PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee says he’s been working for the last six years to make sure he’s prepared to become the next governor of Rhode Island.
That statement will now be put to the test: 12 News has confirmed Gov. Gina Raimondo has accepted an offer to join President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet as U.S. commerce secretary — meaning she will leave Rhode Island halfway through her second and final four-year term as governor, assuming she wins confirmation by the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.
Raimondo’s departure means McKee, a fellow Democrat, will ascend from a political position with little power to one that oversees most of state government. He will control everything from putting together Rhode Island’s $10-billion-plus state budget to making tough public health decisions amid a coronavirus pandemic that’s contributed to the deaths of more than 1,900 Rhode Islanders.
“Safety and health is the top priority,” McKee last week said during a taping of WPRI 12’s “Newsmakers.”
Despite having served as second-in-command for the last six years, the 69-year-old McKee still isn’t as well known in Rhode Island as some other political leaders – in part because of the No. 2 position’s lack of power. Unlike most other states, where lieutenant governors preside over the state Senate, the job in Rhode Island has long been criticized for serving little purpose since that role was eliminated here.
Cool Moose Party founder Bob Healey Jr., who died in 2016, famously received nearly 40% of the vote in the 2010 race for lieutenant governor on a platform of abolishing the office.
“This is the most useless appendage of government,” Healey told The New York Times at the time.
Yet Raimondo’s decision to leave Rhode Island halfway through her second term underscores the job’s most important function: to be ready to lead if the current governor cannot.
“My job has always been to be prepared in that unlikely scenario,” McKee explained last month. “I am prepared.”
McKee, who will become Rhode Island’s 76th governor, is seen as somewhat less liberal than Raimondo and is likely to come into office with a different set of priorities – including the championing of small business interests and charter school education.
But how quickly his agenda takes shape could depend on how fast the public health crisis is contained and whether he’s willing to upend the status quo so close to the 2022 gubernatorial election, when he’s indicated he expects to run for the job in his own right.
“You’re going to see a little more moderate administration than the Raimondo administration,” 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’ll be too conservative. He’s looking ahead to 2022 and being the active governor puts him in a good position. If he goes too conservative it could hurt him.”
McKee’s political career started in his hometown of Cumberland, where he and his wife Susan raised their two children, Kara and Matthew.
McKee was first elected to Cumberland Town Council in 1992 and would later go on to serve as mayor for 11 non-consecutive years beginning in 2000 when he beat incumbent Francis Gaschen.
The campaign focused in part on Gaschen, who reportedly sold his used furniture and books to the town for nearly $10,000. (Gaschen, who later paid back the money, argued the assets were independently appraised and sold at a lower-than-appraised value.)
McKee’s initial success, however, didn’t last long. He lost his bid for re-election in 2004 to David Iwuc, who successfully characterized McKee as someone who was shirking his mayoral duties while attending Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
McKee won the office back in 2006 and successfully held on to it until he was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. During that time, the Democrat received credit for restoring the town’s credit rating, which had dropped into junk-bond territory in 2001.
But his biggest and arguably most controversial achievement was tied to his work advancing charter schools in Rhode Island – an effort set into motion shortly after he was elected to office for the second time.
“For too long we have accepted the popular thinking that learning can only happen in schools and that the town government’s role in education is strictly a function of the budget,” McKee said after taking office in January 2007, according to an article in The Providence Journal. “The mayor has the responsibility to help find new ways for children to learn and new ways to fund that effort.”
Nearly a year later, McKee proposed opening a regional public-school system that would be supervised by mayors from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln, Pawtucket and Woonsocket. The proposal eventually turned into Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, a charter school system that’s helped define McKee and his political career.
Charter schools and unions
McKee successfully lobbied the General Assembly in 2008 to pass legislation allowing mayoral academies, a controversial achievement in Rhode Island education that’s pitted public-sector unions against him ever since.
By 2009, Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School launched with nine teachers, two full-time staff and 76 kindergartners. Fast forward to today, and Blackstone Valley Prep claims 2,100 students and 300 teachers, leaders and staff across six schools.
McKee, who continues to serve on the school’s Board of Directors, remains an adamant proponent of charter schools. When the R.I. Department of Education took over the failing Providence public school system in 2019, McKee said charter schools – like Achievement First in Providence – should expand enrollment.
“I’m not all-in that charter schools are the be-all, end-all,” McKee said during a 2019 interview with 12 News. “But look at Achievement First. It was considered the top school in that age group in all of Rhode Island last year. Those kids are coming from the same neighborhoods as kids that are in schools in Providence with sufficiency of 10% or less.”
His support for charter schools has turned the state’s largest public sector unions against him over the years. But their opposition has failed to block McKee’s political rise.
During his re-election campaign for mayor in 2008, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals sent out direct mailings and paid for TV ads claiming McKee was destroying public education. He beat Iwuc again with 64% of the vote.
After beating incumbent lieutenant governor Ralph Mollis and state Rep. Frank Ferri in a three-way Democratic primary in 2014, many Rhode Island unions took the unusual step of backing the Republican nominee, Catherine Taylor, in the general election. McKee beat Taylor with about 54% of the vote.
Four years later, McKee faced a tough primary challenge from progressive Democrat Rep. Aaron Regunberg, and this time found himself fighting against not only most of the state’s unions but the rising left wing of his own party. Regunberg even secured the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Still, McKee maintained the support of fellow top elected Democrats in Rhode Island, and made the case that he was more ready than Regunberg to take over if Raimondo left partway through her term. McKee won by roughly 2,500 votes, taking 51%.
McKee’s tenuous relationship with unions will now be tested in a new way, as thousands of members are suddenly becoming part of his workforce. Fleming said working to improve his relationship with the unions could go a long way toward helping his chances to getting elected in 2022.
“It gives him something to work on over these two years – to try and mend some fences,” Fleming said.
A McKee administration
The biggest immediate challenge facing the McKee administration will be the coronavirus public health crisis.
Rhode Islanders continue to become infected at high rates each day, and hospital workers have been treating hundreds of COVID-19 patients nonstop for months. At the same time, logistics surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine rollout are likely to become increasingly complicated and controversial as inoculations expand beyond hospital workers and long-term care facilities.
Inside state government, McKee will also be responsible for putting together a budget proposal for fiscal 2021-22, due in March, and he will have to decide how to run his administration. Rumors ahead of Raimondo’s departure caused a lot of hand-wringing among state employees worried about job security under a McKee administration.
But Fleming said the incoming governor would be hard pressed to make too many personnel changes, in part because the state needs to find its way through the pandemic and widespread shakeups could disrupt that effort.
Too many changes could also hurt his election chances next year, Fleming added, as McKee and other interested candidates will likely start looking for support when more serious campaigning begins this fall. (McKee hasn’t formally announced yet, but he has told 12 News that it’s his intention to run.)
“You don’t want to get too many people upset against you,” Fleming said. “He’s going to have to try and build coalitions if he wants to run for 2022.”
One job that will most certainly become open, however, is lieutenant governor. McKee has the authority to choose who fills his position and politicians are already jockeying behind the scenes for support.
Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, and former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa have both expressed interest in the position, and it’s possible McKee allies from his days as mayor are in the mix. Names floated include Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena and North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he went with one of the mayors,” Fleming said.
It’s also possible McKee picks a member of the business community, as his background and most recent work has revolved around small business. In 1986, McKee and his brothers took over McKee Brothers Oil from their father. The business has been in the family for more than a century and McKee still serves as its vice president, according to his most recent ethics filing.
Since becoming lieutenant governor, McKee has spent much of his time promoting and advocating on behalf of small businesses. During the pandemic, he’s used the office as a bully pulpit to call for greater support for the business community, oftentimes criticizing Raimondo for not being flexible and responsive to the needs of owners.
When asked about his greatest achievement as lieutenant governor, McKee pointed to his support of the business community, namely during the pandemic.
“That’s probably the highlight,” he said.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.