PROVIDENCE — In her first run for public office, former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes came within 3 percentage points of knocking off Democratic Governor Daniel J. McKee in the September primary.
Now that the 2022 election cycle is over, Foulkes said she is looking for a way to stay involved in public policy, focusing on how to improve public education in Rhode Island. She said she just became executive chair of the Follett Corporation, which owns campus bookstores across the country, but she’ll be ready to run for governor again in 2026 “if the moment is right.”
“Four years is very far away,” Foulkes told the Globe. “All I can say is I really want to stay engaged, and I think if the right opportunity opened to run for governor, I would be open to it.”
McKee won the Sept. 13 primary with 32.8 percent of the vote, topping Foulkes at 29.9 percent, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea at 26.2 percent, former secretary of state Matt Brown at 7.9 percent, and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz at 3.1 percent. McKee went on to beat Republican Ashley Kalus in the Nov. 8 general election.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe on Friday, Foulkes described the race as “a fantastic experience,” saying, “I had a lot of issues I cared a lot about, and I feel deeply about them still. So I am very much focused on: How do I have an impact?”
She said she has been meeting with people, talking about issues such as education and children’s mental health, and trying to figure out how she could make a difference.
She said she doesn’t want to do something “in a political way” that could get in the way of having an impact. “I have some ideas, but I am not ready to talk about them,” Foulkes said. “I want to make sure that they are flushed out, and also I have to think about ways I can help that don’t inhibit their ability to succeed.”
She said she just began working as executive chair of the Follett Corporation, an Illinois-based company that she said owns one-third of all college bookstores in the country. The list includes those at Bryant University, Salve Regina University, and Johnson & Wales University. In addition to the paid position at Follett, she said she also will serve on several boards and do consulting work.
“So I will be spending probably three days a week on my private sector responsibilities and a couple of days a week on giving back,” Foulkes said. “I definitely am open to serving, if I can, in a role where it can have an impact on education. The other thing for me is leveraging the network that I have nationally to bring insights and resources to Rhode Island.”
She said she has begun having conversations with people outside the state. “Often what I say to people is, ‘If you were in the shoes of someone leading an effort to improve education in Rhode Island, what would you do?’ And I get amazing ideas.”
Foulkes said that during the campaign she met many residents “who are not served by people in government.” For example, she said many families in Providence are disappointed in the ability of public schools to make a difference for their children, she said.
On Providence schools
In November, outgoing Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza joined former mayors Angel Taveras and Joseph R. Paolino Jr. in calling for incoming mayor Brett P. Smiley to move to an “all-public charter” system unless the Providence Teachers Union agrees to massive contract concessions.
“It seems draconian to me,” Foulkes said of that idea. “At some level I applaud the ambition, but I think there must be other ways to achieve great outcomes.”
She said that during the campaign she had “some great conversations” with members of the teachers union. “I think that a leader of this city or the state has a responsibility of pulling all parties together to make something really work,” she said.
On campaign finance reform
Gorbea recently told the Globe she will not run for public office again, and she called for campaign finance reform, saying, “Well-qualified individuals who are not independently wealthy are at a distinct disadvantage. What’s more, income inequality is tightly correlated to race and ethnicity.”
That appeared to be a reference in part to Foulkes, who poured $1.4 million of her own money into her campaign, which spent a total of $4.2 million.
When asked about Gorbea’s statement, Foulkes said, “I would love to see campaign finance reform. I think the role of money in this is really tough. For someone like me — who has never run before and who no one knew — it was more important that I did spend money. I raised a lot of money, and I put in my own money.”
She said that when her campaign conducted its first internal poll a year ago, just 4 percent of voters backed her, and she said other candidates benefited far more from independent expenditures than she did.
Foulkes said she only gained traction when she performed well during televised gubernatorial debates. For example, she did the best during a “pop quiz” section of the WPRI-Channel 12 debate although she was the only candidate on stage who hadn’t held state office.
“We were told there was a pop quiz, and I actually studied,” she said. “For me, the one thing that really could have made a difference is if, as a system, we could have done the debates a little earlier so people had a chance to see me before they voted or just felt more comfortable with me.”
On the encampment of homeless people at the State House
Foulkes spoke to the Globe on Friday soon after a judge had temporarily blocked an order from the McKee administration telling homeless people in tents outside the State House that they must leave.
“The goal of getting all of these folks in warm, safe environments is the right goal,” she said. But, she said, “I would have leaned on experts and used community leaders that these unhoused folks really trust and try to leverage their relationships rather than making this some sort of state mandated move out of the tents. It all got caught on social media, and it didn’t feel good to all of us who were watching.”
McKee is planning to hold his Jan. 3 inauguration inside the Rhode Island Convention Center, breaking from the tradition of having the ceremony outside on the State House steps.
If she had won, Foulkes said she would have held her inauguration ceremony outside. “Bring on the cold and the snow,” she said. “This is New England, and we are tough and hardy.”