In many ways, The Rhode Island Lieutenant Gubernatorial Democratic primary race between incumbent Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee and challenger, State Representative J. Aaron Regunberg, has been positioned as an illustration of a widening rift within the Democratic party between so-called progressive-Democrats and a more traditional, old school brand of Democrat, centered on who is best equipped to stand on behalf of working families. Much of the rhetoric coming from the Regunberg camp has focused on the many state and national progressive organizational endorsements that Representative Regunberg has received, while offering criticism of what they describe as Lieutenant Governor McKee’s undemocratic support for special interests groups. In turn, Lieutenant Governor McKee has countered that he possesses all of the same core Democratic values that Representative Regunberg espouses to, but also has a keen understanding of how to effect change within the structures and institutions of state government, drawing on decades of experience in politics and small business.
A close examination of the two candidates reveals many distinctions, almost entirely centered on economic approach and how to best utilize the often-overlooked State Office of Lieutenant Governor to improve the quality of life for average Rhode Islanders. There are drastic differences in areas such as marijuana policy and healthcare structure, though for the most part, my conversations with each candidate revealed them to each have Rhode Island’s working families at the heart of their concerns.
Through a series of podcast tapings and telephone interviews and by attending campaign events, I was able to get a sense of each candidate’s approach to governance and what they see as their key differences.
“My opponent has tried to paint me as some kind of Trump-supporting, right winger, which is ridiculous and disappointing,” McKee told me in a recent phone interview.
McKee, the former mayor of Cumberland and a longtime small business owner, described, during a taping of The Bartholomewtown Podcast, the various initiatives he has taken as lieutenant governor, from challenging National Grid, to addressing Rhode Island’s opioid crisis, to his Young Entrepreneurs program, to his 39 Cities and Towns initiative, which seeks to address the specific needs of each municipality in the state.
Daniel McKee: I try to find ways to make an impact, to work with individuals. Yes, the speaker of the house has more authority than the lieutenant governor, and in many ways the speaker of the house has more authority than the governor. Because of my experience as a national lieutenant governor, traveling (around the country), I see that there are governance models that would work better for the lieutenant governor and I’m advocating that we do that.
With a recent WPRI/Roger Williams University poll suggesting less-than-favorable results for progressive gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown in most potential matchups, and progressive senatorial candidate Patricia Fontes still reeling from the fallout surrounding her unclear positions regarding women’s reproductive rights, Representative Regunberg’s campaign for lieutenant governor may be the progressive movement’s best shot at obtaining a major office this autumn.
In a wide-ranging conversation, I asked Representative Regunberg how his message was being received as he met with Rhode Islanders throughout the state.
Aaron Regunberg: Campaigning has been great. I’ve been traveling around the state for months now and it’s been wonderful on a personal level to get to see the full extent of Rhode Island and all of the cool things happening and the wonderful people. It’s been really exciting and encouraging for me to see how much of a desire there is out there for both a general new leadership and new ideas at the State House, but, specifically, to see the desire for Democratic leaders who are actually willing to stand up and take on special interest and take on corporate interests and fight for working families in the state.
There is this constant refrain that Rhode Island is actually a very conservative state. But my experience from Woonsocket to Westerly, East Bay to South County to Providence to northwest Rhode Island, is that people are excited about the issues we’re talking about. Fighting for a living wage, equal pay for equal work. They’re excited about someone who is working for Universal Healthcare. They like the idea of bold climate action and actually taking some real leadership on our environment. They’re excited, particularly with the need right now with The Supreme Court, the need to stand up and take real action to protect a women’s right to choose in Rhode Island. So, overall, it’s been a wonderful experience for me personally and its been really inspiring to see how much energy there is out there in Rhode Island for the kinds of issues we’ve been fighting for.
BB: What are the major things that distinguish you from Lt. Gov. McKee, and how have you been presenting those issues to potential voters?
AR: I think there are some really important differences in this race. Whether its standing up for working families, as I said, I fought to pass paid sick days which went into effect July 1st for one hundred thousand Rhode Islanders which never before had that security. My opponent sided with the corporate lobbyists against that legislation. I fought for a living wage for folks, while my opponent again sided with corporate lobbyists against that. I’ve been pushing for single-payer universal healthcare, my opponent sided with for-profit insurers against that legislation. I’ve been saying for our state to take women seriously around Rhode Island, demanding that their state government step up to take action to protect a woman’s right to choose. My opponent just a couple months ago said that Roe v. Wade was in no danger and he called The Reproductive Healthcare Act more of a gesture. When it comes to taking taking on The Trump Administration and that agenda. So, I think there are some really strong differences in the race, and I think that those differences matter, because The Lieutenant Governor’s office can play a really critical role in those fights. The fact that maybe it’s not doing that right now doesn’t mean that it couldn’t. I think that office could be a real resource for Rhode Islanders. It should be taking on those entrenched interests and working to bring The People’s voice to The State House. That’s why I think the stakes of this election matter. It’s about what kind of state government do we want. Do we want one that is going to stand up for the issues that people are struggling with?
How can we use this race to elevate this broader message of ‘what does it mean to be a Democrat?’ and support the good folks around the state who are running for those core Democratic values. We’re working to make sure we build a broader movement.
Progressive values are traditional Democratic values. Some of the ways that people have been articulating the debate and conversation within the party between Progressive Democrats and Traditional Democrats… when I look at The Democratic Party going back to FDR, it’s the party that stands up for working people, it stands up for unions, it stands up for the environment, fighting for healthcare for everyone for decades, those are the traditional democratic values. I think there is an important conversation happening right now that is in large part from the 2016 election, people in Rhode Island A) started paying attention to state politics because they’re realizing that it’s the last line of defense from all of these attacks coming out of Washington, and B), they’re starting to realize that just because you have that ‘D’ next to your name doesn’t necessarily mean your standing up for those values. So, I think that is what this race is about. As I articulated there are some really important differences between myself and my opponent when it comes to issues, and when it comes to the approach of that ‘Old School Machine.’
Lieutenant Governor McKee, on the other hand, counters that outside progressive interest groups, local activists and Representative Regunberg himself are completely off-base in their assessment of his own effectiveness in fighting for core Democratic values. He sites his record as a community leader and public office holder, as well as the public positions he has taken surrounding many of the issues Mr. Regunberg has called him out on, and telling me that he is ‘confident’ in his campaign’s communication strategy based on recent internal polling and his experience traveling around the state.
DM: If you have an opponent that has outside influences outside of The State of Rhode Island that want to come in and change the direction of The State of Rhode Island and when they create a mess of it they just leave, you can’t do anything about that. I’ve been elected Mayor (of Cumberland ) six different times. Money is important, but the message, the drive, your experience, what you’ve accomplished, that is way more (important).
BB: What is the main difference between you and Representative Regunberg?
DM: There’s a proposal that has been made that we would go to a single pay healthcare program. A standalone state model. Bill, this is an economic disaster for The State of Rhode Island to be a standalone. We want everybody to have the very best healthcare. We want to make sure in penetrates every individual that lives in our state, and the concept that is being floated in Washington, The Affordable Care Act, has been very successful in Rhode Island. I think we need to make that stronger, improve it, find out where it might be weak, and strengthen it. But to bring in and advocate for a single payer system in Rhode Island… Just to give you an example, Vermont tried for three years to back into (single pay), they said ‘we want it, we’ll worry about the costs later’. They tried to back in the costs. Eventually The Governor there had to stand up and say ‘this is an economic problem for The State of Vermont’. This is right in Senator Bernie Sanders’ backyard. Colorado did the same thing, they had a voter initiative by a number of people that were very excited about the concept. Got one hundred thousand signatures, got it on the ballot in 2016. But when they found out that as a standalone state no one state can handle this, (it was defeated) eighty to twenty percent. Boulder, Colorado, one of the most progressive places in the world, voted for marijuana at 68%, voted President Obama at 72%, they saw that the single payer model would be destructive to their local economy. (We need to build) the economy so that families can afford to live here and that they have places to work. This would be a big mistake for the state of Rhode Island, in my opinion. When you calculate the numbers, it was going to add a couple billion (dollars) to Vermont’s bottom line, increase payroll taxes and passive income taxes. We’re a state that has been subject to a high tax structure and we’re weaning off of it. Let’s do something nationally to address the issue to make sure everyone has good healthcare and people can afford it, but let’s not be foolish thinking that there some glamour to being the first in the country to do something that you’re actually creating economic suicide.
I have all the high ideals you can imagine, and I certainly feel as though I am a Democrat that has been true to Democratic ideals, but I also understand that you need to have a good economy, and you don’t do things that are going to hurt that.
BB: Does having a somewhat fiscally conservative approach to executing progressive ideals help to get more accomplished?
DM: As a small business owner in a family that has rode this rollercoaster (of economic uncertainty and depression) in Rhode Island for decades, we’ve seen it over and over again, and our businesses have suffered from that. So, you don’t want to self-inflict an economic problem when you don’t have to.
When Rhode Island Democrats head to the polls on Wednesday September 12th to cast their primary ballots, they will be faced with an unusually highly-charged and important Lieutenant Gubernatorial line. While ultimately not the stark ideological contrast or battle over wedge issue that some would make it out to be – Dan McKee is simply not the prototypical DINO that the progressive movement would prefer to be able to run against – The 2018 Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor’s race should pose a significant question to each would-be voter: are core Democratic ideals best served, protected and advanced by way of the experienced, systemically proven, fiscally cautious approach to the office that Lieutenant Governor McKee has demonstrated, or, through the more ambitious, fiscally optimistic approach offered by the young, but proven fundraiser, activist, campaigner and state representative, J. Aaron Regunberg?
To hear complete episodes of The Bartholomewtown Podcast with Lt. Gov. McKee and Rep. Regunberg visit bartholomewtown.com or RIpodcast.com
Follow me on Twitter @billbartholomew