PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Former CVS Health executive Helena Foulkes announced Wednesday she is entering next year’s Democratic primary for Rhode Island governor, adding a deep-pocketed business leader to an already crowded field of contenders seeking the job.
12 News first reported Tuesday night that Foulkes had decided to run in the primary, citing multiple people familiar with her thinking. On Wednesday morning, she sent a letter to family and friends confirming her candidacy and also released a video online.
“Like many of you, over the past 18 months I have been contemplating our shared future — as a family, a society, and a state,” Foulkes, 57, wrote in the letter. “The pandemic and years of Trumpian divisiveness forced us all to reflect upon our common humanity, even as our differences, real and perceived, worked to pull us apart.”
“This is a time of both great crisis and opportunity in the Ocean State, and I am eager to spearhead the change that must come; therefore, I am announcing my candidacy for governor of the State of Rhode Island,” she wrote.
On policy Foulkes offered no specifics, but said as governor she would seek to spur job growth, reduce regulations, deal with the effects of climate change, and improve public education.
A declaration of candidacy filed Wednesday with the R.I. Board of Elections lists Foulkes as a Narragansett resident. Her campaign treasurer is Cranston businesswoman Meredith Curren, who was a senior advisor to Raimondo in the governor’s office.
Foulkes — whose first name is pronounced “hull-EE-nuh” — has never run for elected office before and will need to introduce herself to voters and Democratic Party activists. But she will bring a formidable private-sector résumé to the race, including being named to Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business list.
Foulkes is the fifth Democrat to announce a challenge against incumbent Gov. Dan McKee, who ascended to the office in March when Gina Raimondo left midterm to join the Biden administration as U.S. commerce secretary. Also running are Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, and second-time gubernatorial candidate Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz.
No Republican has kicked off a campaign for governor yet, but House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and former R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority Chairman Dave Darlington are both considering a run.
Foulkes is a member of Providence’s prominent Buonanno family and a mother of four. A Harvard University graduate, she currently leads the Ivy League school’s Board of Overseers. She is longtime friends with Raimondo, a fellow Democrat and Ivy League graduate.
“I am a lifelong Rhode Islander and proud Democrat,” she wrote in her announcement letter. “My father’s grandparents, the Buonannos, came here from Italy and settled on Federal Hill. My mother’s side is the Murphy family in Westerly.”
Politics runs in Foulkes’ family: she is the granddaughter of the late Connecticut U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, making former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd her uncle. Her late mother, Martha Buonanno, was longtime friends with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — they were college roommates — and Joe Biden attended Martha Buonanno’s wake in Providence in 2009 when he was vice-president. Her father, Bernie Buonanno Jr., is currently chairman of the R.I. Convention Center Authority.
Foulkes spent over two decades at CVS, Rhode Island’s largest company, where she rose to executive vice president and president of the CVS Pharmacy retail division. She played a prominent role in multiple headline-grabbing moves by CVS, including its decision to stop selling tobacco products and rebrand as “CVS Health,” as well as the creation of the ExtraCare loyalty program.
Foulkes left CVS in 2018 to run the Hudson’s Bay Co., which owns the Saks Fifth Avenue department store chain, but she left last year when the Canada-based company was taken private.
By entering the race for governor before the end of this calendar year, Foulkes will be able to collect donations of up to $1,000 from individual donors in both 2021 and 2022. She presumably will also bring significant personal wealth to the race due to her years as a high-paid executive; two years ago, her $29.4 million pay package at Hudson’s Bay drew a protest from some shareholders.
Foulkes is currently co-CEO of BrightSpark Capitol Corp., a so-called “special purpose acquisition company” that sought to raise $200 million earlier this year in order to buy promising consumer-focused companies in the health, wellness, and beauty sectors. She has also served on the board of directors of Home Depot since 2013, and earned $315,000 at the home-improvement chain last year.
At the State House, Foulkes served on former Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s transition team and was his initial vice-chair of the R.I. Economic Development Corporation. She resigned in May 2012 amid a dispute with Chafee over how he handled the collapse of 38 Studios, Curt Schilling’s video-game company, having co-authored a critical memo to Chafee about his leadership two months earlier.
Foulkes’ husband, Bill Foulkes, teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and has also had a business career. He has held various public positions in Rhode Island, including as a co-chair of then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s pension advisory panel in 2011 and later as chairman of the R.I. Council on Postsecondary Education. He was also on Gorbea’s transition team when she became secretary of state.
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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
Tim White contributed to this report.