PROVIDENCE — During his inauguration ceremony on Sunday, Governor Daniel J. McKee called on Rhode Islanders to stay hopeful as they face the public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “We will get through this, together.”
Standing at the base of the marble steps on the south side of the State House, McKee spoke to a socially distanced crowd of roughly 100 people wearing face masks.
“We are one year into a once-in-a-century public health crisis,” he said. “Too many Rhode Islanders are struggling. Everyone has missed loved ones. Many have lost their job or lost a business they had built for decades. So many have lost friends and family members to this virus.”
But he said his top priority is mobilizing state government and working with all 39 cities and towns to get every Rhode Islander vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“Thankfully, the vaccines are here and we’re getting shots in arms,” McKee said. “We can see a light at the end of the tunnel. And there’s reason to have hope.”
He said his 92-year-old mother, Helen Willa McKee, had just received her second vaccine dose and was watching Sunday’s ceremony from home. “Hi, Mom!” he said, looking at the news cameras.
McKee, 69, is a Democratic former Cumberland mayor who has been lieutenant governor for the past six years. He is stepping in to serve as Rhode Island’s 76th governor now that former governor Gina M. Raimondo has become President Joe Biden’s secretary of Commerce. He will serve the remaining two years of her final four-year term, and he plans to run in the 2022 governor’s race.
McKee took the oath of office on Tuesday, soon after Raimondo formally resigned to join Biden’s Cabinet. But Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea administered a ceremonial oath Sunday as McKee’s wife, Susan McKee, held the family Bible.
Sunday’s ceremony also gave McKee a chance to deliver a message of hope after a year in which the pandemic has infected more than 128,000 Rhode Islanders and taken more than 2,500 of their lives, according to the latest state Department of Health data.
“Today, we move forward. Today is about our future,” McKee said. “In 2021, let’s stay positive and test negative.”
Henrietta White-Holder, founder and CEO of Higher Ground International, spoke during the ceremony, recounting how she had been hospitalized with COVID-19. She said she was buoyed by hearing The Miriam Hospital play the song “We are the Champions” whenever a COVID-19 patient was discharged.
“Despite the heartbreak around me, I held on to that song,” White-Holder said. “It provided me with hope that one day I, too, would go home.”
The song provided hope not only for patients but for the doctors, nurses, and staff members “to remind them there are happy endings,” she said.
During the ceremony, Major General Christopher P. Callahan, adjutant general of the Rhode Island National Guard, presented McKee with a silver gorget, a ceremonial piece of armor worn around the neck.
The gorget’s history as military armor can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when it was used to protect the face and neck, National Guard Major Dennis Pineault explained. By the 18th century, it had become a symbolic accessory worn by military leaders. Today, in Rhode Island, the gorget signifies that the governor is the captain general and commander-in-chief of the Rhode Island National Guard and militia units.
After the ceremony, McKee said he plans to soon appoint his replacement as lieutenant governor. Spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said 80 people have sent in applications for the job, and the interview process will begin in the coming week, though not all 80 will be interviewed.
People interested in the job were asked to submit a letter of interest to the McKee transition website by Feb. 2, but McKee’s team has continued accepting applications since then. The main contenders include Providence City Council president Sabina Matos and former Central Falls mayor James A. Diossa.
Those attending Sunday’s ceremony included US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative James R. Langevin. But Raimondo and US Representative David N. Cicilline were not seen at the ceremony. Raimondo, who was seen in Providence later in the day, said she had just returned from Washington, D.C.