On the RI Leadership Vacuum

RI is leaderless and our vaccination efforts are shabby. RI has two governors and neither of them are showing up. Gina Raimondo’s refusal to answer questions posed by the press is the equivalent of not showing up for work. The governor should resign. RI needs Dan McKee in charge now.

So goes the unprecedented discourse about an unprecedented time in Rhode Island. We’re undergoing a pandemic and its associated economic issues, an ongoing housing crisis, a change in the RI House’s leadership, and a gubernatorial transition all at the same time. The latter has somehow coincided with the current governor’s sudden silence in the face of questions from the media. And now the governor is facing calls from mayors across the state for her resignation.

These calls to resign are not exactly clear what the issue is that the governor’s resignation is supposed to solve. There is a general statement that there’s a lack of leadership, but they do not point to specific tangible issues that suggest administrative failure. Warwick’s Frank Picozzi seems to have been piqued by changes in vaccine allocation. Cranston’s Ken Hopkins wants to vaccinate teachers despite it being made clear that the State’s vaccination plan does not prioritize by occupations. While the former issue is a logistical issue that it seems unlikely a governor would be able to solve, the latter is a policy disagreement that can’t be reconciled with “leadership.”

That policy disagreement seems key. In keeping the governor’s longstanding top-down style, the State has its plan, and it is sticking to it, regardless of criticism. Meanwhile, mayors and other city leaders are (legitimately) trying to respond to a crisis now, and are attempting to manage vaccine distribution themselves. Everyone has a huge incentive to act, and government at all levels continues to act.

So why does it appear there’s a leadership vacuum in the state? First, I’d argue that it’s a little difficult for the public to evaluate the effectiveness of the State’s plan. The most sensational headlines in Rhode Island media have focused on things like Harvard’s “F” grade for vaccination rollout or the low ranking of vaccine doses administered per 100,000 people on the CDC website; which is not great for informing already rankings-obsessed Rhode Islanders who don’t like to read articles. Meanwhile, the Department of Health maintains that their plan is working, that hospitalization and transmission have declined rapidly, and we’re just plodding through the phases. This has been the story throughout the pandemic. Are our efforts working? Check back in two to four weeks to find out!

Second is the unforgivable silence from Raimondo. This is a lack of public leadership, but it’s not a lack of governance as it’s being portrayed. From all appearances, government in Rhode Island continues to govern with the governor at the top of the decision-making hierarchy. What seems to be happening is that the governor is (with one exception) not answering questions personally from the press. Her office is still responding to press questions, the Director of the Department of Health makes weekly appearances before the press, and the governor herself is still communicating with the public through social media. The person of the governor is just not being filtered through the press, which understandably upsets them.

That is a failure of leadership; not of governance. It’s an expected part of the norms of leadership in Rhode Island that powerful policymakers like the Governor make themselves available to the press. That’s part of the job, and if the Governor doesn’t want to do it, she’s entirely open to criticism on that front. However, it’s an important reminder that, despite its pretensions to being the Fourth Estate, press operations are private entities and their ability to access the governor personally is totally at her discretion. There is no fundamental difference (from this perspective) between me yelling a question at the Governor and a journalist doing so. It’s up to her to answer. Indeed, there have been press that were routinely iced out of having their questions answered. If we’ve learned anything over the last four years, it’s that norms are a thin protection.

Third are the problems with the expectations of this transition. Back in January, looking at past confirmation schedules and cognizant of the then-upcoming impeachment trial and the general pro-obstruction approach of the Senate Republicans, I began to think we were looking at a late February or an early March confirmation for the governor (that’s to say nothing of the potential for the confirmation to fail in a 50-50 Senate). This was not the chattering class’ assessment though, which began predicting a Governor McKee in a matter of days. This also led to the ongoing scramble for Lieutenant Governor, as many would-be future gubernatorial candidates saw an opportunity to ensconce themselves in a position of unique potential. People are impatient for the governor to leave so they can start doing all the plans they intend to do once she’s gone. That impatience is exacerbated in part because we failed to temper expectations at the outset of the transition.

This goes back to the mayors. It’s in mayors’ interests that McKee becomes governor, because McKee seems to be signaling that he is likely to be more attentive to them. Unlike McKee, Governor Raimondo emerged onto the state political scene without ever dabbling in municipal politics, and she’s shown little sympathy towards municipal needs. As I said earlier, she is very much a top-down leader, and she doesn’t seem so attentive to people or groups that she didn’t have a hand in. You can witness this in her failure to protect or add pro-pension reform members of the General Assembly, in the travails of UHIP, or in her distance from Lieutenant Governor McKee (the flipside is her closeness with Stefan Pryor, the state Secretary of Commerce, a position she created).

It’s thus understandable that mayors want McKee ASAP, since he seems likely to manage state policy in a way that’s more responsive to their needs. McKee clearly would like to be governor now, too. Constitutionally though, he’s limited to merely stating his plans for the future, unable to actually do anything. Rhode Island simply hasn’t experienced a midterm gubernatorial transition in a lifetime, and it doesn’t seem like we quite know what to do about it, especially with it being of indeterminate length.

And that’s where we are. Neither an interregnum or a genuine power vacuum. Just a holding pattern as we wait for national politics to sort themselves out and provide a definitive answer (one way or the other) about what happens next with a governor who has gone mute to the press. The governor has a right to serve her term this way, however foolish I think it is to ice out the press. The press has every right to complain about its treatment. Mayors have every right to complain about policy differences. McKee can continue publicly telling people “well, this is how I’d do it.” And we’re unclear about how long this is going to last; it could be days, it could be weeks, it might be another month or two.

If this state of affairs is unacceptable, the General Assembly may have a way to remedy it: impeachment.

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