‘I need to earn your trust’: McKee talks COVID-19, education in first solo appearance as incoming governor

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s incoming governor says responding to the coronavirus pandemic will be his top priority once he takes office, but he’s also signaling municipalities could have greater control over decision-making when it comes to issues like education.

In his first solo press conference since President-elect Biden picked Gov. Gina Raimondo to become his U.S. commerce secretary, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee gave Rhode Islanders their first glimpse of what a McKee administration might look like after Raimondo exits for Washington.

The 69-year-old Cumberland Democrat, who was first elected lieutenant governor in 2014, has promised a smooth transition and said his main focus will be responding to the public health crisis. Rhode Island is averaging about 1,000 new coronavirus infections each day and nearly 2,000 people have died with the virus since March.

“I know I need to earn your trust and your confidence and I intend to do that,” McKee said Thursday morning at Chelo’s restaurant in Warwick. (Explaining the choice of venue, he said he is longtime friends with the family that owns the local restaurant chain.)

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It remains unclear when exactly McKee will take over the state’s top job, as Raimondo must first earn U.S. Senate confirmation, but he’s hoping it could happen by mid-February. (Others have said it could be in March or April.) But McKee stressed that there’s still a lot to figure out, as he works to get up to speed on a COVID-19 response strategy that he’s mostly been shut out of until now.

The relationship between McKee and Raimondo has been fraught in recent months, with McKee complaining publicly about not being involved enough in the response effort. McKee said he plans to keep the governor’s COVID-19 response team intact and doesn’t envision “major turnover” in other cabinet positions, though he declined to comment on any specific personnel decisions yet.

However, he did suggest that municipalities could be getting more power over decision-making when it comes to coronavirus-related issues, including whether students should learn in-person or virtually — a hot topic this week after Pawtucket school leaders voted to keep most students learning remotely for the entire school year.

“I believe the local district should get the information that they should be getting, making decisions and the state should be doing everything they can to support those decisions,” McKee said.

While McKee said his ultimate goal is to get as many students in classrooms as possible, the tone he struck was already a departure from Raimondo, who has publicly battled with school districts that have moved away from in-person learning.

The lieutenant governor, who previously served 11 years as Cumberland mayor, has a close relationship with many municipal leaders and small business owners. He’s also a major proponent of charter schools, having helped create the Blackstone Valley Prep mayoral academies in northern Rhode Island.

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When asked whether he’d push to expand charter schools, McKee said he would focus instead on supporting municipal education departments, mirroring an initiative he pushed while serving as mayor.

“I’m not looking to expand charters, I’m looking to improve schools,” he said, though he did bring up Blackstone Valley Prep several times during the news conference.

McKee gave some indication on where he stands regarding vaccine distribution, noting that he wants teachers and school personnel to be prioritized, but said he would follow the science to make decisions as he continues talking with the Health Department’s team.

“In order for us to get the economy back, we have to get the schools back, so that means that we certainly have to raise the priority level for teachers and school personnel,” McKee said.

In addition to the pandemic, the first major issue facing McKee will be putting together a $10-billion-plus state budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

McKee said he’s already met with the state’s budget officials, legislative leaders, and anticipates submitting the tax-and-spending plan to lawmakers by March 10. (The date isn’t certain considering his inauguration date isn’t set yet, particularly since Raimondo said Wednesday she plans to continue to lead the state until the “moment” she is confirmed to Biden’s cabinet.)

McKee will be forced to balance a budget at a time when the state is facing a yawning deficit. The R.I. Public Expenditure Council this week estimated the deficit totals $514 million, projecting it would balloon further once one-time revenue from federal aid expires in the coming years.

“While there is a great deal of uncertainty connected with the state’s budget situation for FY 2022, the state faces at the outset a very challenging budget deficit of over $500 million,” RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase said in a statement. “This deficit gap likely will narrow through the availability of additional federal funding, but there will remain a stubborn gap between the state’s revenues and expenditures that will need to be eventually reconciled.”

McKee said he’d like to “pin down the number” of the deficit first before commenting on any potential spending cuts.

McKee said he’s receiving support from Raimondo, but it’s difficult to tell what role the sitting governor is playing in the transition effort. While dealing with her own planning efforts tied to the Biden administration, Raimondo has offered little in the way of public comment since Christmas, and it appears she and other Biden cabinet picks are under restrictions not to speak to the press.

The governor refused to answer any questions during or after her own pandemic news conference Wednesday, and she hasn’t done so for more than three weeks now. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Biden’s pick for labor secretary, likewise dodged questions during a Boston COVID-19 briefing Thursday morning.

The silence from the governor, amid a raging pandemic, evoked sharp criticism from James Bessette, president of the Rhode Island Press Association.

“The media – and the governor’s constituency – deserves and expects better from the governor from now until she departs Rhode Island for Washington,” Bessette said in a statement.

McKee nonetheless expressed confidence that he would be able to put together a balanced budget, saying he’s already been in communication with House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.

The lieutenant governor also said he supports legalizing recreational marijuana, which now has the backing of Senate leadership, and could provide some revenue boost to the state.

Unlike Raimondo, however, McKee said he’s inclined to support private retail shops — like in Massachusetts — rather than state-run operations. The latter idea, which would look more like the state-run liquor stores in New Hampshire, was proposed by Raimondo last year but has faced skepticism from lawmakers.

To help with the transition of power, McKee has appointed Joseph Rodio Jr. to serve as his transition committee chair. Rodio has served as the lieutenant governor’s legal counsel for most of his two terms. He has not yet named the rest of his transition team. (North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi, who attended Thursday’s news conference, indicated he’s talked with McKee about helping with the transition.)

In addition to taking over most state operations, McKee is also expected to pick the next lieutenant governor once that position becomes vacant due to his own swearing-in as governor.

Numerous people have thrown their hats in the ring to be considered, while at the same time a number of lawmakers have called for the General Assembly to have more power over the appointment process. McKee said he currently believes he will end up making the selection, but added he wouldn’t challenge the General Assembly if legislators pass a law changing the process.

Of those who have expressed interest, McKee said, “We’ll have a vetting process on that.”

He said while the decision on a new lieutenant governor is important, but not a top priority for him compared to responding to the pandemic and improving the economy — efforts that have gone into hyperdrive since learning he’d be taking over as governor.

“What Zoom call am I headed to now?” he asked aides after ending the news conference.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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