Lieutenant Governor and soon-to-be-Governor Dan McKee held his first official press event today, the first one since he became a governor-in-waiting where he was the star of the show. The setting was unusual for a group accustomed to “big” city politics in Providence, a Chelo’s over by the airport in Warwick, chosen for its small business emphasis as well as its Rhode Island connection. The owners of Chelo’s are reported to have gone to high school with McKee’s father.
“My message to Rhode Island is this,” said McKee. “We’re gonna work through this together and come out of this [COVID-19 crisis] better than we came in.” The lieutenant governor is about five days into his transition, and he stressed to the press today it was his fifth one as an executive officer. McKee, as previously reported, will be keeping the current COVID-19 response team in place for the state, but wants to work with towns and local groups more, bringing a grassroots response to the pandemic he thought had been lacking.
McKee said his door was always open to the media, and didn’t see that policy changing. Local media felt the sting yesterday, when Governor Raimondo declined to answer questions of any kind at her weekly COVID-19 presser. McKee offered no criticism of his predecessor and re-oriented questions repeatedly around the state’s COVID response he’s about to take over.
“The goal for the year is to stay positive and test negative,” said McKee.
There are no foreseen changes to cabinet according to the lieutenant governor. Each cabinet member, including the RIDE commissioner, will have a conversation with McKee and they will come to a decision together whether they are staying on. On choosing his successor as lieutenant governor, McKee repeated his intention to form a committee to help appoint a new LG, and not get into “side bar conversations” with the General Assembly about the process. McKee offered no specifics of who he favored, but invited more people to put their names in. When asked about the utility of the office and the big stink Bob Healey made in 2014 about the uselessness of the office, McKee said he had long wanted to realign the office to make it more useful. He also noted many did not think the office was useless, and cited the number of people putting their names forward for consideration.
McKee made a commitment today to legalize marijauana. Rhode Island has long lagged behind its neighbor states and others over legalizing what is widely viewed as a popular and harmless drug. The lieutenant governor said he favors a private, entrepreneur-run system as opposed to the state-run dispensary system favored by Raimondo.
Local school districts can expect a lot more support from the future governor. McKee made no bones about forcing school districts to follow state guidance or else. “We need to let local districts decide and support them,” he said about distance learning. While he admitted he could not criticize a mayor after being one for 14 years, he did emphasize the need for state input in education under COVID. The lieutenant governor also said he would not seek to expand charter schools, something he’s heavily supported in the past. He wants to support the current system as much as possible, stressing the need for districts and charters.
McKee declined to get into specifics over the budget deficit, saying it was impossible to say one way or the other without “pinning down the numbers.” He stated that the original projected budget deficit of $900 million was off by hundreds of millions of dollars. The lieutenant governor was confident in his ability to handle the deficit, citing improving the bond rating of Cumberland during his time as mayor. He also expressed confidence in President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to get aid to cities and towns through Congress this year.
His budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year will be submitted to the General Assembly as soon as March 10, and it remains to be seen how different it will be from Raimondo’s.