The lieutenant governor’s office is the most existentially debated position in Rhode Island’s government. With a million dollar annual budget and almost no official powers, many critics have advocated for its abolition. Others point to valuable work that particularly effective lieutenant governors have carved out, like Elizabeth Roberts’ leadership in setting up Rhode Island’s health exchange.
When I ran for lieutenant governor several years ago, I argued for a different take on the position. My 2018 primary challenge to Dan McKee was premised on a pledge to transform the office into a Public Advocate — a tool to help Rhode Islanders hold their government accountable. I believed then, and still believe today, that putting the lieutenant governor’s statewide platform and million dollar budget to work as a public interest watchdog could go a long way toward ensuring state leaders meet the ethical and moral standards necessary for our government to function.
Recently, we’ve seen another approach taken. After stepping into Rhode Island’s governorship six months ago, McKee had the opportunity to select his own replacement for lieutenant governor. So McKee did what many politicians would do. He appointed someone whom he trusted to defer to him and remain loyal come election time. Thus far, that is exactly what former Providence City Council president-turned-Lt. Governor Sabina Matos has done.
But I don’t believe this partnership is serving the people of Rhode Island very well — particularly as it’s become clear in recent weeks that McKee’s administration is in far more need of oversight than cheerleading. If McKee knew the lieutenant governor was operating as a watchdog, he might have thought twice before awarding a $5 million state contract to a brand-new company tied to one of his biggest campaign donors, whose bid was millions of dollars higher than competing proposals. If McKee’s team believed the office was on high alert for misconduct, we might have been spared longtime McKee lieutenant Tony Silva’s almost-immediate abuse of his chief of staff position to influence a controversial wetlands development. And if the administration understood their decisions would be parsed by an independent public advocate, they might not be pursuing plans like McKee’s proposed multimillion dollar cuts to critical overdose prevention programs, at a time when overdoses in Rhode Island are at an all-time high.
Perhaps the most important public benefit that’s lost when one constitutionally independent officeholder becomes yes-man for another is a diversity of opinion at the highest levels of our politics. I initially applauded McKee’s historic appointment of Matos, believing that someone with her background and lived experience would bring an important perspective to state government. But it seems like most of that potential was jettisoned when the lieutenant governor committed to march in lockstep with the governor. For example, the neighborhood associations, transit advocates, and environmental groups who’ve been fighting against the state’s proposal to break up Kennedy Plaza were likely hopeful they’d gained a State House ally in Matos, who helped pass a local resolution opposing the plan during her tenure on the City Council. So it must have been particularly disappointing for them to see Matos regularly stand silently beside McKee, nodding along as he voiced support for a multi-hub bus proposal that, according to a civil rights complaint filed by advocates, would have a significant discriminatory effect on people of color, disabled, and low-income populations across Rhode Island.
This is not to lay the failings of the McKee administration at the feet of Lt. Governor Matos. But it does demonstrate that the “team” model they have put forward has real downsides — and I haven’t seen what the actual upside is. After all, it’s hard for McKee to argue such a partnership is necessary for a lieutenant governor to step into the governor’s office, after he did so last spring despite a famously distant relationship with former Governor Raimondo.
There are many states in which the lieutenant governor is designed to be subsidiary to the governor. But Rhode Island’s state constitution calls for an independent office, and Lt. Governor Matos could do a lot more good by using her platform to call out outrageous decision-making and rotten behavior when she sees it. The people of Rhode Island don’t get much out of a million-dollar gubernatorial spokesperson — and if the last few weeks of scandals and controversies have proven anything, it’s that this administration needs stronger oversight, not more hype-men.
Aaron Regunberg served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 2015 to 2018 and was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Rhode Island in 2018. He is currently is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.