No Rhode Islander Can Resist a Cabinet: Raimondo heads to DC, leaving a power vacuum in her wake

Governor Gina Raimondo is leaving the Ocean State for another job. News broke last week via a leak to The New York Times that President-elect Joe Biden was picking our two-term Rhode Island executive for commerce secretary. The decision comes after months, if not years, of rampant speculation. Raimondo, a rising Democrat within her own party, boasts moderate (read: conservative) credentials and is a stellar fundraiser for Democrats’ causes. Her appointment would be the first time in the state’s history that a sitting governor left office to accept a cabinet appointment. 

Raimondo, a former venture capitalist and Rhodes scholar whose educational pipeline goes from Lasalle Academy to Harvard to Yale to Oxford, was first elected state treasurer in 2010. Her pension reform policies remain controversial to this day, with critics rebuking the sharp rise in fees paid to hedge fund managers and her lowering of entitlements. She defeated Ocean State blueblood scion Clay Pell and former Providence mayor Angel Taverez in the 2014 Democratic primary. She went on to defeat Allan Fung in the general (doing so again in a rematch in 2018) to become the Ocean State’s 75th governor.

As governor, Raimondo has boasted lowering the state’s employment rate (pre-COVID of course), pushing for more diversity in the state’s judiciary, reducing small business taxes and regulation, and moving the state toward clean energy. Her tenure has not been without controversy, however. The UHIP rollout disaster saw the state spend millions on a new computer system for government programs like childcare and food assistance only for the system to crash and create a backlog of 20,000 cases. DCYF has seen a rise in fatal or near-fatal incidents involving children under state care. Raimondo’s big push to reopen schools during the COVID crisis has come under sharp criticism from educators and parent groups across the state, as has the liability shield she gave nursing homes for the COVID crisis. COVID case rates and deaths continue to soar.

With Raimondo leaving with 18 months left on the clock, Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee is poised to inherit the top job in the state and cause a political seachange never seen in the state’s history. McKee will be empowered as governor to handpick his successor, making him move, to paraphrase a Providence Journal headline, from a forgotten man to the most powerful man in the state, almost overnight. According to researchers at the Rhode Island Secretary of State, the most recent time in history a state governor stepped down from the office was when John Pastore resigned to run for United States Senate in 1950.

McKee, a generation older than Raimondo (when he was Raimondo’s current age he was just getting elected mayor of Cumberland), is a few steps further to the right in the Democratic Party. During his time as lieutenant governor, McKee has been a big proponent of local small businesses and especially evangelical for the cause of charter schools in the Ocean State. A graduate of Cumberland High School, McKee owned and operated small businesses throughout the Blackstone Valley region. He first came to local politics in 1992 when he was elected to the Cumberland Town Council. He went on to serve 11 non-consecutive terms as mayor, starting in 2000 and ending in 2014 when he was elected the state’s 65th lieutenant governor. 

Rhode Island’s political rumor mill, famous for being one of the state’s only remaining mills, went into overdrive this weekend as pundits speculated just whom McKee would choose to replace him as lieutenant governor. Three top names surfaced over the weekend: former Central Falls mayor James Diossa, Johnston mayor Joe Polisena, and state senator for District 12 Louis DiPalma. Twitter saw advocacy over the weekend as well when RI Democrat Women’s Caucus chair Liz Gledhill pressed McKee to choose a woman for the role. Several women have put their names forward, including former state senator Donna Nesselbush, current Woonsocket mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, and Lisa Ranglin, head of the RI Black Business Association. 

While the role of lieutenant governor is generally known as the short stick of Rhode Island’s big statewide offices (Raimondo reportedly has ignored communications from Lieutenant Governor McKee and hasn’t met with him in person since 2019), McKee’s choice will have big implications in the next election. Both McKee and whomever he chooses to be lieutenant governor after him will serve out the remainder of the terms and be running for re-election within 18 months. Even prior to Raimondo’s announced ascendancy to a cabinet role, campaign wheels were turning among those who wanted to succeed her and McKee. Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Providence mayor Jorge Elorza were a few on the Democrat side widely expected to run in the party primary next year. Now what was an open primary turns into a race against an incumbent who has been in the job for more than a year.

Those seeking office for lieutenant governor are in the same boat. Former house rep Aaron Regunberg is the first to explore another run for lieutenant governor. Regunberg, one of the state’s most visible progressives, lost to McKee in 2018 by fewer than 3,000 votes. “I am excited to continue exploring another run for that office, and look forward to working to earn the support of my neighbors,” Regunberg said in a statement provided to Motif after the commerce secretary news broke. “Regardless of the political appointments that we may see in the coming months, it will be the voters of Rhode Island who will choose their next elected lieutenant governor in two years.”

The other general officers running congratulated Raimondo in their statements, and said they were looking forward to working with McKee. As of this writing, the transition is still being worked out, and McKee, in quarantine over the weekend from exposure to a close contact with COVID-19, has said little about whom he intends to appoint in his place.