PROVIDENCE – For a job that leaves you one heartbeat (or presidential cabinet appointment) from the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor of Rhode Island is easy to overlook.
Compared to the other statewide elected positions, the office has the tiniest budget and the smallest staff. In the eyes of much of Rhode Island’s political establishment, the job doesn’t carry much influence, either. Last year, for example, Governor Gina Raimondo and Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee didn’t have a single face-to-face meeting.
But McKee has used the low profile of the office to his advantage. With few statutory responsibilities, the former Cumberland mayor has carved out a niche as the voice of the state’s 39 cities and towns. If Raimondo has had little say to him or about him, most mayors can’t praise him enough.
“Dan knows that everything trickles down to the cities and towns,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena. “He’s always stayed close to the mayors.”
As he prepares to become Rhode Island’s 76th governor once Raimondo is confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden’s commerce secretary, observers say his success over the next two years will depend heavily on how much he can leverage his knowledge and experience with local governments to address broader statewide concerns, like health care, the budget, and economy.
“As he takes on the top job, his focus will need to transition from that of a mayor to a governor,” said state Senator Ryan Pearson, a Democrat who served on the Cumberland School Committee when McKee was mayor.
McKee, 69, graduated from Assumption College in 1973 and earned master’s degree from the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2005. He ran his family’s heating oil company and several other small businesses while serving on the Cumberland Town Council in the 1990s. He ran for mayor and lost in 1998, but won the office two years later. He lost the mayor’s office in 2004, but won it back in 2006 and remained mayor until 2014, when he was elected lieutenant governor.
As mayor, McKee was best known for his role in education.
His biggest success was convincing state lawmakers to create mayoral academies, which are charter schools that have a mayor as chairperson of their board. He helped establish Blackstone Valley Prep, a high-performing network of schools that now have more than 2,100 students from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln, and Pawtucket. Similar mayoral academies have also opened in Providence and Woonsocket.
His support for charter schools had led most public employee unions to support his Democratic primary opponents for lieutenant governor in in 2014 and 2018, but he’s undefeated in statewide elections. He has already said he intends to run for governor in 2022.
McKee was also an advocate for a statewide education formula, which guaranteed more than $1 billion dollars in state aid to public schools over the last decade.
“What I admire most about him is he is someone who leads with empathy, he cares deeply about local communities in Rhode Island, and he never hesitates to engage those local communities,” said Mike Magee, who founded the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies with McKee and is now the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national nonprofit that places reform-minded education professionals in district superintendent and state commissioner’s jobs all over the country.
Magee said that McKee has a strong grasp of the way federal and state policy gets implemented locally, and he knows that building consensus is the best approach.
“He wants to know what regular folks think,” Magee said.
Raimondo hasn’t always had the same reputation.
She became a national star in Democratic circles before getting elected governor because of her effort to reform Rhode Island’s pension system when she was state treasurer, and she’s been seen as a decisive leader ever since.
Pearson, the state senator, said Raimondo is known for focusing on “macro-economic issues,” like fixing most of the state’s bridges. She has also pushed big-picture policies, like offering free community college to all high school graduates.
During the pandemic, that approach helped her approval ratings soar. But she has also faced criticism from small-business owners who say she hasn’t listened to their pleas to provide more financial help; she was also dismissive of McKee as he called for more support for the small-business community. She and McKee only started talking last week, after she accepted Biden’s offer to join his administration.
As a sign of continuity, McKee has pledged to retain the majority of Raimondo’s COVID-19 response team intact, which includes Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
But McKee has made it clear privately to municipal leaders and small business owners that he intends to implement more of an open-door policy once he’s sworn in. He has already named Joseph Rodio Jr., a well-known attorney with an expertise in local government and labor, as chairman of his transition team.
Pearson said McKee’s success will depend on how much he’s willing to get out of his comfort zone.
“He’s going to need to expand his network to get advice,” Pearson said.
Others say McKee is well-positioned for success.
With another round of stimulus money likely to flow from Biden’s administration, McKee may have the ability to put off some of the state’s financial challenges until after the pandemic. He is expected to make vaccination strategy and support for small businesses the center piece of the first few months of his administration.
Gary Sasse, a former state director of administration to Republican Governor Donald Carcieri, said McKee has the ability to focus on macro issues like Raimondo while also thinking about the best interests of cities and towns.
“A state administration that views cities and towns as partners should mean more efficient and effective delivery of public services,” Sasse said.
Paul Tencher, a veteran Democratic political operative who served as chief of staff to former Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, said it’s always difficult to go from such an obscure job to governor, but McKee’s experience as a mayor could pay off.
When you’re an executive, Tencher said, you build the muscle memory to make decisions. And McKee’s parochial nature could make him the right governor at the right time.
“If Gina was our state’s mom, he’s like Rhode Island’s dad,” Tencher said.