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Governor McKee bets that speaking fluent mayor will pay off

Flanked by municipal leaders, Dan McKee announced his campaign for governor of Rhode Island.Brian Amaral/Globe Staff

Members of the most exclusive, least elitist club in Rhode Island gathered Tuesday morning inside the warehouse of a rapidly growing manufacturer in East Providence that makes and distributes plastic bearings, chain cable carriers, and other products that look like LEGO accessories, but are actually vital to pretty much every blue-collar industry you can think of.

There was Charlie Lombardi, the 75-year-old drill sergeant mayor of North Providence who, like a six-year-old at Target, couldn’t keep his hands off all the different products as he lagged behind some of his colleagues during their tour of Igus Inc.

Wearing the puffy vest was Joey Polisena, the outspoken Johnston mayor who is in the final year of his last term in Town Hall, but is ready to deliver as many votes as possible for the man of the hour.

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The guy in the blue-and-green striped tie was Kenny Hopkins, the wisecracking mayor of Cranston who would much rather talk baseball or golf than local politics. The lone registered Republican of the bunch, he was amazed at how all the reporters asked why he was with this group.

“I’m here to support the Irish guy,” he joked, before making it clear that he wasn’t in the building to make an endorsement.

The club is the tight-knit group of Rhode Island’s municipal leaders and the Irish guy is Governor Dan McKee, the Democrat who formally launched his bid for a full four-year term by repeatedly promising to run a campaign for all 39 cities and towns.

Tuesday’s announcement was impeccably on brand for Danny, as most of the mayors call him. On his biggest day, he surrounded himself with the people he feels most comfortable with: his family, small business owners, and his mayors, in no particular order.

McKee is a former mayor of Cumberland who was twice elected statewide as lieutenant governor by running a straightforward, no-frills playbook that relied heavily on being the guy that the mayors and town managers can count on to take their calls, text them back, and deliver when they need it the most.

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Now he’s betting big that his ability to speak mayor will stand out in a crowded field of Democrats – including Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former secretary of state Matt Brown, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, and health organizer Luis Daniel Muñoz – who are largely going to agree on most of the major issues in this race.

“If we don’t have that base of support locally, really, what we say on the state level doesn’t matter,” McKee said during a Q&A with reporters.

In addition to Lombardi, Polisena, and Hopkins, there were several others standing at McKee’s side for his campaign kickoff: Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, East Providence Mayor Roberto DaSilva, Lincoln Town Administrator Philip Gould, and Bristol Town Administrator Steven Contente. (McKee’s lieutenant governor, Sabina Matos, also was on hand.)

When you add in Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, who wasn’t in attendance but is supporting McKee for governor, these municipal leaders combine to represent more than 350,000 residents -- about one-third of the state’s population. That’s a lot of potential votes.

So why do these local leaders like him? It’s because he gets the little things right.

When Polisena was moving quickly to bring an Amazon warehouse to his town last year, McKee sat in the Johnston High School auditorium for a three-hour Town Council meeting to show his support for the project. Some might say that wasn’t the most efficient use of a governor’s time, but it meant everything to Polisena.

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“We used to have to peek through the windows at the State House,” he told me, in a not-so-subtle dig at former governor Gina Raimondo. “Now we’ve got a seat at the table.”

Baldelli-Hunt said she likes having a governor who understands what it’s like to be a mayor.

“He recognizes that the state is only as strong as its weakest community, so he gives attention to all the communities in areas where they need to improve in order to raise us up,” she said.

The person who tells you that they know exactly how this race is going to play out is the same kind of person who is guaranteeing that Providence College is going to the Final Four. It all sounds nice, but we have no public polling, the candidates have barely started campaigning, and there has been virtually no scrutiny of anyone who isn’t McKee at this point.

McKee’s opponents don’t say this directly, but they like to write him off as too simple, too Cumberland, to meet the moment. They want to label him as in over his head because he’s not the most dynamic speaker, or because he’s more comfortable palling around with the mayors than he is with sitting with the hospital presidents to figure out how to save Care New England.

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It’s critical that Rhode Island elect a governor who cares about the big picture, and McKee needs to start articulating his vision for 2030 and beyond rather than listening to everyone else’s opinion. But those mayors know a thing or two about winning, and they’re putting McKee in a good spot as election season begins.


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