mack. He said he was persuaded to support Foulkes in part by his wife, who liked her TV ad about education, as well as by how often he has run into the candidate at events.
“I’m walking all over the state of Rhode Island, and every time I turn around, I see Helena,” he said. “I see her at the gay parade. I see her at the unity day that we had, the Puerto Rican festival. And then I’m in Southside — I see her all over South Side.”
“We need more women in power,” Almeida added.
Almeida pleaded no contest in 2015 to misspending campaign finance funds. Asked about his past legal problems, Foulkes said, “I don’t know one person who hasn’t made a mistake in their life, myself included. And I think life is about redemption, and Joe is a spectacular human being.”
Ashley Kalus, the leading Republican candidate for governor, dismissed the new endorsements.
“It was no surprise that Jorge Elorza endorsed Helena Foulkes today – they both love corporate welfare,” she said. “Our capital city should be the crown jewel of our state, but it is plagued by crime, failing schools, an underfunded pension system, ATV’s taking over the streets, empty commercial buildings, and a commercial tax rate that is the third-highest in the country.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Kait Walsh contributed to this report.