PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s imminent rise to Rhode Island’s top job without winning it in an election highlights the immense power that can flow from the state’s No. 2 position in unusual circumstances.
Now, McKee is vetting who should replace him as lieutenant governor – a decision usually made by voters at the ballot box — and so far he’s deciding to keep the process secret, refusing to release applications from those seeking to succeed him as next in line for the governor’s office.
McKee publicized a website where he asked interested candidates for the No. 2 position to submit their applications by this past Tuesday at 5 p.m. After the deadline passed, Target 12 requested a copy of all applications and related documents.
But on Wednesday, McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi refused, saying, “We will not be releasing a list of lieutenant governor applicants.” (Palagi is both part of McKee’s transition team as well as a taxpayer-funded employee of his current office.)
Target 12 asked McKee’s office to cite a specific exemption under the state’s Access to Public Records Act that would shield these documents from being disclosed publicly.
Palagi ignored the request, saying instead that the transition team is “reviewing the submission and verifying the authenticity of each application.”
“The transition plans to release a list of candidates who are interviewed for the position,” she added.
Target 12 is filing a complaint with the attorney general’s office, arguing the lieutenant governor is unlawfully withholding public documents under APRA.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, argued Rhode Island voters should know who’s applying for such a potentially powerful job. Without that transparency, he added, Rhode Islanders will lose confidence in the process.
“Only through open and public process can we be confident that the most qualified candidate will be chosen,” Silverman said. “We need to know who’s applying so we can have a better understanding of why certain applicants were given interviews while others were not. This type of transparency is needed in all corners of government, but it’s especially crucial when so much power and influence is at stake.”
The prospect of landing such a high-profile position without having to win an election has spurred widespread interest. Several people have publicly discussed their interest in being appointed, including former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, Middletown state Sen. Louis DiPalma, R.I. Black Business Association President Lisa Ranglin, and former Pawtucket state Sen. Donna Nesselbush.
Others are presumably lobbying for the job behind the scenes.
During an interview with 12 News last week, McKee declined to say whether he had a short list of potential appointees, saying he wants the process be “quick but not in a hurry.” He also said he wants the position to be filled by someone who “can really work with me.”
McKee has long supported having the governor and lieutenant governor run for office together as a ticket — which happens in many others states, including Massachusetts — rather than separately.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is poised to become U.S. commerce secretary, kept McKee mostly at arm’s length during her six years in office, especially when it came to the state’s coronavirus response – much to McKee’s chagrin. Raimondo previously told 12 News she also thinks it should be a combined ticket.
The lieutenant governor said he’d like to choose someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on issues related to small business, education, “equity justice” and health policy.
“There are certainly people who are going to be more agreeable in terms of my feelings based on those things,” he said.
Meanwhile, McKee’s search for his own replacement is also getting pushback from Rhode Island Republican Party leaders, who continue to question why the state needs to fill a role with few duties and a roughly $1 million budget when there is a yawning budget deficit.
In a news release Thursday, GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki and Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias pointed back to 1997, the last time the lieutenant governor’s office became vacant. At that time, the governor was a Republican — Lincoln Almond — and Democrats in the Senate fought his effort to fill the job. (The vacancy had opened up after Lt. Gov. Robert Weygand, a Democrat, was elected to Congress halfway through his term.)
Frias noted that the Senate’s top three Democrats today — Dominick Ruggerio, Michael McCaffrey and Maryellen Goodwin — all supported a bill at the time that would have kept the office vacant, as did Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, then a state senator, who is now helping lead McKee’s selection process.
Frias quoted Jake McConnell, then the treasurer of the Rhode Island Democratic Party and today a federal judge, who said at the time: “Rhode Island taxpayers should not have to bear the full burden of funding for an office for an individual they did not elect and for an unknown agenda that they have not approved.”
Almond eventually appointed Bernie Jackvony as lieutenant governor, and his power to do so was upheld by the R.I. Supreme Court.
“What has changed?” Cienki said in a statement. “Nothing except the party affiliation of the governor who wants to make the appointment, and the party affiliation of person the governor would like to appoint.”
In response, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare accused Cienki of “proposing to ignore the will of the voters to pursue her own agenda.”
He cited the fact that voters have since adopted a constitutional amendment that codified the Senate confirmation process for a replacement lieutenant governor, as well as the fact that Rhode Island voters rejected the 2010 candidacy of Robert J. Healey for lieutenant governor when he ran on an explicit platform of abolishing the office.
“Since 1999, a succession of exceptional lieutenant governors, including Charlie Fogarty, Elizabeth Roberts and Dan McKee, have transformed the office into one that drives important public policy, and voters have recognized the importance of the work being undertaken by the lieutenant governor,” Pare said.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Ted Nesi and Tim White contributed to this report.