PROVIDENCE — Fans of college basketball just filled out their NCAA tournament brackets on Selection Sunday. But for fans of Rhode Island politics, the real March Madness involves handicapping this year’s unusual lieutenant governor’s contest.
Governor Daniel J. McKee is poised to pick his successor as lieutenant governor now that he has replaced Gina M. Raimondo, who left the governor’s office to become President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce. The state is not holding a special election. Rather, McKee invited people to apply via his transition website, and he will pick his successor.
So far, McKee has 81 applicants to choose from – an even bigger field than the 68 teams invited to the NCAA’s Big Dance. Any applicant who requests an interview gets one, and interviews began last week, spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said Friday. No date has been set for the selection, she said.
But observers of the political game are already penciling in their picks for the Final Four, and the potential for a Bracket Buster certainly exists, given that the applicants include one high school student, two college students, and a comedian who took part in a Cranston mayoral debate while wearing a hot dog costume.
“This is turning out to be the Rhode Island Gong Show,” said Steven Frias, the Republican National Committeeman for Rhode Island.
Frias urged McKee, a Democrat, to leave the lieutenant governor’s position open. “It’s an unnecessary job right now,” he said. “People know this, so who does it attract? Ambitious politicians looking to get a statewide profile, full-time students, and a comedian like Adam Carbone, who dressed up as a hot dog.”
Frias thinks the most likely choices are Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, former Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, state Senator Louis P. DiPalma, and Democratic National Committeewoman Elizabeth Beretta-Perik.
But Frias said his Final Four would be: “1. Don’t fill it. 2. Adam Carbone, because at least he will make us laugh. 3. Channel 12 meteorologist T.J. Del Santo, because he has the highest TV ratings and can help the state do weather forecasting, 4. Aaron Regunberg, because he actually got the most votes of anyone on the list for lieutenant governor (in the 2018 Democratic primary vs. McKee) and may have inspired students by showing that lieutenant governor is a great entry-level job after college.”
Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, joked that he thought the lieutenant governor selection had been made when he saw black smoke rising over Providence the other day. “But it was just a submarine on fire,” he said.
Walsh said that while 81 people have applied for the job, the serious contenders probably include a much smaller group led by current or former elected and party officials. He noted that two prime time players – Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner – chose not to apply since they are probably going to run against McKee in the 2022 governor’s race.
But aside from them, Walsh’s Elite Eight would include Matos, Diossa, DiPalma, Beretta-Perik, Representatives Anastasia P. Williams, Grace Diaz, and Robert D. Phillips, and former Representative Joanne Giannini. He expects the final to come down to Matos vs. DiPalma.
The list of applicants includes accomplished professionals such as John J. “Jack” Partridge, senior counsel at the Partridge, Snow & Hahn law firm in Providence. A Republican-turned-independent, he is a Harvard Law School graduate and author of crime novels such as “Under Blood Moons.”
Walsh said, “No disrespect to anyone else who has applied, but having your name on the ballot or involved in the party probably gets you through the maze.”
One key second-round question is whether an applicant is willing to essentially run on a ticket with McKee, and that shifts the analysis to what an applicant brings to the table politically.
Matos, for example, checks a lot of boxes as a Latina from voter-rich Providence. Diossa is Latino and, like McKee, a former mayor, but Central Falls is much smaller than Providence. DiPalma is a former Middletown Town Council member who chairs a Senate committee. All are Democrats, and while a Republican or independent might be qualified, they wouldn’t help McKee win a Democratic primary, Walsh said.
While this system of choosing a lieutenant governor has been criticized, Walsh said the process could help McKee identify future members of his administration or candidates for state boards and commissions. “There may be a benefit in that he has established a bench of folks interested in serving the state,” he said.
Providence College political science Professor Joseph Cammarano said McKee’s chances in the 2022 governor’s race will have much more to do with his performance than his choice of lieutenant governor.
“It’s only going to help at the margins,” he said. “The symbolism of appointing a woman or person of color would be overwhelmed by the presence of a woman or a person of color among the actual candidates for governor.”
Voters in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary are likely to have the option of voting for Gorbea, the first Latina elected to statewide office, or Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, the city’s second Latino mayor.
Cammarano said McKee would be better off keeping the lieutenant governor’s position vacant, thereby saving taxpayers more than $1 million. But his Final Four would include Matos, Diossa, Beretta-Perik, and Williams. He does not expect Carbone to be a bracket buster.
Carbone, 28, is a comedian and actor who ran for mayor of Cranston last year, saying that if he won he would create the Bagel and Cream Cheese Party as a way to “merge the best of every party together.” During a live-streamed debate, he wore a hot dog costume, saying, “Why am I running? Well, the city, frankly, is in a pickle.”
In applying to be lieutenant governor, Carbone wrote to McKee, saying, “Now, you may be asking what makes me qualified? My answer to that is – nothing. But I guarantee if selected Rhode Island has never seen anything like it.”
He said people are “sick of the same old, same old,” and need a laugh “during the sadness of 2020.” He told McKee, “You and I together will be the next Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker.”
Carbone told the Globe he went for an in-person interview with members of McKee’s team on Wednesday. He didn’t go dressed as a hot dog – he went dressed as a cowboy. The interviewers asked why he wanted to be lieutenant governor, and he replied, “Why not?”