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The key stories to watch in Rhode Island in 2022

The Rhode Island State House on May 28, 2020.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

If you thought 2021 was a year of too much politics and COVID-19 talk, 2022 might not be your cup of tea, either.

With Rhode Island gearing up for a governor’s race, a major hospital merger, increased scrutiny on the takeover of Providence schools, 2022 is shaping up to be another dizzying year for news.

Here’s a look at five key stories to watch.

The race for governor

Governor Dan McKee will seek a full four-year term, and he’s going to attempt to use every advantage that incumbency offers (including $1.1 billion in federal COVID funds, lots of facetime on television, and high name recognition). His challenge during his first 10 months since taking over for former governor Gina Raimondo is that he has spent too much time attempting to protect his perceived lead rather than running up the score. A fumble here, a COVID-19 spike there, and suddenly it looks like multiple challengers have a legitimate chance to win the race.

On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Treasurer Seth Magaziner, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, and former secretary of state Matt Brown all appear to be viable contenders in the race. A big question in 2022 is how the candidates are going to attempt to differentiate themselves on policy issues when they share many of the same views on key issues (Brown, running furthest to left, is an exception here). You can expect the challengers to question McKee’s competence, while McKee makes the case that he’s been a steady hand for the state during a difficult period.

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It’s still unclear who will emerge as a challenger on the Republican side.

A new mayor in Providence

The four major candidates in this race (Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, former council president Michael Solomon, Brett Smiley, and Gonzalo Cuervo) are all allies of term-limited Mayor Jorge Elorza, and yet they’re all finding ways to distance themselves from the mayor rather than seeking his endorsement.

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At this point, a case can be made for any of the four as a winner. LaFortune would be the first Black mayor and first female mayor, and she’s very popular on the vote-rich East Side; Solomon has been council president, and won the South Side in his primary loss to Elorza in 2014; Smiley has raised the most money by a mile, lives on the East Side, and has the most government management experience in the field; and Cuervo is quietly building a campaign that will target progressives and Latino voters as his base.

None of the candidates have the same level of gravitas as Michelle Wu in Boston, so it would be surprising to see a runaway winner in this race. It is unlikely that a credible Republican or independent candidate will jump in the race.

Saving the health care system

The Delta and Omicron variants proved that COVID-19 isn’t going to disappear, and a big focus in 2022 will likely be making sure that everyone gets booster shots of the vaccine to avoid getting extremely ill if and when they test positive.

But Rhode Island faces a broader challenge in health care: Hospitals and other facilities are facing severe staffing shortages, thanks largely to burnout from the last several years, and also because health workers are realizing they can earn more money in other states.

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Rhode Island leaders will attempt to address the hospital crisis just as a mega merger between Lifespan and Care New England (along with Brown University) moves forward. This could be the perfect moment to solve some of the problems. At the very least, it should mean that 2022 brings a lot more attention to the merger.

The most important year of the Providence school takeover

It has only been two years since the state took control of Providence’s failing school system, and everything has changed. COVID-19 has now disrupted parts of three school years, the governor who helped push for the takeover is now working for President Joe Biden, the district has already chewed up and spit out another superintendent.

In 2022, there will be increased pressure from the General Assembly for the Rhode Island Department of Education to show some results, and there will be candidates for both governor and mayor calling for the schools to be returned to Providence control. To make things even more complicated, there’s a real chance that city voters will be asked if they want to move to an elected (not mayoral appointed) school board in November.

What’s next in North Kingstown?

North Kingstown was already facing something of a parent uprising even before the news broke about former boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas conducting “fat tests” alone on male student-athletes for many years. Thomas is now facing a criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police.

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With elections coming in 2022, you can expect the community to stay laser-focused on what’s happening in North Kingstown schools. Meanwhile, Superintendent Phil Auger, who is considered one of the more successful school leaders in the state, is going to need to restore of sense of normalcy in his district.


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