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RI POLITICS

Neronha may run for governor, citing frustrations on health care, climate, utilities

The R.I. attorney general is term limited but raised more than $68,000 in the third quarter, according to new campaign finance report

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha gives a victory speech after winning a second term, during an election night gathering of Rhode Island Democratic candidates and supporters on Nov. 8, 2022, in Providence, R.I.Mark Stockwell/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — In February 2020, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha was unequivocal when asked if he was considering running for governor in 2022.

“I’m not running for governor — ever,” he said. “I ran for this job because I like this work. I don’t have any ambitions beyond this job.”

But in a recent interview, Neronha acknowledged he is thinking about running for governor in 2026, citing frustration with what he sees as state government’s failure to act with urgency on issues such as health care, climate change, and utility regulation.

When asked if he is considering running for governor, Neronha at first said, “Do you want me to finish my list of outrages?” When asked if those “outrages” have prompted him to think of a run for governor, he said, “Yeah, I’m considering it, yeah.”

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“I will tell you that my concern about these issues — health care mostly, but also climate — has led me to reconsider what, if anything, I’ll do when I leave this office,” he said. “I don’t know what that is yet.”

Neronha made clear that he might not run for any position once his current term expires in 2026. “At (age) 63, I may decide to go sailing,” he said, mentioning his 22.5-foot-long Ensign sailboat, “Ranger.”

But recent fund-raising suggests Neronha is considering more than tacking across Narragansett Bay. According to a campaign finance report filed with the state Board of Elections on Tuesday, he raised $62,967 from individuals and another $5,700 from political action committees during the third quarter, leaving him with $69,365 in campaign cash after expenses.

Neronha said he took in about $60,000 from an August fundraiser at the Jamestown home of Rhode Island National Democratic Committeewoman Liz Beretta-Perik. And in September, when he posted a photo from his annual picnic at a Jamestown pavilion, he wrote, “Thanks everyone! We’ll see where this path leads!”

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Neronha, a term-limited Jamestown Democrat, cannot seek reelection in 2026, so if he did run for governor he’d be vying for the seat now held by Democratic Governor Daniel J. McKee. But he has been increasingly vocal about his frustration with the McKee administration on matters ranging from proposed hospital mergers to funding for his department.

“I think we can do a lot more,” he told the Globe. “I don’t think it’s a secret. I haven’t made it a secret that we can do a lot more.”

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha spoke at the inauguration of state officials at the Rhode Island Convention Center.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Neronha said he has no interest in being a second-term attorney general who spends his time jetting off to professional conferences. And he said he won’t hesitate to “call out” other parts of state government that he believes aren’t doing what they should be doing.

“I think that Rhode Islanders deserve better than mediocrity across state government,” Neronha said. “I think we have mediocrity in places. I think we have excellence in others.”

He declined to assign a letter grade to McKee’s job performance as governor. But in citing officials who have displayed leadership, Neronha made no mention of McKee but did mention US Senator Jack Reed and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, while calling Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong a “bright star.”

In 2022, former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes came within 3 percentage points of beating McKee in a Democratic primary while knocking his performance as “meh.”

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So would he run if Foulkes ran again in 2026? “Oh, it’s too early to say,” Neronha said, adding that he “gets along great” with her but has not talked to her about the next governor’s race. “Listen, it’s a long way off, and I have a job to do here,” he said.

In doing his job, Neronha has been increasingly outspoken, taking to social media to weigh in on issues ranging from lead poisoning to the Patriots while also sparring with critics, including a former political opponent.

He traced his increased social media presence to his fight earlier this year for more funding and new staff members in the attorney general’s office.

McKee did not include a requested $2 million in his budget proposal for 20 new positions, but Neronha testified before legislators and posted on X (formerly Twitter), making the case for more funding. And General Assembly leaders ended up funding 15 full-time equivalent positions, including a cold case unit, saying the office had obtained settlement money from multi-state lawsuits that could fund those positions.

“I decided last year that I wasn’t going to take the ‘no’ about my agency just sitting down,” Neronha said. “Look, I knew that my relationship with the governor wasn’t good, but I wasn’t afraid to expose that publicly if it meant I could get where I needed to go. So I learned from that experience that social media has a way of drawing attention to things that I think are important.”

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Neronha said he was also motivated to speak up because of the “potentially life-changing surgery” that he underwent in May.

He said a spinal cord condition was causing nerve pain, and if unaddressed, it threatened the use of his legs. He underwent seven hours of spinal cord surgery. The procedure was successful, but he emerged with a new sense of urgency.

“It’s a moment of inflection and reflection,” Neronha said. “I don’t have time, right? I don’t have time to go soft. These issues aren’t going to fix themselves by going soft, not giving specifics, not calling out a lack of specifics, not calling out a lack of doing anything.”

For example, he said the state must address the imbalance in hospital reimbursements that are weighted too heavily toward public payers such as Medicare and Medicaid (70 percent) vs. private commercial payers (30 percent). “We can fix it,” he said. “But we’ve got to get somebody thinking health care strategy.”

Neronha, who is married to a primary care doctor, said Rhode Island is facing a shortage of primary care doctors. He said his office is calling primary care providers, finding they either can’t make an appointment or face long waits.

He has noted it was his office — along with the Federal Trade Commission — that blocked a proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England, while the Department of Health did not weigh in on the merger.

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He has noted his office also intervened in the sale of National Grid, helping negotiate a deal that resulted in $200 million of value for ratepayers, while the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers tried to prevent Neronha’s office from stepping in.

And he said the only reason Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital remain open is because he got in a “rock fight” with Prospect Medical Holdings, pushing them to put $80 million in escrow as part of its application to purchase the hospitals.

Neronha also said that in December 2022, his office told state officials the plan to meet climate reduction goals contained “many omissions, oversights, and approaches that put the state at risk of failing to meet the Act on Climate greenhouse gas reduction mandates.”

He also noted McKee only signed the 2021 Act on Climate, which makes greenhouse gas reduction goals enforceable, after he addressed the governor’s concerns about “expensive, protracted, and vexatious litigation.”

On Oct. 24, Neronha posted on X: “The greatest responsibility of any elected official is not to shade the truth from constituents to avoid telling them bad news. Two examples: healthcare in RI is failing. We can fix it, but not if we ignore it. Same with climate and hitting our goals.”

McKee campaign spokesman Mike Trainor said, “The governor is very proud of his accomplishments during the first year of his first full term. He is focused now on continuing to work for the people of Rhode Island, and it’s too early to talk campaign politics.”

McKee hasn’t announced that he’s running for reelection but he’s expected to seek another term. During the third quarter, McKee raised $63,160 from individuals and $1,250 from PACs, leaving him with $113,723 in campaign cash after expenses.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Joe Powers said Neronha should not be firing back at critics online. “Ultimately elected officials need to abide by a higher standard,” he said. “I have to be honest, I thought someone hacked his account — I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

But Powers questioned how McKee could ignore Neronha’s request for more funding when the state is funding projects such as a Pawtucket soccer stadium. He said McKee could be vulnerable in the next election, and he said Neronha’s recent fund-raising shows he’s considering running for governor — not going sailing. “Unless he plans to make a sail out of cash, he plans to use it for something else,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.