PROVIDENCE — On the eve of Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, two former top state Department of Health officials are weighing in with clear votes of no confidence in Governor Daniel J. McKee.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott – the former Department of Health director who was a fixture in daily pandemic updates alongside former Governor Gina M. Raimondo – endorsed former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes in the gubernatorial primary against McKee.
“For Rhode Island to be best equipped to handle the next crisis, the state cannot stay with the status quo,” Alexander-Scott said. “Early on, I saw how critical it was to have a governor with vision, integrity, a listening ear, and a willingness to be accountable. Rhode Island needs change and needs new leadership. Helena Foulkes is the leader Rhode Island needs.”
In response, McKee told WPRO that Alexander-Scott’s endorsement of Foulkes was “unfortunate” and suggested that she had mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. McKee told the radio station that “she’s supporting someone who helped fuel the opioid addiction issue.”
Tom McCarthy, the former deputy director of the Department of Health, then weighed in with a tweet blasting McKee’s leadership during the pandemic.
“It was a challenge to get the Governor to listen to and understand the FACTS let alone make a decision,” McCarthy wrote. “It was easier to prop up a ‘whacky, waving inflatable arm’ blow up at a car dealership than stiffen his spine to make a real decision.”
Unreal, it was a challenge to get the Governor to listen to and understand the FACTS let alone make a decision. It was easier to prop up a “whacky, waving inflatable arm” blow up at a car dealership than stiffen his spine to make a real decision. https://t.co/pCA577g6Cp— Tom McCarthy (@TomMacCarthaigh) September 12, 2022
The McKee campaign did not respond to McCarthy.
But in a statement, McKee campaign spokesperson Alana O’Hare said, “Helena Foulkes is trying to change the conversation away from her role in fueling the opioid crisis and the nearly billion dollars in settlements that CVS now has to pay because of her negligent ‘leadership.’ "
O’Hare said, “Here are the facts of the state of COVID before (McKee) took office: In February 2021, Rhode Island received an ‘F’ from Harvard on its vaccination rollout. Rhode Island was in the bottom 10 states nationwide per capita for deaths. The NY Times had Rhode Island dead last for share of its population that has received at least one vaccine dose and percentage of doses used.”
McKee’s leadership changed that, O’Hare said. For example, he named Marc R. Pappas, director of the state Emergency Management Agency, to be his “chief COVID officer,” he partnered with cities and town, and he prioritized teachers to get shots “off the shelves and into arms,” she said.
And now, O’Hare noted, Rhode Island has the highest rate of vaccination in the country, with 85 percent of population fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times tally.
“We are now leading the Northeast in our economic recovery and have the lowest unemployment rate on record,” she said. “Governor McKee’s record speaks for itself.”
In a tweet, Foulkes called McKee’s response to Alexander-Scott’s endorsement “disgraceful,” saying, “Throw misleading attacks at me all you want, but Dr. Alexander-Scott’s incredible service to our state should never be called into question.”
Foulkes campaign spokesperson Audrey Lucas tweeted that McKee’s response “makes no sense.”
“Helena led the charge at CVS to change legislation limiting the # of opioids prescribed after minor surgery, went after pill mill doctors & was a big part of CVS’ drop box program,” she wrote. “You can’t have it both ways.
In an interview, McCarthy told the Globe that it was no secret that “there was misalignment” between the recommendations he and Alexander-Scott were providing to McKee and the decisions the governor was making. “As public servants, we wanted to be respectful and give leaders the space to lead,” he said.
But in mid-January, the state announced that Dr. Alexander-Scott was stepping down after serving as Department of Health director since 2015 and staying on after McKee took over when Raimondo became US Commerce Secretary in March 2021. And just a week later, McCarthy confirmed that he was leaving the administration, too.
McCarthy said he has great respect for Alexander-Scott and the job she did as health director, and he said he was prompted to speak out now because of criticism that McKee has been leveling at the Raimondo administration and health officials before he took office. He accused the governor of “revisionist history.”
“What I saw, working for McKee from the very beginning, was that we need a leader that has integrity and that can make they right decisions for Rhode Island even when they are hard,” he said. “We need input from the communities first – not just loud stakeholders and cronies.”
For example, he said the health department was focused on larger community-based vaccine clinics while McKee seemed focused on handing out Rhode Island Lottery scratch tickets at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center to spur people to get vaccinated.
McCarthy said Democratic voters have “two strong alternatives” to McKee in Foulkes and Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea in Tuesday’s primary, and he said he is backing Foulkes because he think voters need to coalesce around an alternative to McKee.
McCarthy – who remains in Rhode Island working for Unite US, a national health and social care company – said he is not working for any of the candidates for governor. Lucas said the Foulkes campaign sought advice from McCarthy early in the year when it was crafting a COVID-19 response plan, but it did not pay him.
Providence College political science Professor Joseph Cammarano noted that Alexander-Scott played a prominent role in the Raimondo administration, standing beside the governor in daily televised news conferences. But once McKee took office, Alexander-Scott seemed to be “marginalized,” he said.
Cammarano said he is surprised Alexander-Scott made an endorsement in the governor’s race. “I assume it is because she had a fairly low opinion of McKee,” he said. “I think that is the clear message: She does not want McKee to get the nomination.”
While he’s not sure why Alexander-Scott would endorse Foulkes over Gorbea, Cammarano it could be that Foulkes is more of a “standard bearer” for Raimondo supporters.
McKee, Foulkes, and Gorbea are running in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary along with former secretary of state Matt Brown and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz.