PROVIDENCE — If Governor Gina M. Raimondo had left for Washington, that move would have catapulted Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee into the governor’s office for two years, giving rise to an intriguing question: Who would be the next lieutenant governor?
Presumably, McKee would have moved to appoint his successor in the lieutenant governor’s office. After all, in 1997 then-Governor Lincoln D. Almond appointed Bernard A. Jackvony to be lieutenant governor, filling the vacancy created when Robert A. Weygand became a congressman.
State House insiders speculated that McKee, a former Democratic Cumberland mayor, would have appointed a mayor such as Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena or Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, who is term limited and about to leave office.
On Thursday, Raimondo put an end to that speculation, saying, “I am not going to be President-elect Biden’s nominee for (Health and Human Services) secretary. My focus is right here in Rhode Island, as I have said. I am working 24/7 to keep Rhode Islanders safe and keeping our economy moving.”
In 1997, Almond’s appointment of Jackvony stirred controversy, prompting the Rhode Island Supreme Court to weigh in.
And now, Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, is poised to submit a bill, as he has in past years, that would allow the General Assembly to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.
“This is not a piece of legislation that I put in capriciously or because of the possibility that (Raimondo) is leaving,” Corvese told the Globe on Thursday, noting he submitted the bill each year from 2013 through 2017. “I did it because it came to my attention that the Constitution and the law are silent on this type of vacancy.”
Corvese said the state has laws allowing the House and Senate – meeting together as the Grand Committee – to select a replacement if a lieutenant governor-elect is unable to serve, or if other generals officers such as the treasurer and secretary of state are unable to serve, but there is no similar provision for lieutenant governor.
So he said he wants to close that “loophole.”
“I am not re-creating the wheel,” Corvese said. “This is not a power grab for the General Assembly.”
He said the House passed his bill three times, and the Senate never approved it. But now, he said, he is hoping to “fast-track” the bill through the House when the legislature begins its 2021 session on Jan. 5. If it’s approved quickly, the bill could become law before President-Elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, he said.
Almond’s 1997 appointment of Jackvony marked the first time since Rhode Island adopted a Constitution that someone had assumed the elected position of lieutenant governor via a gubernatorial appointment. While the Constitution provides no procedure for filling a lieutenant vacancy, it does give the governor authority to fill vacancies not otherwise provided for by the Constitution or law.
So when Weygand, a Democrat, left the lieutenant governor’s job to join Congress, Almond appointed Jackvony, a fellow Republican.
But Democratic Senate leaders submitted legislation that would allow the General Assembly to elect a lieutenant governor to serve the rest of Weygand’s term, and they asked the Supreme Court for guidance.
Senate leaders claimed such a law would be constitutional, while Almond and then-Republican Attorney General Jeffrey B. Pine argued it was unconstitutional.
In a unanimous advisory opinion, the high court said the General Assembly could adopt a new system for filling future lieutenant governor vacancies, but it could not make that system retroactive and apply it to the Weygand vacancy.