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After 100 days in office, McKee is starting to show some swagger

The Rhode Island governor has led the state with the same “we’re all in this together” folksiness that made him a popular mayor of Cumberland

Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, pictured at the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday, said he has sought to be a “calming influence” at a time when tensions have been high.
Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, pictured at the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday, said he has sought to be a “calming influence” at a time when tensions have been high.Edward Fitzpatrick

Dan McKee marked his first 100 days as mayorof Rhode Island on Thursday with stops at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Lincoln, a bookshop in Westerly, a construction site in Providence, and a nonprofit in Central Falls.

And if a rare June snowstorm blankets Burrillville, you’ll almost certainly find him plowing Wallum Lake Road, too.

McKee is actually the governor, of course.

But he’s led the state with the same “we’re all in this together” folksiness that made him a popular mayor of Cumberland, and it seems to be resonating with a lot of folks. He’s even got House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio hosting a fund-raiser for him June 21, a move that didn’t go unnoticed among the other 2022 Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls.

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When we spoke on Wednesday (day 99 if you don’t count the night that he was sworn in to succeed former governor Gina Raimondo), McKee said he has sought to be a “calming influence” on the state at a time when tensions have been high.

So far, so good.

McKee seemed to trade Raimondo’s signature “Knock it off!” mantra for a more business-friendly “Open it up!” approach as the state skyrocketed up the national vaccination rankings. He’s helped 4,500 businesses secure $5,000 grants, and his biggest point of pride might be that he’s following through on a promise to have music in Newport this summer.

“We made the right call and that positioned us to reopen,” McKee said, referring to a decision to work closely with municipalities to vaccinate residents against COVID-19.

The Department of Health reports that 74.3 percent of adults ages 18 and older have received at least one vaccine shot, and McKee said he wants to bring that number closer to 90 percent.

McKee joked that he faced a “complicated” transition when Raimondo was nominated to be President Joe Biden’s Commerce secretary, and some of that real frustration was evident earlier this week, when he said the previous administration offered “fairy-tale” budget assumptions on the struggling Eleanor Slater Hospital.

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He’s had his own unforced errors, as well. The search for his lieutenant governor became too much of a reality show, but he and Sabina Matos have developed the strongest relationship that a governor and lieutenant governor have had in Rhode Island in generations.

“I was kind of asking people to just give us some time, and we’ll get it right,” McKee said about the first 100 days. “And I think we did.”

The hardest part of the job?

“The schedule,” he quickly offered, as I noticed that he had already run well past the time allotted for our interview.

He said most days start a little before 6 a.m. and end around 8 p.m., and that’s before he finishes making calls from home. He’s still very hands-on, often answering text messages from the small-business owners who got to know him when he was lieutenant governor.

One thing he’s mostly avoided: fights he views as unnecessary.

He hasn’t had a significant dustup yet with state lawmakers, even though he did flex some muscle when he threatened a veto of a proposed charter school moratorium. He has weekly dinners with Shekarchi and Ruggerio, and none of them appears to be laying the groundwork for a late-session battle (it’s amazing what a surplus can do for everyone’s moods).

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Education has always been one of McKee’s sweet spots, but he’s taking a careful approach with the teachers. He won praise for quickly calling for all teachers to get vaccinated — even when supply was still in question — and he has made it clear that he wants to resolve the ongoing war between Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and the Providence Teachers Union without a legal battle.

As a sign of how much he intends to be involved with Providence schools, he said that he’s getting ready to roll out a plan to create a version of the office of children, youth, and learning that he created in Cumberland. Normally, that kind of office would be controlled by the mayor, but Providence schools are run by the state.

“In that scenario, I’ll be acting like the mayor of Providence,” McKee said.

Providence schools are among McKee’s top priorities for the next 100 days. He said he also wants to focus on fully reopening the economy and continuing to increase the state’s vaccination rate.

He was careful to avoid political questions, but he has already made it clear he intends to run for governor next year. Last week, there was a poll asking voters for their thoughts about him and key issues facing the state.

McKee didn’t want to share any results — or even acknowledge that he was aware of the poll — but he’s walking around with the swagger that shows he knows something is working. As if the lessons he learned as mayor did scale after all.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.