The Scramble to be McKee’s Heir Apparent

The position of Lieutenant Governor is a great place for an ambitious Democratic politician to cool their heels as they wait for a chance to take a shot at becoming Governor or another office. Bob Weygand went on to US Congress. Charlie Fogarty almost defeated incumbent Donald Carcieri. Had she not been preempted by an energetic and polarizing General Treasurer who came out of nowhere in 2010, there’s a strong chance that Elizabeth Roberts would’ve been the Democratic nominee in 2014. Despite this, no Lieutenant Governor has succeeded in becoming Governor since J. Joseph Garrahy in 1976.

Since 2003, when it ceased to be president of the Senate, the job is traditionally a thankless afterthought. With no constitutional responsibility but to succeed the governor in the case of a vacancy, and only a handful of boards to chair under statute, the LG is largely dependent on the governor to give it something to do. Gov. Carcieri famously failed to notify Lt. Gov. Roberts he wasn’t in the country during a snowstorm, leaving her unable to activate emergency operations. Roberts was more closely involved with Gov. Chafee’s administration, but that relationship was not maintained when the two offices changed hands; current Lt. Gov. McKee has repeatedly complained about his lack of connection to the Governor’s office. And that lack of connection is being cited as a massive problem right now as RI enters an transition of uncertain length.

Given all this, it’s surprising that nearly 60 people applied to be RI’s next lieutenant governor. Even more surprising is that there are applications at all. That’s a reform of the open lobbying that occurred as would-be LGs sought to inject their names into the conversation surrounding the appointment. Now, it seems like you’re want an HR professional as much as you’d want a political analyst to make predictions about outcomes.

So why are so many people, including a lot of important political figures, putting their names in mix? Well, it’s simple:

This is the best shot to be the next governor

Since McKee is taking over more than halfway through Gov. Raimondo’s term, he’s able to run for reelection twice. That means, if Raimondo is confirmed within the next few weeks, you’re talking about the potential to be lieutenant governor for 1.75 to 9.75 years.

Though, as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t said it outright, McKee is likely to give his handpicked lieutenant governor much more responsibility than any other governor has; especially given his complaints about his treatment over the last six years. McKee’s likely selecting someone he believes he’ll want to work with for the next decade. McKee’s lieutenant governor could be the second to fourth most-prominent politician in the state, instead of the contested sixth place it currently occupies.

That’s going to be an unheard of amount of public exposure for a Rhode Island lieutenant governor, and they’ll have actual administrative experience in the governor’s office. Come 2030, a lieutenant governor selected in 2021 may be the natural successor to a McKee administration, and a formidable contender for the Democratic nomination. If McKee becomes governor, he’s essentially picking a candidate to be his heir apparent.

What does this likely mean for our applicants?

Non-Democrats, cold applications, and political opponents are out

A number of Republicans and people who claimed no allegiance to a political party applied to be lieutenant governor, and frankly, there’s no good reason for McKee to pick anyone who’s not a Democrat. First, it will further weaken McKee’s position as he heads into the 2022 primary, as Democratic opponents will be able to hammer McKee as insufficiently Democratic. Second, it greatly increases the chance that McKee’s pick is knocked out in the 2022 or 2026 election by the Democratic nominee, and that new LG will likely be less deferential than one picked by McKee.

For a similar reason, cold applications are probably all being tossed out. Why pick an unknown neophyte when you could pick someone who’s a known quantity in Democratic circles? Maybe one of the cold applicants could be a good administrator, but they’re huge gambles who could drag McKee’s administration.

Both a non-Democrat and a newcomer also set up a potential that the RI Senate will reject McKee’s selection.

And there’s no way Aaron Regunberg, who almost defeated McKee for the 2018 Democratic nomination for LG, is going to get the nod. One could argue that McKee would be savvy by promoting a political opponent from within the party to be his Number 2, but in reality, it would probably harm both McKee and Regunberg. Regunberg is unlikely to temper his critiques of State policy when in the post, and McKee would likely bear the brunt of that critique. Regunberg would also be harmed himself, as a McKee appointment and a potential close working relationship would call into question his progressive credentials, as McKee seems to be the least progressive of the four major Democratic candidates for governor.

In my view, McKee is likely going to pick:

  • A Democrat
  • And an experienced politician
  • That he’s friendly with
  • Someone who potentially improves his chances of winning the 2022 Democratic nomination
  • And could provide continuity with his administration in 2030.

What about pitfalls for McKee and his LG?

McKee and his pick also face their own risks. So let’s walk through those.

Nothing keeps the LG a loyal part of the team

Once selected and confirmed by the Senate, that’s it, the LG is now in their own office with no accountability to McKee. They may want to maintain good relations with McKee to keep busy, but if it looks like McKee is in trouble, they may cut their losses and start publicly criticizing him. Especially if it seems like being closely tied to McKee might harm their political future.

This will be more likely to happen if the picked LG is elected in their own right in 2022. They’ll now have their own mandate for office, and they can use that mandate to be a thorn in McKee’s side if they so desire. But, of course, there’s no guarantee they’ll even get that mandate.

The LG may not get elected in 2022

While it’s more likely to happen if McKee’s pick is not a Democrat, there’s no guarantee that McKee’s picked LG survives more than the 1.75 years left in McKee’s term as LG.

It may not be wise for an LG to hitch themselves to McKee

McKee is maybe the weakest of the four most-likely Democratic candidates for governor. Treasurer Magaziner, Secretary of State Gorbea, and Providence Mayor Elorza all have anywhere from three to nearly ten times the amount of money McKee has in his campaign account. While money is not everything, it will give his opponents a lot of room to define him, and not a lot of room for him to assist anyone else.

In 2018, Regunberg also proved McKee was a pretty weak incumbent for the LG position. McKee barely clung to office; if not for 2,500 votes, we could be looking at an incoming Governor Regunberg right now. Will McKee be better positioned as a governor taking over mid-term for Raimondo? And the big question mark will be how McKee deals with COVID and the economy. He could be facing some pretty tough decisions in FY 2022 and FY 2023.

That should give anyone hoping to be McKee’s LG some pause. First, whatever deal is made with McKee may not be honored by a Governor Elorza/Gorbea/Magaziner. Second, if you face a tough race for the Democratic nomination for LG (likely from Regunberg), a Gov. McKee won’t be able to save you. Even more likely, you’ll probably be expected to expend some campaign resources helping him instead.

McKee is about to make a lot of people unhappy

One of the issues with opening the process up like this is that McKee is inviting a lot of scrutiny. The public has been able to read through applicants’ letters and resumes.

McKee could’ve played his cards close to his chest, said he would consider appointing an LG after taking office, and then speedily appointed his personal pick once he was sworn in (whom he would’ve been secretly vetting the entire time). This would’ve been less transparent, but it also would’ve avoided scrutiny and perhaps headed off the public campaigning for the position.

Instead, McKee has made this a public process, with a public list of names and now resumes and cover letters made public (even the one marked “Confidential – Not for Public Disclosure”). While done in the best of intentions, it’ll likely prove more controversial than being non-transparent would’ve been. The public will be able to scrutinize McKee’s pick. If the eventual pick has a poorly-drafted cover letter or didn’t include a resume, there will be questions.

Likewise, people who were denied interviews or failed to get the office may complain publicly, and allege it wasn’t a truly fair process. What probably should’ve been a week-long story has already stretched on for a few months, and it could stretch on longer. The irony is that by constructing a process that’s fairer and more transparent on its face McKee has taken on more political risk than if he’d done the selection of the next LG in a manner that was inherently unfair and behind closed doors.

How this all shakes out remains to be seen, but it’s very possible that the next few months is going to shape Rhode Island politics for the next decade, and potentially create continuity in the executive for the next 18 years. We may not see something like this again.

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