PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee, the state’s foremost champion of mayoral charter schools, just received the endorsement of the National Education Association Rhode Island, a politically influential teachers union that has opposed charter school expansion over the years.
McKee also received the endorsement of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO on Monday, providing him with a pair of potent endorsements as he runs in a tourniquet-tight Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“I have to say I’m a little bit mystified by this,” Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers said of the teachers union endorsement. “I would not have expected that McKee would have received that endorsement.”
McKee is a former Cumberland mayor who was the driving force behind Blackstone Valley Prep, the state’s first mayoral charter school. And as governor, he has threatened to veto legislation that would have slapped a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion in Rhode Island.
“It’s surprising because it seems he has not run away from his support for charter schools in the past year,” Myers said. “My speculation is that he has assured them that the kinds of educational reforms that teachers unions oppose are not going to be on his agenda the next four years.”
Whatever the reason, the NEARI and AFL-CIO endorsements could make a difference in a close race, he said.
“It matters considerably,” Myers said. “They are two of the biggest powerhouse unions in the state. I don’t think it will sway enough people to give him, say, an additional 10 percentage points. But at the moment, this looks like an extremely close race. This is a small state, and the vote of several thousand union members could make a difference.”
A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea leading the Democratic gubernatorial primary at 24 percent, just ahead of McKee at 20 percent, and former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes is surging at 16 percent.
The poll was conducted June 19-22, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. Former secretary of state Matt Brown trailed at 5 percent, followed by Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz at 1.4 percent, and nearly a third of voters (31 percent) remain undecided, the poll found.
In past election cycles, the National Education Association RI and McKee have been at odds.
In the 2014 lieutenant governor’s race, the teachers union not only endorsed McKee’s opponent in the Democratic primary (former state Representative Frank Ferri), it also endorsed McKee’s Republican opponent in the general election, (Catherine Terry Taylor). And in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, the union endorsed McKee’s more progressive opponent (former state Representative Aaron Regunberg).
But McKee became governor in March 2021 when former governor Gina M. Raimondo was named US Commerce secretary.
And in Monday’s announcement, NEARI said that when it became clear he would become governor, McKee “made the choice to reach out and include NEARI in the dialogue regarding all the areas of concern to our 12,000 members.”
“The first thing he did — because he listened to input from those in the K-12 system — was ensure classroom teachers and education support professionals got shots in arms to combat the COVID pandemic,” the union said. “McKee immediately set up clinics all over the state to ensure educators had access to vaccines to continue their critical work.”
NEARI President Larry Purtill said, “There have been, and still are, areas where we disagree with the governor and frankly, all his rivals.”
But, he said, “Communication with the McKee administration has steadily become more active and robust as he accrues time in the role of governor.”
Also, Purtill said McKee “put his money where his mouth is” by ensuring funding for public school construction and paying off an old debt owed by the state to the pension system.
In an interview, Purtill said, “You are right — we have certainly been on different pages with McKee when it comes to mayoral charter schools. If you had said a couple of years ago that we would be endorsing him now, I’d have said no.”
But, he said, “We have seen him over the past year listen to us and talk to us about issues that are important to us.” For example, it was important to quickly provide COVID-19 vaccines to educators, he said, and the McKee administration prioritized teachers in the state’s vaccine rollout.
NEARI-PACE Committee Chair Amy Mullen said McKee met with union leaders when there were issues at the Community College of Rhode Island impacting union members, and one outcome of that meeting was McKee’s appointment of Purtill to the Council on Postsecondary Education, “where our higher education members had not had a voice in nearly a decade.”
McKee also appointed incoming NEARI executive director Mary Barden to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, “so the voice of K-12 educators like me continues to be heard on that panel as well,” Mullen said.
Purtill said, “We will continue to have that dialogue. He has shown he is willing to listen to us and work with us, and we want to keep that momentum going.”
Also, while the union disagrees with McKee on charter schools, Purtill said the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates “aren’t that great on charter schools either.”
In a statement, McKee campaign said that when he became governor, one of his first calls was to NEARI.
“We worked together to vaccinate our educators so they could continue their important work safely,” he said. “This kick-started a strong working partnership. I look forward to continuing our relationship and working together to strengthen public schools for all students.”
McKee noted this his wife, Susan McKee, is a career public-school teacher and longtime NEARI member. “My family and I are all proud graduates of Rhode Island public schools,” he said, “and I’m honored to have the support of the hard working people who make our schools succeed.”
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO executive board endorsed McKee.
Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee said McKee signed into law bills important to union members such as an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour, the Act on Climate, nursing home staffing legislation, prevailing wage legislation for projects using state tax credits and for state contracts with janitorial and security vendors, and gun safety bills.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the McKee administration on issues that affect not only the 80,000 men and women of the Rhode Island labor movement but all of the Ocean State’s working people,” Nee said.
Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said McKee’s record on climate change was a key reason for earning the endorsement.
“Governor McKee was instrumental in enacting important legislation as Rhode Island looks to build a just transition to a carbon-free economy,” he said. “The 100 percent Renewable Energy Standard law, the Off-Shore Wind Procurement law, and the Labor Standards in Renewable Energy Projects law are examples of forward-thinking legislation putting Rhode Island at the forefront of tackling the impact of climate change.”
Crowley said those steps put Rhode Island on the path to meeting the goals of the 2021 Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
The Rhode Island AFL-CIO said its endorsement came after interviews with the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including McKee, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes, and former secretary of state Matt Brown.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.