McKee thrust into spotlight as Raimondo's Rhode Island successor

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Gov. Gina Raimondo’s appointment as commerce secretary by President-elect Joe Biden marks the latest and most significant shoe to drop in Rhode Island politics.

Assuming U.S. Senate approval of Raimondo’s nomination, little-known Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would fill out the last two years her term on Smith Hill. Raimondo expects to remain governor until the Senate confirms her.

McKee, a Democrat like Raimondo and part of her ticket in the 2014 and 2018 elections, would have to manage the COVID-19 crisis, the recent spike in cases and vaccine rollout. McKee, a former Cumberland mayor and Town Council member, would also work with top lawmakers on that state’s budget, which now exceeds $10 billion.

"We discussed the importance of a smooth transition," said Dan McKee.

Rhode Island reached 100,000 coronavirus cases on Monday, state health officials said. McKee himself is in quarantine until the end of Tuesday because of a coronavirus exposure.

“McKee's elevation to the governorship sets up a number of key questions,” said Providence College political professor Adam Myers. “A big one is what his relationship with the General Assembly — where he has never served — will look like.”

The lieutenant governor’s position is even more obscure in Rhode Island than in many other states because the office-holder does not oversee the Senate. The late Robert Healey, founder of the populist Cool Moose Party, even built his 2010 campaign theme around abolishing the office. He got 39% of the vote in one of seven tries for the office.

McKee’s strong support of charter schools has put him at odds with unions.

“McKee is a more conservative Democrat taking office at a time when the legislature is moving left,” Myers said. “I imagine that, with his sights on the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary, he won't want to pick fights with the legislature or place obstacles on its policy agenda, but we'll see.”

McKee spoke with Raimondo on Thursday after the news of her appointment. "It was a productive call and we discussed the importance of a smooth transition," he said. "Crucially, out state's COVID response will not be impacted. "

Rhode Island’s political wheels were already spinning with the defeat of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who wielded much more power than the Senate president because of longstanding quirks. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, lost to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung in November. Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, is the new speaker.

Fallout from the criminal trial of former campaign consultant Jeffrey Britt hurt Mattiello, even though the latter was not charged. Federal Judge Daniel Procaccini cleared Britt last month, dismissing a felony money-laundering charge as “unconstitutionally vague” and finding him not guilty of a misdemeanor prohibited contribution related to Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.

While McKee and Shekarchi are moderates, the legislature as a whole has been “gradually moving left,” said Myers, which could invigorate debate over an increase in the highest income tax rate and the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Gary Sasse, founding director of Bryant University's Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership, praised McKee for his business advocacy.

“I look forward to working with Gov. McKee. He has championed small businesses during the pandemic,” said Sasse a former state revenue director and former executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

McKee has owned and operated small businesses in the Blackstone Valley over the years.

McKee graduated from Cumberland High School. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science and education from Assumption College in Massachusetts and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

He has chaired the National Lieutenant Governors Association, co-chaired its energy committee and has been a member of its education committee.

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