WARWICK, R.I. — While Governor Gina M. Raimondo prepares to take the national stage, Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee on Thursday stepped onto a local one – at Chelo’s Hometown Bar & Grille, near the airport – emphasizing his experience as a mayor and his support for local decision-making.
McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, will become governor after Raimondo is confirmed by the US Senate as President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce, something he said he expects to happen by mid-February. During Thursday’s news conference, he said he plans to submit a proposed state budget as early as March 10, and he said he will be focused on the state’s COVID-19 response in the months ahead.
“I want you to know that we will work with all our 39 cities and towns, leave no one behind in our recovery, and build a stronger future for the people of the State of Rhode Island,” McKee said. “The slogan for this year is: Stay positive, test negative.”
Raimondo and McKee have rarely appeared or worked together, but McKee emphasized that he has been receiving briefings from state health, budget, and public safety officials in recent days.
“You should have every confidence that this will be a smooth transition,” he said. “My team is focused on COVID-19, streamlining vaccine distribution, and putting us on a path to recovery.”
McKee spoke from a small stage in a banquet hall at the Chelo’s on Post Road, explaining that his family has a longstanding relationship with the owners of the local restaurant chain.
“The Chelo family and my dad went to high school together,” he said. “When it came time to get into civic engagement, they worked together to open a Boys Club in our town.”
McKee, who has often struggled to get attention in the lieutenant governor’s position, cast Thursday’s event as an opportunity to introduce himself to Rhode Islanders as he prepares to become the state’s chief executive.
“My message to Rhode Island today is we are going to work through this together, and we will come out of this crisis stronger than when we went in,” McKee said. “I know I need to earn your trust and confidence, and I intend to do that.”
A native Rhode Islander, McKee, 69, said his family has run small businesses in Rhode Island for 100 years. And this will mark the fifth transition process, he said, recalling his tenure as Cumberland’s mayor.
“So I know the territory,” McKee said. “It’s a bigger jump, more people to deal with. But respecting people one-on-one applies when I was mayor and now.”
McKee, a Democrat, had been expected to run for governor in 2022 before Biden nominated Raimondo with two years left in her final term. And while McKee deflected questions about politics, North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi, a conservative Democrat, attended Thursday’s news conference, saying afterward that he hopes McKee will serve two years before winning the next two gubernatorial elections.
“I will do what I can to make sure he is successful and will be governor here for the next 10 years,” Lombardi said. “He can relate to the average taxpayer or resident. I just think he’s the right guy.”
During a news conference on Wednesday, Raimondo had reiterated her criticism of Pawtucket school officials for canceling in-person classes for the rest of the year because of the pandemic.
When asked if he shares Raimondo’s view, McKee said, “I believe that the local districts should be making their decisions and the state should be supporting those in any way that we can.”
He said he would expect local school officials to take into consideration information provided by the state Department of Education. “But they know their territory,” he said. “They know what’s going on.”
McKee championed the idea of mayoral academies in Rhode Island, and he noted that he has served on the board of Blackstone Valley Prep, a mayoral academy with some 2,000 students from Cumberland, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Lincoln.
“So I understand and we’ve been involved in hours and hours of conversations about the dilemma and the challenges that local districts have,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to get as many kids in the classroom as you can.”
McKee said students are losing hundreds of hours of learning time right now because of the pandemic. “It doesn’t matter if you are high income, low income, moderate income,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a minority family, not a minority family. It doesn’t if you are going to a district’s public school or a charter school or a private school.”
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has suggested it might be time for a “pause” on charter school expansion in Rhode Island. When asked if he agreed or disagreed, McKee said his focus will be on municipal education departments like the one he created in Cumberland. “As far as the General Assembly goes, I’m not looking to expand charters,” he said. “I’m looking to improve schools.”
McKee said his team will have discussions with all members of Raimondo’s Cabinet and department heads before deciding whether to keep them on board.
“I don’t expect a major turnover,” he said. “We have had good relationships with department heads throughout the state of Rhode Island. They are not going to be strangers to me, and I’m not going to be strangers to them when we actually sit down and talk.”
McKee said that based on conversations with General Assembly leaders, he expects to choose his successor as lieutenant governor. But legislators have submitted a variety of proposals that would give the House and Senate the power to make or at least confirm the appointment, or that would trigger a special election. And he said he would not mount a legal challenge if the Assembly enacted one of those proposals.
McKee said he has not made a decision about who he would select as the next lieutenant governor, though several people have expressed interest.
“Certainly, the rumors are flying out there,” he said. “We invite more and more people to send us a letter if they are interested. We will have a vetting process on that. We will look at who is applying and we will give them the respect they deserve because many of the names out there are good friends. But in the end, you pick one.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus urged McKee to appoint a woman to be the next lieutenant governor.
“In Rhode Island, women make up over 51 percent of the population, yet upon Governor Raimondo’s departure, only one in nine – a mere 11 percent – of top federal and state elected officials will be women,” the group said in a statement. “We cannot expect to achieve the best policies when more than half of Rhode Islanders are not represented in top leadership nor involved in important policy making.”