GOP-union alliance scrambles RI lt. gov. campaign

Dan McKee (D) and Catherine Taylor (R) are the leading candidates for Rhode Island lieutenant governor.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Organized labor is usually one of the most reliable constituencies for Democratic politicians in Rhode Island, but this year many unions are taking an unusual step: backing a Republican.

The executive board of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO voted unanimously this week to endorse Republican Catherine Taylor for lieutenant governor, making her the first GOP candidate to get the AFL-CIO’s backing since 1986, when the union federation backed John W. Lyle Jr. for secretary of state and Claudine Schneider for Congress.

In a statement, AFL-CIO President George Nee said the endorsement reflected Taylor’s “understanding of the many challenges everyday Rhode Islanders face” as well as her tenure as Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s director of elderly affairs. Taylor said she was “honored and humbled to be the first Republican endorsed by the R.I. AFL-CIO in almost 30 years.”

It also reflects how the sleepy race for lieutenant governor is scrambling some of Rhode Island’s usual political alliances. A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released Tuesday showed McKee leading Taylor 36% to 27%, but nearly one in three voters – 31% – were still undecided.

“People don’t really know much about the lieutenant governor,” WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. “It’s a race they’re not focusing in that much on. These last three weeks, the message that these candidates get out there is going to be very important.”

The latest campaign-finance reports filed last week showed Taylor’s campaign with $135,118 on hand and McKee’s campaign with $117,495 on hand after both received infusions of state matching funds. McKee has filed to receive an additional $176,638 in matching funds, while Taylor has filed to receive an additional $72,430.

McKee went on the air with a TV campaign commercial this week that promotes him as a new face who will focus on the economy and education. Zach Sherman, Taylor’s campaign manager, told WPRI.com she plans to start airing TV ads next week.

Taylor, 53, is racking up support from organized labor despite being the endorsed candidate of the Rhode Island Republican Party, whose leaders often criticize union influence at the State House, and sharing the ticket with gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung, who’s been criticized by labor leaders for wanting to make Rhode Island a “right-to-work” state. (Taylor told the AFL-CIO she disagrees with Fung on right-to-work.) She also strongly supports holding a constitutional convention, which most labor leaders oppose.

At the same time, Taylor is a longtime former aide to the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee and his son, Lincoln Chafee – the latter of whom is disliked by Republicans for his opposition to President Bush, his independent candidacy in 2010, his decision to become a Democrat in 2013, and his liberal policy positions. Taylor served as the younger Chafee’s director of elderly affairs until she stepped down to run for lieutenant governor earlier this year.

Taylor’s moderate profile gives her an opportunity to make appeals beyond Rhode Island’s small base of Republicans, who make up just 11% of the state’s registered voters. That – along with her residency on Providence’s wealthy East Side – may also help her raise money; she has enlisted Tony Bucci, a veteran GOP fundraiser who previously worked with Don Carcieri and Ken Block, as her finance chair.

Yet her affiliation with Chafee and support from organized labor could draw concern from the GOP base. Justin Katz of the conservative R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity wrote last month that Taylor “is apparently making the rounds to make the case for Republicans in the state not to vote for her,” citing her statements at the AFL-CIO endorsement convention. Unlike most Rhode Island Republicans, though, Taylor is a proven vote-getter statewide, having nearly unseated incumbent Secretary of State Ralph Mollis in 2010.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic nominee Dan McKee, the 63-year-old mayor of Cumberland, faces deep hostility from the state’s teachers’ unions because of his longstanding and vocal advocacy of charter schools, which they oppose. McKee won the Sept. 9 primary in part because unions divided their support between his opponents, Secretary of State Mollis and Warwick Rep. Frank Ferri, allowing him to win with 43% of the vote.

The nomination battle that played out over the summer may also be helping the Democratic candidate now. “Dan McKee ran in that primary, and that helped him get known,” Fleming said.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gina Raimondo and others on the ticket have reason to hope McKee runs a strong campaign that helps other members of the party since he hails from the vote-rich Blackstone Valley area, where Republicans often fare well. McKee is participating in the Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, a joint effort to spend money on field operations to turn out the Democratic vote on Nov. 4.

Fleming noted McKee could also benefit depending on how many Democratic voters use the master lever, or straight-ticket voting option, which is being phased out after this election; ironically, Taylor’s 2010 campaign for secretary of state called for the master lever to be abolished.

Charter schools aren’t the only issue on which McKee’s position could raise eyebrows among some Democrats, however. He told Rhode Island Public Radio this week he’s skeptical about the value of Rhode Island’s HealthSource RI marketplace at its current budget level – even though it’s one of the main policy successes of the Democrat he hopes to succeed, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, who is barred by term limits from running again. Taylor supports retaining state control of HealthSource RI.

In a statement, Roberts declined to respond to McKee directly. “HealthSource RI is a successful exchange that has provided affordable health coverage options for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders,” she said. “I know that we will have a thoughtful and productive discussion about how to sustain HSRI and build on that success.” Noting that more than 150 groups, including doctors and hospitals, were involved in its creation, she added: “I trust those committed Rhode Islanders will maintain the momentum to carry these successes forward.”

The AFL-CIO’s decision to endorse Taylor came after its convention voted last month to oppose McKee, though the group held off on endorsing Taylor until she met with various labor leaders. The Republican has also received endorsements from AFSCME Council 94, the largest state workers’ union; the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, the state’s second-largest teachers’ union; the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers; the Teamsters Local 251; and SEIU 1199.

No Republican currently holds statewide or federal office in Rhode Island, and Taylor has argued that the “lack of two-party competition” is one of the state’s biggest problems. “This is not just an endorsement of my candidacy,” she said after the AFL-CIO endorsement was announced. “It is an endorsement of a measured, bipartisan, inclusive approach to governance. It is a recognition that now, more than ever, is the time for the respect and dialogue that are the necessary precursors to progress.”

The union vote appears to be up for grabs in the race. The WPRI 12/Journal poll showed McKee leading Taylor among voters in union households by 33% to 29%, a result that was inside the poll’s 4.38-point margin of error, with 28% undecided. “Taylor now has a chance to pick those up if the unions work hard to pick up those votes,” Fleming said.

While McKee has received no union endorsements so far, his spokesman Mike Trainor said Wednesday the Democrat’s campaign was “gratified” that the WPRI 12/Journal poll showed him ahead of Taylor with rank-and-file union members.

Trainor said the poll “confirms that Dan’s message … is resonating with voters.” He noted that the poll found only about one in four voters thinks Rhode Island is heading in the right direction, and said McKee will campaign on a platform of “new leadership to work for a better economy, better job opportunities and better public education.”

Taylor, too, is casting herself as an agent of change. “Every voter I’ve met over the last four months has expressed a deep frustration with our political discourse and the state of our economy,” she said Wednesday. “People are ready and eager to move away from dysfunction and discord.”

Another outstanding question about the race is how much money outside groups will spend to influence who holds the lieutenant governor’s office. Taylor’s union backers often spend significant sums on electioneering, while McKee benefited during his primary race from $115,500 spent by Moving Rhode Island Forward Inc., a PAC funded by education reformers.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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