CUMBERLAND — As Gov. Gina Raimondo sets her sights on a new job as President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce, Lt. Gov. Daniel J. McKee is tapping his experience as a local mayor and a native son of a Northern Rhode Island community to face his own pending promotion as Raimondo’s replacement.
McKee on Friday pointed to his past transitions both as an incumbent and outgoing mayor of Cumberland as helping him in his latest move into a new chief executive role.
“This is my fifth transition as an executive elected official,” McKee said while noting his past experience in charting a new course ahead in public office.
“So that experience is helping a lot and we’ve been going through dress rehearsals for the last several weeks anticipating potentially the governor would be receiving an appointment in the cabinet with the president elect,” McKee explained.
As a result, McKee said he and his transition team will be “hitting the ground running,” when he is called to step forward as Raimondo’s replacement.
“We’re making sure we are covering the bases, we’re preparing to make sure transition teams happen, we’re inviting people who want to participate in the transition to give us a call and we’ve got a pretty good set-up to include many people,” McKee said of his ready-to-move transition plan.
“And we certainly want the Blackstone Valley representatives in that transition team strategy,” McKee added.
McKee expects that he will be taking on the challenge of completing work on the state budget at some point in March if his move into the Governor’s office goes according to the tentative forecast available now.
“We are prepared in terms of our planning and now it’s executing that planning so that when I do take office I will be prepared to take more specific action with the questions that are in force right now, the COVID-19 vaccine and testing and getting the economy back and getting our schools back for full attendance,” McKee said.
As of Friday, McKee did not have a specific date for when the actual transition might begin. Raimondo is officially announced as Biden’s choice for Secretary of Commerce but must still gain Senate confirmation for that role.
McKee’s team is acting on a presumption that the change could occur between the middle and the end of February but he also noted no specific date exists at the moment.
“If it ends up being before that, we’ll have to accelerate what we’ve been doing and if it ends up being after that, then we may have to even amend some of our preparation that we are doing right now,” McKee said of the still undecided timing of Raimondo’s departure.
McKee said he is fairly certain that he will be submitting the new state budget to the General Assembly and that is due on March 10th this year.
“We are working on that right now,” McKee said while noting the state budget is part of the focus of his transition efforts.
Another major focus of his initial days as governor will be continuing the state’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling out any changes in that effort that come with President-Elect Biden’s new administration.
“I think the President-Elect is going to come out with a very aggressive plan that is going to help Rhode Island,” McKee said.
“Right now, the good news is that nationally we are holding our own in terms of the amount of percentage of vaccinations that are being made based on population and we just want to maintain on that and improve on that,” McKee said.
There has been talk that the Biden administration may promote a more widespread vaccination program that includes inoculations for those over 65 as one significant change, but McKee said more time is needed to know what changes might be proposed in Rhode Island and how they would be carried out.
McKee does see a need to let people know when they are going to be eligible to receive a vaccination and also to develop a strategy for providing them information on dates that they may be able to receive one.
“I think that you are talking about sites being set up, partnerships with pharmacies, CVS can play a leading role in this as well,” McKee said.
McKee plans to continue participating in discussions on the state’s COVID-19 response so he will be ready to make any needed decisions when he is sworn-in as governor.
“But right now it’s just full speed ahead on what we are doing at the moment,” McKee said.
McKee said he will be interested in making sure “Rhode Island gets a good supply of vaccine as quickly as it can, so that we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as we can.”
McKee is also looking to working more with local communities in managing the impact of COVID-19 on schools and points to his local experience as a mayor and also a board member for the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayor Academy in helping him weigh the options in that area as well.
“It should be locally driven, state supported and also a local decision,” McKee said of local districts deciding when they can resume full operation of their schools.
“The state should play a role in providing the information to the local districts so that they can make the best decisions that they can,” McKee said.
As for how much help fiscal help local communities can expect to receive as the crisis continues, McKee said that also is still undetermined.
For municipalities, President-Elect Biden’s COVID-19 recovery plan may hold the most promise given the nearly two-trillion dollar request to Congress includes direct support to municipalities and states for their COVID-19 related expenses.
“It includes the municipalities, it includes the state to help weather the storm here and it’s a major amount of dollars that is being appropriated to help with vaccination issues,” McKee said.
Although it is still hard to know how much help is coming, the amount of aid that is going to come from President Biden’s proposal “is going to help local communities and I believe is going to help the state and it is going to help local school districts,” McKee said.
“That will be under my management, so whatever we can get to help local communities, as a former mayor I understand how important it is,” McKee said.
McKee is also looking to his experience in preparing Cumberland’s past municipal budgets as an asset in taking on the far larger and more complex state spending plan.
“The experience I had there – obviously the numbers are different, the number of people that you are working with is different but people are people and budgets are budgets,” McKee said.
“We’re digging in now and I think we will be prepared to understand what we are looking at and that’s an important thing,” McKee said. “You can understand what the options might be based on real numbers and I think that is what I always did as mayor,” he said.
“I understand that budgets reflect priorities and policy and so I’m looking forward to trying to work through this budget even if it is on short time frame,” McKee said.
McKee said members of his transition team are familiar with state budgeting and are already helping with his role in that process.
As for working with Gov. Raimondo and her administration, McKee said he has had good relations with the state’s department heads and has been able to “stay informed.”
The governor is already in the process of preparing for her new role in Washington but has made her staff available to him for the transition.
“We have communicated, we communicated by text as early as this morning so we are definitely in the communication weave,” McKee said of Raimondo.
He also pointed to his recent conversions with New England governors such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont as part of the transition process.
“That is also another extension of that communication and the fact that Gov. Raimondo has good connections regionally there, we’re going to do the same thing,” McKee said.
“I think New England can rally together as they have, and I want to be part of that and make sure that we get our share of the vaccine and the resources to really contain this virus and vaccinate as many people as we can as quickly as we can,” McKee said. He also hopes to “get the schools open as fast as we can with kids in the seats, and get the businesses operating, those are kinds of the priorities that we have right now,” McKee said.
As for where he plans to live when he takes on his new role, McKee said he will stay in his hometown.
“I’m not leaving Cumberland,” he said.
“As we go around the state and talk to people, people have a lot of pride in their communities as I do in Cumberland,” McKee said.
“That’s our strength, and so I’ll go to that strength and that’s why I know the communities are going to respond strongly to this effort to really rally and attack this virus in a way that we can do from a ground level,” McKee noted.