Lt. Gov. McKee launches re-election bid against progressive challenger Regunberg

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee announced Tuesday he will seek re-election in 2018, setting up a primary clash between the first-term Democrat and progressive challenger Aaron Regunberg.

McKee, a 66-year-old former Cumberland mayor, argued voters need an experienced hand with a business background in Rhode Island’s No. 2 office – setting up a contrast with Regunberg, a 27-year-old state representative who clashed with business leaders this year over a new law mandating paid sick days.

“I don’t know Aaron that well, so I’m not going to comment about him,” McKee told reporters. “But I can tell you that my point was that in the last year, seven lieutenant governors became governors in the country. And they were prepared to be governor, as I am. And so I think it’s very important that that’s an evaluation that the voters will make.”

McKee’s comments followed a speech in front of Dean Warehouse Services, a company off Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick owned by one of McKee’s childhood classmates. McKee used the setting to argue state leaders should focus more on the interests of small businesses and municipal leaders.

“It’s clear to me that we desperately need elected officials in the state to listen more clearly to what the municipal leaders are saying,” he said.

McKee cited a number of accomplishments during his time in office, including eliminating a charge for residents who decide to buy electricity from a supplier other than National Grid; visiting all 39 cities and towns to talk with small business owners; and starting a public-access TV show to highlight those businesses as well as various policy issues.

Battling National Grid has been a focus throughout McKee’s first term, and he renewed his judgment of the utility in the wake of its much-criticized response to last week’s power outages. “It is painfully clear to me that a privately-owned utility like the National Grid must be as accountable to its ratepayers as it is to its shareholders,” he said.

In addition, McKee said he and his staff are in the process of crafting a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand the powers of the lieutenant governor’s office and mandate that the governor and lieutenant governor run together on a joint ticket.

The clash between McKee and Regunberg has already received national attention from CNN as a test of whether progressives can flex their muscles further following Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong bid for president in 2016.

In a statement Tuesday, Regunberg welcomed McKee to the race.

“The system needs change,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand how often Rhode Islanders who can’t afford a State House lobbyist get ignored. That’s why I’m running to be lieutenant governor – because we need a statewide elected official who will bring the people’s voice to the State House and fight for a future that is fair for all of us.”

McKee declined to say whether he would have signed or voted for the final version of Regunberg’s paid sick days law, but did say he believed his original proposal was too sweeping because it did not exempt the smallest businesses. (The enacted legislation exempts employers with fewer than 18 workers.)

“If there is a continued attack on the ability of small business to operate in the state of Rhode Island, then those who want to put those mandates in place should also evaluate ways to offset those mandates so that the small businesses do not have to bear the whole burden of programs that the state thinks that they need to implement,” McKee said.

For years McKee has had a frosty relationship with Rhode Island’s teacher’s unions, an important Democratic Party constituency, because of his longtime advocacy for public charter schools. He renewed his defense of those institutions on Tuesday, saying he supports excellence in education.

“Competition does work,” he declared.

Despite being the challenger, Regunberg starts out the race with a sizable financial edge over McKee. Regunberg had roughly $214,000 on hand as of Sept. 30, after raising nearly $65,000 during the summer quarter, according to a Board of Elections filing last week. McKee had about $74,000 on hand after raising about $15,000. He told reporters Tuesday he thinks he will need $250,000 to $300,000 to be competitive.

Among those on hand for McKee’s announcement were his wife, Susan, as well as Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi and Cumberland Mayor William Murray.

Polisena made an extended case for McKee’s re-election in his introductory remarks.

“Keep in mind, the lieutenant governor’s functions are many, but most important he or she must be ready to serve as our governor if the governor’s unable to serve,” Polisena said. “We can’t afford to gamble with someone with absolutely no business experience as well as no leadership experience that will destroy or kill off small business.”

“We don’t want anyone to learn on the job,” he added.

Also on hand was former state Sen. David Cruise, a Cumberland Democrat who is now a top aide to Gov. Gina Raimondo. Cruise said the governor asked him to attend McKee’s event, but said it did not represent an endorsement.

McKee obliquely acknowledged he had contemplated challenging Raimondo in next year’s Democratic primary for governor before deciding instead to seek a second term as No. 2. Referring to his days playing youth sports, he said, “Sometimes you’re a role player, and sometimes you start – and both are important.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook