PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Rhode Island Democrats to nominate Helena Foulkes for governor during a visit to Providence on Sunday, arguing Foulkes’ business experience and personal qualities would let her excel in the role.
“As governor she will not only be a job creator, she’ll be a job attractor — of people, of companies, to Rhode Island, who respect her role — which is well acclaimed — in the private sector,” Pelosi told a crowd of roughly 200 Foulkes supporters who gathered at the headquarters of the nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island.
The decision by one of the country’s most powerful Democrats to intervene in the smallest state’s gubernatorial primary was driven by a personal connection: Pelosi was lifelong friends with Foulkes’ late mother, Martha Dodd Buonanno, who died of cancer in 2009.
Pelosi briefly choked back tears on stage when she mentioned Buonanno, describing her as “one of my dearest friends — the first person I met when we both showed up in college.”
Pelosi went on to make the case that Foulkes, a former CVS executive, could move Rhode Island forward on issues such as education, economic development, health care and abortion rights. She noted that Foulkes played a lead role in the decision by the Woonsocket-based pharmacy giant to stop selling tobacco products.
“If I didn’t think that Helena would be a great governor of Rhode Island — if I didn’t think that she could win this — I would have never encouraged her to put herself in the arena,” Pelosi said, calling her “the full package.”
“She thinks in a strategic way about how to get things done … because she has always been results-oriented,” she said of Foulkes. “She is about getting the job done.”
Pelosi closed the rally by beseeching the crowd to get out the vote over the next 48 hours, saying they should make sure to have “no regrets the day after the election that we could have done more.”
It’s not the first time in recent years that Pelosi has intervened in a heated local Democratic primary. Two years ago, she made a late-stage endorsement of then-Congressman Joe Kennedy III in his unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey.
Foulkes is one of four Democrats running in Tuesday’s primary against incumbent Dan McKee, who took over the job last year when Gina Raimondo resigned to join President Biden’s cabinet. The other candidates are Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former Secretary of State Matt Brown and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz.
Pelosi’s visit came as the Foulkes campaign is riding a surge of momentum following a well-received performance at Tuesday night’s live TV debate on WPRI 12 and The Boston Globe’s subsequent endorsement of her candidacy. On Monday morning, former R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott endorsed Foulkes, as well.
“A lot of undecideds are shifting — every night at 10 o’clock, we’re looking at our numbers, and it’s very exciting,” Foulkes told reporters after the rally, though she declined to share the specifics of her campaign’s internal tracking polling.
Also on hand for the Pelosi rally were Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza — who has emerged as a top Foulkes surrogate and was given the job of introducing the speaker — as well as state lawmakers who support Foulkes such as Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Edie Ajello. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, who is Foulkes’ uncle, were in the crowd as well.
McKee’s campaign on Friday sought to blunt any movement toward Foulkes, releasing a new TV attack ad that accused her — and CVS — of making money by “pumping opioids into our homes.” (The commercial restated previous criticism of Gorbea, as well.)
But the new ad quickly drew a rebuke from retired CVS CEO Tom Ryan, who argued that “a sitting governor publicly attacking and slandering the largest company in Rhode Island … is unconscionable.” Ryan also urged CVS’s roughly 7,000 employees to “take note of how the governor feels about CVS” when they cast their votes on Tuesday.
McKee’s campaign manager dismissed Ryan’s criticism, saying the ad was “about Helena Foulkes’ failure to address the opioid crisis” during her time at CVS, where she led the retail division. Meanwhile, McKee made a variety of stops out on the campaign trail over the weekend, and led the state’s official Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony at the State House.
Gorbea had her own busy campaign schedule, holding a get-out-the-vote rally on Saturday hosted by the carpenters union and another on Sunday at her Providence headquarters. One of her biggest union backers, the SEIU, has in recent days been buying digital ads and sending mailers which boost Gorbea and attack McKee.
“I’m proud to have the support of so many great men and women in the labor movement here in Rhode Island supporting my candidacy for governor,” Gorbea told 12 News.
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