PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee landed two major union endorsements on Monday in his bid for a full term, offering another sign the incumbent Democrat has made inroads with organized labor during his time in office.
Rhode Island’s largest union organization, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said its executive board voted to back McKee and urge its roughly 80,000 members to do the same. AFL-CIO President George Nee said McKee “has consistently demonstrated a commitment to making life better for working Rhode Islanders.”
But the more striking endorsement came from the state’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI), which said its political action committee had voted unanimously on Saturday to endorse McKee after interviewing multiple Democratic candidates.
“There have been, and still are, areas where we disagree with the governor and frankly, all his rivals,” said NEARI President Larry Purtill. “However, communication with the McKee administration has steadily become more active and robust as he accrues time in the role of governor.”
It’s a sharp contrast with eight years ago, in 2014, when then-Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee was first running for lieutenant governor. Due mainly to disagreements over charter schools, NEARI was so opposed to McKee’s election that the union endorsed his Republican opponent in the general election, and it endorsed his Democratic primary challenger Aaron Regunberg in 2018.
Yet ever since learning he would become governor, McKee has worked assiduously to cultivate a stronger relationship with NEARI, something its leaders acknowledged on Monday.
“NEA Rhode Island did not have much of an organizational relationship with Dan McKee when he was lieutenant governor, but when it became evident he would be elevated to the governor’s office, he made the choice to reach out,” the union said in a news release, noting that one of his first moves as governor was prioritizing educators for COVID-19 vaccine doses.
Purtill added, “His life experience as a coach, and marriage to a public-school teacher and longtime NEARI member, have given him unique insight into what our students and educators struggle with daily.”
McKee said, “When I took office as governor, one of my first calls was to the NEARI. … My family and I are all proud graduates of Rhode Island public schools and I’m honored to have the support of the hard-working people who make our schools succeed.”
A spokesperson for the state’s other teachers union, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said no decision has been made yet on whether to endorse a candidate for governor. Its local chapters include the Providence Teachers Union, whose members effectively work for McKee because the school district is currently under a state takeover.
“RIFT is still in discussions about endorsements and has not taken any official votes yet,” said the spokesperson, Brad Dufault. “We should know more within the next week or two.”
The AFL-CIO and NEARI endorsements add to the growing list of unions backing the incumbent governor against his four Democratic challengers: Nellie Gorbea, Helena Foulkes, Matt Brown and Luis Daniel Muñoz.
The Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council and the Rhode Island Laborers’ District Council were the first major unions to back McKee, and recently spent $100,000 airing the first TV ad supporting him for re-election. Last week McKee won the backing of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals — which had previously endorsed Seth Magaziner for governor before he decided to run for Congress — as well as the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters.
McKee has also been consolidating establishment support in other ways, winning the endorsements of House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio along with the state Democratic Party. The most recent poll in the race showed the governor narrowly trailing Gorbea, with Foulkes not far behind.
Gorbea also has support from a number of unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328, the Carpenters Local 330, and the United Steelworkers Local 12431 out of District 4. Her campaign manager, Dana Walton, responded to McKee’s new support by citing those endorsements as well as her backing from groups such as Emily’s List and the Latino Victory Fund.
“Nellie has a solid 30-year track record of working for the people of Rhode Island,” Walton said. “During that time, she has worked with unions, organizations, and community groups continuously advocating for safe working conditions, good benefits, and fair wages. Rhode Islanders know this. It’s why they trust Nellie to grow our economy justly and fairly.”
No unions have endorsed Foulkes, a first-time candidate and former CVS Health executive.
“We’re not surprised that the incumbent governor won these political endorsements,” Foulkes spokesperson Audrey Lucas said Monday. “What would be a surprise is if Dan McKee committed to making the same pledge Helena did: not to seek re-election if our kids’ test scores don’t improve.”
“So far, the governor’s track record on public education is a failure, and that’s especially evident in Providence,” Lucas said. “The governor should actually hold himself accountable to Rhode Island students and teachers. Politicians make promises and that’s how they try to win elections.”
Separately on Monday, Foulkes received her first endorsement from a local Democratic committee, as the Middletown Democratic Town Committee voted to back her for governor. McKee and Gorbea have already won the backing of a number of municipal party committees.
The primary is Sept. 13. The Democratic nominee will face the winner of the Republican primary between Ashley Kalus and Jonathan Riccitelli.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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