PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A veteran state lawmaker is making another push to change how Rhode Island fills a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office, as speculation continues about whether Gov. Gina Raimondo could step down early to take a job in the incoming Biden administration.
If Raimondo were to leave office, Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would take over as governor to finish out the final two years of her current term. Raimondo has downplayed her interest in joining President-elect Biden’s Cabinet — and on Tuesday she told 12 News she’s had no outreach from his transition team — but some Washington pundits have put her on their short lists of potential picks.
In an interview Monday with 12 News, McKee said he is ready if that were to happen.
“That’s been the top job constitutionally of our office, is to be prepared in that unusual event where a governor moves out of that office and the lieutenant governor moves in,” McKee said. “It could happen, but it would be unusual,” he added.
If McKee were to ascend to the top job, it would in turn leave his current position vacant — a situation that hasn’t happened since 1997, when then-Lt. Gov. Robert Weygand, a Democrat, left office after winning a seat in Congress.
Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed fellow Republican Bernard Jackvony to finish out Weygand’s term, triggering a court fight with the state Senate, which was then presided over by the lieutenant governor. While the state Supreme Court eventually sided with Almond, the justices suggested the General Assembly should clarify the procedure for filling the lieutenant governorship.
House Rules Committee Chairman Arthur “Doc” Corvese announced Tuesday he will reintroduce a bill in January that would require the full General Assembly to elect a new lieutenant governor, rather than let the governor fill the position unilaterally. Corvese’s bill has repeatedly passed the House before but never cleared the Senate.
“We’ve been aware of this loophole for more than two decades,” Corvese, D-North Providence, said in a statement. “It makes no sense to leave this question unanswered, particularly when there’s a simple solution that’s already established for all similar situations involving vacancy in this office.”
Corvese noted that there is a statute in place that says the Grand Committee — the formal name for a meeting of the entire General Assembly — can elect a replacement “should a lieutenant governor-elect become unable to serve,” but it is silent on what happens if a lieutenant governor leaves office early.
“The fact is, neither the Rhode Island Constitution nor the General Laws say what is supposed to happen if the lieutenant governor leaves office,” Corvese said. “There’s a provision for all the other general officers. There’s a law that says what to do if a lieutenant governor-elect can’t serve. There’s even a law that describes what to do if both the governor and the lieutenant governor are both vacant at once, but there is no law that applies just to a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.”
“In every one of those cases, the law says the General Assembly in Grand Committee is to elect a successor, so my bill enacts the same process for a vacancy of the lieutenant governor,” he added.
McKee — whose office has previously cited Jackvony’s 1997 appointment to explain how he would handle such a situation — was noncommittal about Corvese’s bill when asked his position Tuesday.
“This legislation provides an opportunity for the state to have a meaningful discussion about the constitutional connection between the governor and lieutenant governor and how to maximize that relationship for the taxpayers of Rhode Island,” McKee said, noting he supports having candidates for the two offices run together on a ticket.
Speculation has already begun about who McKee might appoint as lieutenant governor if Raimondo moves on, with Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and Middletown state Sen. Lou DiPalma among those who’ve been mentioned as potential candidates.
Common Cause Rhode Island, the state’s leading good-government group, has never taken a position on the Corvese measure, according to its executive director, John Marion.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.