When Gina Raimondo stepped down as governor of Rhode Island last year to take a job as President Biden’s secretary of commerce, she left the state better than she’d found it.
She’d cut regulations, raised the minimum wage, and delivered on free community college.
But she left plenty undone — from righting Providence’s troubled schools to fully modernizing an economy that has lagged behind that of Rhode Island’s wealthier New England neighbors.
What the state needs in its next governor, then, is a leader with the talent and vision to finish what Raimondo started.
Helena Buonanno Foulkes is that someone. The former CVS executive has strong management skills and a demonstrated capacity for listening, thinking through big problems, and coming up with thoughtful solutions. The Globe endorses her in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary for governor.
Foulkes grew up in East Greenwich and Providence. And she got an early taste for politics. Her grandfather, Thomas Dodd, and uncle, Christopher Dodd, were senators from Connecticut. And her late mother, Martha Dodd Buonanno, was a friend of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
After graduating from Harvard University, she did stints at investment bank Goldman Sachs and jeweler Tiffany & Co. before joining CVS in 1992 and working her way into the upper reaches of management.
There she oversaw the creation of the pharmacy chain’s ExtraCare customer discount program. And in 2014, she played a lead role in the company’s decision to stop selling tobacco products, sacrificing about $2 billion in sales and setting up CVS to rebrand as a health care company.
A picture of Foulkes with first lady Michelle Obama, at an event celebrating the tobacco decision, hung in her office. And in 2015, Fortune magazine ranked her No. 14 on its list of most powerful women.
Her record at CVS is not unblemished. The company was slow to act on the emerging opioid epidemic. And last month, a federal judge ordered CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart to pay $650.5 million to a pair of Ohio counties for their role in fueling the crisis.
But any fair reading of her time in business points to a highly accomplished leader with deep experience overseeing large budgets and workforces and a knack for big ideas.
Of all the Democratic candidates for governor, she has offered the most detailed and intriguing policy proposals, starting with a proposed $250 million “blue jobs bond” aimed at bolstering the state’s growing but underrealized blue economy sector. The money would help build up the state’s offshore wind infrastructure and seed blue-tech startups, while carefully steering 15 percent of investment to minority-owned businesses.
“I’d model this after what Boston did in life sciences 15 years ago,” she recently told the Globe editorial board, referring to a state initiative launched by former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. “A billion dollar bond. Government, business, and universities coming together to lean into Boston’s strengths.”
On education, Foulkes says she should be judged by public school performance — pledging to forego reelection if state test scores don’t return to prepandemic levels by 2025.
She’s calling for a smart, $1 billion investment in the schools — ensuring that every child can attend summer learning programs, expanding access to mental health services, and providing 9th-grade algebra students with the sort of high-impact, in-school tutoring that has yielded impressive results in early, gold-standard trials elsewhere.
These are the kinds of interventions that could help with the next governor’s most urgent K-12 task: turning around the Providence schools, which struggled for years and have made only halting progress since the state took control in 2019 under Raimondo.
Foulkes has plenty of other good ideas, too. She would create a state-level affordable housing tax credit to boost production and use financial incentives to remedy the state’s nursing shortage. That’s a personal issue for Foulkes. Talking to the Globe editorial board recently, she got choked up describing how her father had to wait almost two days for an MRI after a recent stroke because the hospital didn’t have adequate nursing capacity.
“That was just devastating,” she said.
Foulkes is in a five-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Two of the candidates, former secretary of state Matt Brown and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz, have languished in single digits in the polls. The other two candidates are Governor Dan McKee, who ascended to the job last year when Raimondo stepped down, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
Gorbea is an appealing personality and, if elected, would become the first Latina governor in the region. But she has not run a particularly substantive campaign.
McKee led an impressive effort, as mayor of Cumberland, to establish mayoral-controlled charter schools, some of which have performed quite well. And as governor, he’s signed significant gun control and climate legislation. But an education consulting contract doled out to political allies after an unusual bidding process is worrisome — particularly in a state with a troubling history of insider dealing. And McKee’s support for $60 million in public financing for a minor league soccer stadium in Pawtucket seems unwise.
What Rhode Island needs is a big-picture leader who can sell the world on the state’s many virtues — and build on those virtues every day she is in office.
In the Democratic race for governor, Helena Buonanno Foulkes is clearly the best equipped to do that job.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.