EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Dan McKee kicked off his campaign for a full term on Tuesday, urging voters to give him four more years in the job as he seeks to fend off four primary challengers.

“We’re here this morning for something that’s personal to me: the future of Rhode Island and the future of the great people who live in our state,” McKee said during a morning news conference in East Providence at the North American headquarters of igus Inc., a Germany-based plastics company.

A year ago McKee was halfway through his second term as lieutenant governor when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo accepted a job in President Biden’s cabinet. Her decision instantly vaulted McKee from a low-profile position to the most visible job in Rhode Island politics.

Now McKee, 70, is seeking the job in his own right. He used his kickoff speech to argue he has provided Rhode Island with steady leadership after “a unique and challenging transition” between him and Raimondo, saying that when he came into office he was focused on “right-sizing a listing ship.”

“The state was taking on water, that’s what that means — and it was,” McKee told reporters. “Our economy was struggling. We were at the peak of the pandemic. We had the lowest vaccination rates in the country. And our schools, there were a big question mark about getting our kids back in the classroom.”

(Story continues below the video.)

East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva, who introduced McKee, recalled that a Harvard University analysis gave Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout an “F” grade in the weeks before McKee took office, as he criticized the “glacial pace” of getting shots administered up until that point.

“He stepped in at a tough moment for our state,” DaSilva said of McKee, adding that the governor “demonstrated strong leadership to put us on the right track and get our state moving again in the right direction.”

McKee pointed to his recently released budget plan as a blueprint for his vision for Rhode Island, highlighting its proposals to spend roughly $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. He also pointed out that Rhode Island now leads the country in vaccinations and its economy leads the Northeast in the Moody’s “Back-to Normal” Index.

“I’m running to deliver an economic recovery from the pandemic that improves our state’s economy for this generation of Rhode Islanders and the next,” he said. “I believe Rhode Islanders have a right to the security of a good-paying job with a fair wage, a right to know their schools are delivering for their kids, and an equitable opportunity to live in a safe home and in a safe community. And they’re right in wanting their government to have its finances in order, just like they do.”

Along with DaSilva, the governor was joined by the mayors of Cranston, Woonsocket, North Providence and Johnston, as well as the town administrators of Lincoln and Bristol — a reminder of the high priority McKee has placed on collaboration between state and municipal leaders. (Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, a Republican who has said he is considering a run for governor himself, said he was there to be with his fellow mayors but was not making an endorsement.)

“When you are a mayor, you bring a different approach,” DaSilva said. “It is hands-on, and you really focus on getting the details right. He put that mayoral experience that he had to work from the moment he took office.”

Also on hand at the event was Democratic Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who McKee picked to fill his old job and he has described as a partner in governing. Asked whether he and Matos would be running as a ticket during the campaign, McKee said, “Well, there’s a reason I invited Sabina here today. I think it speaks for itself.”

Matos told 12 News she expects to launch her own campaign for a full term in mid-March, but argued that under the state constitution and current law, there is no way for her and McKee to run as a ticket. (Former Secretary of State Matt Brown’s campaign has taken a different view, sharing joint expenses with his designated lieutenant-governor running mate, state Sen. Cynthia Mendes.)

“Today is his day,” Matos said, adding, “I’m going to be supporting him and he’s going to be supporting me.”

In response to questions from reporters, McKee shied away from making direct comparisons with his four primary opponents — Brown, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz. But he said he expects to meet them for debates ahead of the Sept. 13 primary.

“Once we know who everybody is, once we all declare, certainly that’s what I expect to do this summer,” McKee said.

(Story continues below the video.)

McKee’s campaign said he chose igus for his launch event because he sees the company as a pandemic success story. The maker of engineered plastic components has added 108 employees at its East Providence facility in recent years, bringing its workforce to roughly 350. Gerry Fournier, vice president of operations, led elected officials on a tour of the facility and said they plan to expand further.

The governor’s office said McKee would hold a series of public appearances in his official role later Tuesday, participating in a ribbon-cutting for the restored Park Theatre in Cranston, a vaccination clinic in Providence, a bill signing at a Johnston school, and a small business tour in Woonsocket.

McKee’s announcement follows a month that shook up the Democratic primary for governor, with General Treasurer Seth Magaziner abandoning his campaign to instead run for Congressman Jim Langevin’s seat after the latter unexpectedly announced his retirement.

McKee had the most cash among the five remaining Democratic gubernatorial candidates as of Dec. 31, with $844,000 on hand. But Foulkes was on pace to catch up fast, raising nearly $1 million in the final three months of 2020, leaving her with $831,000 on hand.

Among the other Democratic hopefuls, Gorbea had $770,000 on hand, while Brown had $38,000, and Muñoz had $3,000.

(Story continues below the video.)

Brown’s campaign blasted the incumbent in a fundraising email on Tuesday afternoon, saying: “One year of Governor McKee has been disastrous, four years would be devastating.”

No Republican candidates for governor have announced so far, but at least two — David Darlington, former R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority chairman, and Ashley Kalus, a businesswoman who recently moved to Newport — are considering entering the race.

On the campaign staffing side, McKee has hired the consulting firm SKDK, as well as David Binder Research for polling, LB Strategies for fundraising, and Rising Tide Interactive for digital. His campaign manager, Brexton Isaacs, previously worked for congressional candidates in New York and Ohio.

Pandemic has dominated tenure so far

McKee took office as Rhode Island’s 76th governor last March, and has spent much of his first year in office dealing with the pandemic. He presided over a successful vaccination drive, with Rhode Island consistently ranked among the states with most heavily vaccinated populations, but he also faced criticism this winter for his administration’s early response to the omicron variant.

Outside of the pandemic, McKee and his advisers have been heavily focused on how the state will use its American Rescue Plan Act funds. An initial allocation of $119 million was approved in January — mainly for business supports, social services and housing — and McKee’s recently proposed budget outlines a suite of initiatives for using the remaining $1 billion.

The administration has also dealt with controversies in its first year, including the resignation of McKee’s first chief of staff over his involvement in the development of a wetlands property in Cumberland and a lucrative education contract awarded to a firm with ties to one of the governor’s key advisers. The attorney general is investigating both matters.

Born and raised in his hometown of Cumberland, McKee graduated from Cumberland High School and Assumption College, later earning a master’s at Harvard, as well. He spent the first decades of his career working in real estate, running a Woonsocket fitness club he co-founded with his father, and assisting with his family’s oil company. He was also heavily involved with local community groups, notably the Boys and Girls Club.

In his kickoff speech, McKee emphasized the formative influence of his father, who died in 1986. “You cannot fully understand my story unless you understand the story of my hero, my dad,” McKee said. “I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. He was a family man, a small business owner, a military veteran of World War II, and a public servant.”

After serving on Cumberland’s town council in the 1990s, town voters elected McKee mayor in 2000. Defeated for re-election in 2004, he mounted a comeback two years later, then continued to lead the town after that until his election as lieutenant governor. As mayor he became known statewide for supporting the growth of public charter schools in Rhode Island.

In 2014, McKee won a three-way Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, then easily defeated a Republican opponent to win the job. Four years later, he narrowly survived a progressive primary challenge from then-state Rep. Aaron Regunberg — a contest that, it turned out, wound up indirectly choosing the state’s next governor.

McKee and his wife, Susan, met as high school students in Cumberland, where they continue to reside. The couple has two adult children, Matt and Kara. All of them were on hand for the announcement, along with McKee’s sister.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.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

Steph Machado contributed to this report.