PROVIDENCE — Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza and former US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy on Thursday endorsed former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes in the Democratic primary for governor.
Foulkes also received endorsements from Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, and former state Representative Joseph S. Almeida, a Providence Democrat now running for state Senate.
The four high-profile endorsements come after a recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed Foulkes surging but still trailing Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea and Governor Daniel J. McKee.
The poll also showed Foulkes with little support among Black and Latino voters. Foulkes appeared outside the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island to herald the endorsements from Elorza, the second Latino mayor in Providence history; Almeida, a Black former House member who represented the South Side and Washington Park for more than a decade; and Goodwin, who chairs the Providence Democratic City Committee. Foulkes and Elorza first made the announcement on Latino radio stations before the event.
When asked about Foulkes’ poor showing among Black and Latino voters in that poll, Elorza said, “She is the only major candidate who has never held office, so it is understandable that a lot of people just don’t know her. That is part of what this is about. I think that as people get to know her — people get to know her values and her plans — she will win a lot of people over.”
Elorza, a term-limited Democrat who decided against running for governor himself, noted that little more than six weeks remain until the Sept. 13 Democratic primary and many voters remained undecided. (The Globe/Suffolk poll found 31 percent of voters remain undecided on the governor’s race.) “So people are going to be making up their minds in the coming weeks,” he said, “and we want them to know what a great option Helena is for the next leader of our state.”
Elorza explained his decision to endorse Foulkes over Gorbea, who would be the first Latina governor in New England, saying, “What’s best for the state is really what I’m looking for. I also take into account who would be best for the city and who would be best for the Latino community, and from all those perspectives, there is just no doubt to me that Helena is the top of the class.”
Elorza, who confronted McKee over the Providence Teachers Union contract last year, said many immigrant families pin their hopes on quality education for their children, but traditional public schools have been failing those children for generations. “Someone has to be fed up with the status quo,” he said. “Sometimes you need an outside voice to say, ‘What the heck is happening here? We can do better. We will do better.’”
Speakers noted Foulkes has said she would not seek a second term if student test scores are not above pre-pandemic levels by the end of her first term as governor.
Elorza said the state also needs a strong economy. “When I look at the options in the field, I don’t think anyone matches, pound for pound, what Helena brings to the table, in terms of her background, her capacity and her leadership, to steer us through what is likely to be a tough stretch in our economy,” he said.
Kennedy, a Democrat who represented Rhode Island in Congress from 1995 to 2011 and now lives in New Jersey, appeared at the event with his five children, holding 4-year-old Marshall in his arms at times.
“I’m a person in long-term recovery, which means I have not had a drink or drug in over 11½ years,” he said. “When I first built my recovery, I knew I had to build it on a strong foundation, and these kids are my foundation — my wife is my foundation.”
The nation also is in a period of recovery, as it tries to bounce back from the pandemic and economic problems, Kennedy said. “If we are going to have a strong recovery, we need to build a strong foundation,” he said. “If you are fine with the status quo, stick with what’s safe, stick with incumbents.”
But Kennedy urged voters to back Foulkes, saying, “We have been so blessed here in Rhode Island to have Helena Foulkes step forward. She didn’t need to step forward. She has a comfortable life, a successful career, top of her game, at the highest echelons of corporate power.”
Kennedy said Foulkes is surging in the polls because “people see one of their own in you, they see the best of themselves in you, and they see the future of Rhode Island with your leadership.”
Foulkes has been criticized for donating $500 to US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, and she has said she “deeply regrets” it and would never do it again. When asked about that donation, Kennedy said she was working at CVS and had a responsibility “to make sure that they had an equal hearing from top leadership in the country. You can’t begrudge her that.”
Kennedy noted her uncle is former US Senator Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, and her father is Bernard Buonanno Jr., chairman of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority. “She is Rhode Island through and through — that’s her No. 1 priority,” he said. “She thinks big. She has been in the highest echelons. That’s what we need — someone who can make connections, move the state forward.”
Almeida, who is running in a Senate District 6 Democratic primary against Senator Tiara Mack, said, “I’ve got two words for you: community, everywhere. I’m walking all over the state of Rhode Island, and every time I turn around, I see Helena. I see her at the gay parade, I see her at the Puerto Rican Fest, I see her all over the South Side.”
In 2015, Almeida was sentenced to one year on probation and fined $1,000 for misappropriating campaign contributions for personal use. When asked about that on Thursday, Foulkes said, “I don’t know one person who hasn’t made a mistake in their life, myself included. I think life is about redemption, and Joe is a spectacular human being.”
Goodwin said, “I’ll admit I wasn’t quite sure about Helena right off the bat. But every time we met and every time we spoke, I became more and more impressed. I was impressed by her compassion, her deep understanding of the issues that Rhode Islanders will be facing. She has a keen intellect, and her leadership skills are unparalleled.”
This story has been updated with comments from Senator Maryellen Goodwin.