PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Tension between Gov. Gina Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has simmered throughout this winter’s drawn-out transition. Now it’s finally boiling over.
McKee unexpectedly announced Thursday morning that he would not attend the regularly scheduled weekly coronavirus briefing being held later in the day. While his office issued a statement suggesting his schedule was too busy, his advisers have privately made no secret of his frustration with the outgoing governor and her team.
It’s the latest sign of dysfunction at the highest levels of Rhode Island government, which for nearly two months now has been in limbo as Raimondo awaits confirmation as President Biden’s commerce secretary and McKee waits to take over — all in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders.
“What’s the old adage?” Bill Fischer, a longtime Democratic operative in Rhode Island, quipped on Twitter. “‘There can only be one governor at a time, but there can’t be zero governors at any one time.'”
Raimondo has not attended a coronavirus briefing in more than a month, and has only taken questions from reporters once in nearly two months, when she stopped outside the State House for a few minutes last week. While advisers insist she is still engaged in her duties as governor, she has also been spending time preparing to take over the U.S. Commerce Department.
Asked by 12 News last week why she wasn’t attending the briefings considering she is still in charge, Raimondo suggested she wanted to let McKee have the spotlight as he prepares to take over. She denied the widespread assumption that the Biden administration has urged her to keep a low profile until she is confirmed. She has also dismissed suggestions she should step down now.
“I can tell you I’m working as hard as I ever have as the governor,” Raimondo said.
As for McKee, she said, “He is drinking from a fire hose, to be sure, but he’s doing a great job, and his team is up for the task — and by the way, I’m here to do whatever he needs.”
McKee has mostly expressed public support for the Raimondo administration’s coronavirus policies during the transition period, including with a commitment to keep her coronavirus leadership team in place, including Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and R.I. National Guard Adjutant Gen. Christopher Callahan.
He has pushed back occasionally, notably on Jan. 23, when he reached out to reporters to suggest teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations — one day after the Health Department subcommittee guiding those decisions had proposed going in another direction. Later that week, though, McKee went along with a strategy that did not prioritize occupations.
On Monday, McKee again broke with the administration publicly by issuing a statement that criticized the pace of the state’s vaccine rollout, which federal data showed had been the slowest in the country for getting shots into arms. He spoke out after two of his potential rivals in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary — General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea — had already criticized the rollout.
“Rhode Island has much more work to do to get shots in arms quickly and efficiently,” McKee said in the statement. He declined interview requests that day, however, and he did not reiterate the criticism Wednesday when speaking to reporters at his first subsequent public event.
At the same time, Raimondo was apparently growing frustrated with the rising criticism about her administration’s vaccine rollout, which picked up steam after Harvard University gave the state an “F” grade late last week. Federal and state data has showed roughly 80,000 of Rhode Island’s doses were still unused as of early this week, or roughly one-third of the state’s allotment.
On Wednesday Raimondo appeared on Facebook Live with Alexander-Scott and Callahan to make the case that the process was on track and will speed up. Health officials say the number of daily inoculations should increase markedly with Thursday’s opening of two mass-vaccination facilities, and point out the state has not had a website meltdown comparable to what Massachusetts is experiencing.
“I want to recognize that there’s been a bit of frustration,” Raimondo said, adding, “I think you will start to see that things are going to begin to go faster in the coming weeks.”
It’s unclear to what extent McKee’s decision to avoid the briefing Thursday is a one-off move, versus a sign he is contemplating a more significant break with Raimondo’s coronavirus team. Alexander-Scott’s current five-year term as Health Department director does not expire until June 2025, after the R.I. Senate voted last summer to reappoint her to the job.
As a former Cumberland mayor and staunch advocate of municipal-level leadership, McKee has been pushing for the state’s 39 cities and towns to take a bigger role in administering vaccine doses. He has named Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, a confidante who is also a registered nurse, as co-chair of his COVID-19 advisory group; Polisena is one of six city and town leaders on the 20-person group.
Late Thursday, McKee’s office announced the advisory group will meet publicly via Zoom on Friday at 5 p.m, saying, “This meeting of the incoming governor’s advisors is not a COVID-19 briefing. It is a working discussion among advisors.”
Raimondo aides say McKee has declined this week to join multiple conference calls involving the state’s coronavirus leadership that he had previously been on, though they also said the governor and lieutenant governor have spoken multiple times.
“The lieutenant governor is participating as often as his transition schedule permits,” McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said in an email. “His chief of staff participates in every call.”
12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said it isn’t hard to read between the lines.
“By him being at the briefing — I mean, what’s he going to say?” Fleming said. “Whatever the Department of Health is saying may not be what he wants to do. So I mean, is he going to stand up there and say ‘yes, I agree with what they’re saying’? I think that’s why he’s probably trying to stay away from it.”
Still, he added, “I don’t think the general public is really up in arms at this time. But I think if this dragged on for another month or two, it could become a real problem.”
Steve Frias, one of Rhode Island’s Republican National Committee members, said the two look silly.
“The governor and the lieutenant governor are acting like middle school children,” Frias told 12 News. “Rhode Island politics is like Peter Pan’s Never Never Land: you never have to grow up.”
Not that tension between Raimondo and McKee is a new phenomenon.
The two Democrats have never been close, and McKee complained throughout 2020 that Raimondo had not brought him into her inner circle as she battled the pandemic. (When she invited him to the first coronavirus briefing after Biden nominated her, McKee pointed out it was his first time on the stage.) The governor and her advisers, for their part, have at times sounded dismissive of McKee over the years.
Nor is it the first time in Rhode Island when there has been little love lost between the governor and lieutenant governor, who are elected separately and do not run as a ticket, unlike in Massachusetts.
While Gov. Lincoln Chafee brought Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts into his administration to work on health care, his predecessor Don Carcieri infamously failed to tell Roberts when he was traveling to Iraq at the time of the “December Debacle” snowstorm in 2007. And Roberts’ predecessor as lieutenant governor, Charlie Fogarty, had wound up running against Carcieri and nearly defeating him in 2006.
For now, it’s still uncertain how much longer the governor’s office will be in limbo in Rhode Island.
The U.S. Senate is set to return from recess next week, and Sen. Jack Reed told 12 News over the weekend that he hopes Raimondo’s confirmation vote will be scheduled quickly once they get back. The assumption at the State House is that McKee should be in charge by the end of next week.
That said, many had similar assumptions earlier this month, only for the confirmation process to get derailed by the timing of President Trump’s second impeachment trial and opposition to Raimondo’s nomination from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas due to her noncommittal stance on the Chinese company Huawei.
Fleming noted that Raimondo’s job approval rating had never hit the 50% mark in public polling during most of her term, but soared past 70% in the early months of the pandemic as she won widespread plaudits for her leadership. He said he suspects her numbers have softened as her departure has dragged on.
“People really liked seeing her out there and they felt good about hearing the governor saying things are going to be OK and here’s what we’re doing,” Fleming said. “They haven’t heard that since December.”
Meanwhile, State House observers are still waiting for McKee to announce the names of the key appointees who will advise him in the governor’s office, including senior staff positions like his chief of staff, legal counsel and communications director. He will also need to fill multiple cabinet posts as more of Raimondo’s appointees announce they are stepping down once she exits.
McKee is expected to retain his current chief of staff in the lieutenant governor’s office, Tony Silva, in the same role in the governor’s office. Silva is a former Cumberland police chief who led the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles during Lincoln Chafee’s governorship.
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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
Brandon Truitt, Kim Kalunian and Eli Sherman contributed to this report.