By ARDEN BASTIA "Today, I'd like to speak directly to the Rhode Island residents, families and businesses. And I want you to know who I am, begin to know who I am, what I believe, and why we are prepared to execute a smooth transition during these
“Today, I’d like to speak directly to the Rhode Island residents, families and businesses. And I want you to know who I am, begin to know who I am, what I believe, and why we are prepared to execute a smooth transition during these critical times … I need to earn your trust.”
With those words, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee opened his first solo appearance as the state’s governor-to-be – a Jan. 14 press conference at the Chelo’s restaurant on Post Road in Warwick.
McKee placed addressing the pandemic and distributing COVID-19 vaccines as his top priorities.
“Every moment in office, I’ll be thinking about how to make the state stronger for everyone that lives in the state – for our families, our residents, our small businesses, our students, everybody,” he said.
McKee, 69, was raised in Cumberland and grew up in the family heating oil business. After graduating from Cumberland High School and Assumption College, where he studied political science, he took over the family business along with his brother before getting into local politics.
Business has always taken a central role in his life. In addition to working in the heating oil business, he opened a real estate brokerage firm and a fitness center in Woonsocket.
He served two terms on the Cumberland Town Council before defeating incumbent Francis Gaschen in the 2000 Democratic primary for mayor. He went on to win the general election that year without opposition.
Then, in 2004, he lost to former state Rep. Davis Iwuc, but two years later came back to regain the mayor’s seat. As Cumberland’s mayor, he created Blackstone Valley Prep, the first mayoral charter school in the state. In all, he served Cumberland as mayor for six terms.
In 2014, McKee made his first run for statewide office, when then-Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts was coming to the end of her two terms. After winning a three-way Democratic primary against Ralph Mollis and Frank Ferri, he went on to top Republican Catherine Taylor in the general election.
He brought a town hall feel to Smith Hill, and since then as focused on being a liaison between mayors and the state.
At the press conference last week, McKee emphasized that he has made five successful political position transitions throughout his career, asking for Rhode Island’s confidence that this transition will be just as smooth as the previous ones.
“As part of the transition, I know that I also need to earn your trust and your competence. And I intend to do that,” McKee said.
He reiterated a top focus for the coming weeks and months will be a “successful pandemic response and vaccine distribution … My team is focused on COVID-19, streamlining vaccine distribution, and putting us on a path to recovery.”
Despite not begin present at previous COVID briefings led by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, McKee emphasized that working alongside the health director will not be a new experience.
“I’ve met this weekend with the top-line team and the COVID response. That’s going to continue,” he said. “I plan on being front and center with all 39 cities and towns, all the municipal leaders, we’re engaging right now … speaking to civic leaders, municipal leaders, about the role that they play in terms of keeping us safe.”
His motto in the battle against the virus: “Stay positive, test negative.”
McKee also addressed the much-debated topic of choosing the next lieutenant governor. It had been proposed that the General Assembly should make the selection as opposed to McKee, or that voters should fill the position.
“My understanding right now is that I’m going to make [the decision], based on conversations that I’ve had with leadership that I’ll be making the appointment,” he said. “If that changes because of the General Assembly’s actions, I can’t control that. I want to make it clear that no decision has been made.”
McKee said the decision is important, but not a top priority for him compared to responding to the pandemic and improving the economy.
Charles Lombardi, mayor of North Providence and a longtime friend and colleague of McKee, said he thinks the decision should be left to McKee.
“I think you would be more successful in your work as a team,” he said.
He added he’s not a candidate for the post.
Lombardi has known McKee for over 20 years, and speaks highly of him.
“The constituents that he dealt with daily in the neighborhoods and spoke with, that speaks volumes,” he said. “He will bring this here. He’s a great family man. His family values are second to none.”
Lombardi believes McKee is the best choice for his constituents in North Providence, since McKee can “relate to the average taxpayer.”
Lombardi also said with his personal background in, and strong passion for, small businesses, McKee would maintain a strong focus on helping Rhode Island’s businesses through the pandemic. He acknowledged the hurdles the pandemic has presented, especially for minority communities throughout the state.
McKee suggested utilizing rapid tests to help small businesses more accurately gauge the health of their customers and employees.
In addition to the pandemic, a major issue facing McKee will be putting together a state budget for the coming fiscal year, which he is expected to submit to the General Assembly in March. McKee says he’s already met with House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
He’ll also be faced with balancing a budget, with the state currently facing a projected deficit of roughly $514 million. McKee didn’t give any details or elaborate on whether spending cuts would be in order, but stated he needed to “pin down the number” before confirming.
Last Wednesday, Raimondo publicly criticized Pawtucket schools for choosing to follow a distance-learning model through the end of the school year. While McKee did not specify if he supported or rejected her actions, he did say that he believes “the local districts should be making the decisions and the state should be supporting those in any way that we can.”
McKee expects local districts to consider any information that comes from the state and the Department of Education. McKee highlighted his first-hand experience as a school board member, serving “2,000 students from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland, and Lincoln.”
McKee was adamant about returning students and teachers to the classroom for in-person learning, stating that “hundreds of hours of learning time is being lost. Doesn’t matter if you’re high income, low income, or moderate income. It doesn’t matter if you’re a minority family, or a non-minority family. It doesn’t matter if you go to a district public school or charter school or private school.”
One priority for McKee is getting the vaccine to educators, an area in which he believes there should be a stronger strategy.
“In order for us to get the economy back, we have to get the schools back, so that means we certainly have to raise the priority level for teachers and school personnel,” he said.
McKee “doesn’t expect a major turnover” with Raimondo’s current administration, instead choosing to sit down in one-on-one meetings with department heads throughout the state to encourage open collaboration.
“They’re not going to be strangers to me, and I’m not going to be a stranger to them,” he said.
McKee also said he believes “it’s time” to legalize recreational marijuana, although didn’t elaborate on the regulations. He also said he agrees with Raimondo’s current COVID-19 restrictions.
It is unclear when McKee would take office as governor, given that Raimondo must first earn U.S. Senate confirmation and has indicated she will remain in her current post until that occurs. But he’s hoping it could happen by mid-February.