McKee sees great opportunity to help people

McKee sees great opportunity to help people

COVID-19 response, help for business are top priorities

PROVIDENCE – As former Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee sees it, being governor of Rhode Island presents a tremendous opportunity to help the state and people he loves.

As a former mayor and local basketball coach, the state’s lieutenant governor says he feels he has the community connections that will serve him well as he transitions into the top government post being vacated by Gov. Gina Raimondo as she moves to President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet as commerce secretary.

In a phone interview this week, McKee acknowledged that some of his approaches will be different from those of Raimondo, but emphasized again that he will maintain her strong focus on eradicating COVID-19 in the state and making sure there’s a plan in place to vaccinate people when vaccines become widely available.

This is his fifth transition as an executive elected official, said McKee, so it’s familiar territory. Asked if Raimondo deciding not to bring him into her circle on decisions before now has hurt that process, he said that it could have if he and his team hadn’t been doing their own work to stay up to speed, but because they were preparing for this potential outcome and didn’t take a passive approach, he said, that has not been the case.

Raimondo made the decisions that she did based on the fact that the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run as a team in Rhode Island, said McKee, but he was still able to stay involved and ready for the possibility of becoming governor by maintaining communication with department heads and staying in touch with communities through weekly town halls. He said he’s also helped distribute some 40,000 masks to small businesses.

Since he became head of the National Lieutenant Governors Association, said McKee, nine lieutenant governors have become governors, so this transition didn’t come as a huge surprise.

McKee said he’s proud of the great interaction and direct contact he’s maintained with all 39 Rhode Island communities, a situation that will be made all the more important as the state connects with those cities and towns on addressing the virus. He said his past experience in crisis management as mayor will help him in that effort, including getting more testing and “more vaccinations in more arms.”

McKee said he was recently talking with some national leaders about the importance of not only having a good working process when vaccines are in limited supply, but being prepared “when the spigot opens up.” That relationship with communities, as well as his past experiences coordinating with such groups as the Cumberland Emergency Response Team, will pay off when it’s time to coordinate that wider effort, he said.

In the end, McKee told The Breeze, decisions are going to come down from the governor and a team of people at the state level, but it’s beneficial to get input locally and weigh the value of that input.

This will be a work in progress over the next six to nine months, he said, including on vaccines, infection rates, the economy, and helping small businesses, all while making sure the day-to-day tasks such as snow clearing are done the right way.

Time to help business

While the top priority is health, McKee said he does believe there’s some room to help businesses amid the ongoing restrictions, and for some “incremental flexibility” within those restrictions.

Asked specifically about local officials’ current move to seek more lenient restrictions for restaurants, including on a 10 p.m. weekday and 10:30 p.m. weekend closing time, he said he believes there is a way to “increase the footprint” of those that are being impacted and restricted while making sure not to increase the infection rate.

Beyond that, said McKee, there are some retail areas that have not been restricted but have still been impacted, and they’ll also need support through the millions of dollars coming into the state in aid.

McKee said he’s been very vocal about making sure his administration gets all the facts on the status of the state related to its federal aid, including the CARES Act funds of last year. The state got some money out, he said, but he wants to see an accounting on it, as officials didn’t get out as much as was originally committed. While there were rounds of $100 million and $80 million in grant funds, he would guess that no more than $50 million has gotten to small businesses to date.

Of larger importance are the Paycheck Protection Program funds that saw some $2 billion come into the state, he said. The goal will be to make sure the highest amount of PPP funding possible gets into the pockets of every business that qualifies, as even those who don’t feel they need the money would still benefit the state by getting the money flowing through the local economy.

As he learned as mayor, said McKee, one can’t have a fiscally sound community without financially sound businesses, and in these extraordinary times, officials need to take extraordinary measures to make sure that those businesses are on solid footing, as doing so will impact the entire state.

McKee: Time in Cumberland set the foundation

McKee, 69, said his time as mayor of Cumberland served him well on numerous fronts, including navigating two major national crises in the real estate collapse and the popping of the internet bubble, both of which required serious management acumen.

As board member of the Boys & Girls Club and a Realtor and former 30-year owner of a health club in Woonsocket, he said he understands what average people are going through, including the pressure and lack of sleep experienced by small business owners. He noted that he was civically involved long before becoming mayor.

McKee said he’s very proud of his achievements as mayor, including the forming of the Office of Children Youth and Families, which he hopes to duplicate around the state as a way to help children dealing with losing so much learning time, and the formation of the Mayoral Academies and Blackstone Valley Prep.

Though he sometimes faces criticism on some of those initiatives, he said, he stands by each of them. Not only have the Mayoral Academies been an academic success story, but they haven’t led to the budget deficits on the town school side or the tax increases everyone predicted, he said. Not only that, said McKee, but Cumberland has gone from having two failed elementary schools to being one of the leading districts in the state. He said he’s also proud of his efforts to retrofit Cumberland High School.

On the specific criticism related to funding the charter schools, he emphasized that he was the one who commissioned the report that led to a change in the funding formula and millions of dollars in new funding coming into town.

Though nothing is ever perfect, he said, he’ll stack his record up against anyone’s.

“Just look at the record,” he said. “The history and outcomes speak for themselves.”

On the suggestion from some town residents that the town never did what was promised to replace Currier Park across from Town Hall after a new Blackstone Valley Prep school was built there, he strongly rebuffed it, saying he and his team made significant upgrades to the Valley Falls Heritage Park and made a “half-million-dollar improvement” to the playground behind B.F. Norton Elementary School.

Choice of LG still a way off

Though some mayors are suggesting that former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa is the frontrunner to replace him as lieutenant governor, McKee would not confirm that and said he’s asking all prospective candidates for the position to submit one-page letters. He said “everyone’s in the mix” for the job, and this will all be done out in the open before a selection is made to be confirmed by the Rhode Island Senate.