Who Holds the Most Power in Rhode Island?
Our April cover story highlights the forty-five most powerful Rhode Islanders in business, politics, education, development, philanthropy and more.
Rhode Island is having a moment.
The smallest state emerged from the pandemic hungry for its next phase, with rapid expansions in the sciences, education and hospitality sectors and the construction trades struggling to keep pace with demand for places to live and do business. At the same time, some of its biggest industries continue to grapple with disruption, and leaders who were once reliable anchors through tough times have relinquished their podiums to fresh voices coming up quietly through the ranks — or demanding the spotlight for themselves. We’ve scoured the state looking for those who hold clout, from business and politics to art and philanthropy and everything in between. Don’t agree? We can’t blame you. It wasn’t easy to pick the forty-five most influential Rhode Islanders, and power often looks different depending on who’s holding the lens. But we’re willing to bet that as the state continues to carve out its future, the names on these pages will be the ones pulling the strings.
The Unexpected Governor (below) | Politics | Changing of the Guard | Business | People to Watch | Arts | Law | Development | Sports | Philanthropy | Education | Health | Labor
The Unexpected Governor
Dan McKee climbed from Cumberland town councilman to governor of Rhode Island. Will his regular-guy persona be enough to inspire big changes? By Bob Curley
Brown shoes with a dark suit. I rarely contemplate other men’s sartorial choices, but it’s the first thing I notice as Rhode Island’s seventy-sixth governor, Dan McKee, unspools his lanky frame from a black SUV at the Boys and Girls Club of Cumberland-Lincoln.
Taller than expected despite an ever-so-slight stoop in his posture, McKee, seventy-one, clearly doesn’t put a high value on a luxury wardrobe to project authority; a discernible lack of pretense is one of the man’s genuine charms. Later, he says one of the key life lessons
imprinted on him by his late father, James McKee, was, “No one’s better than you, and you’re no better than anyone else.”
Dan McKee is at ease walking into the youth center that his father founded in 1956. The street where we park is named James McKee Way after his dad, and a plaque just to the left of the front door quotes words of inspiration from the elder McKee: “Success is there for you. All you have to do is earn it!”
The governor spent decades playing and coaching basketball here, as well as serving as president. “I was president of the club before I had a family,” he says.
McKee quickly falls back into the role of community advocate, asking questions of program staff about the center’s empty swimming pool (presently awaiting expensive repairs) and pointing out the game room where he spent hours playing bumper pool and air hockey as a kid. Soon enough, our tour brings us to the gym, where McKee worked tirelessly on the ball skills that led him to star on the hoops squad at Cumberland High School, where he met cheerleader and future wife Susan before graduating in 1969.
Many Rhode Islanders don’t know much about their governor, but that’s clearly not the case in Cumberland. As the gym door swings open, a group of older adults playing pickleball quickly recognize McKee, greet him warmly and, in a very Rhode Island moment, invite him to pick up a paddle and join their game.
McKee barely hesitates, handing off his suit jacket to an aide and taking his position on the abbreviated tennis court used for the fast-growing sport.
“What are the rules?” he asks as the three other players assemble, revealing that he has never, in fact, played pickleball before. But McKee, a multisport athlete throughout his life and an avid tennis player, flashes his hand-eye coordination instantly as the game
begins: No ball that lands on his side of the court gets past the governor, and despite playing with a very un-tennis like paddle and plastic ball, his backhand shot is strong and smooth.
McKee is competitive. After every point he asks the score, and there’s no thought of playing a few shots and bowing out. Once he’s in the game, he’s in until it’s over. And soon enough it is, with McKee and his partner prevailing five-to-three — not bad for a first-timer.
After accepting congratulations, shaking hands and fulfilling a photo op at center court, the governor heads for the door, intercepted only briefly by a Cumberland resident who urges him to add more pickleball courts in local parks (McKee offers a noncommittal reply about the growing popularity of the sport before moving on with the tour).
“I didn’t run for mayor of Cumberland or lieutenant governor because I wanted to become governor, but it happened, and all the work I’ve done has prepared me for it,” McKee says when we sit down for an informal chat in the club’s child care center. Asked whether his laid-back image is at odds with his on-court drive, McKee searches (fruitlessly, it turns out) for a photo of the McKee family’s annual Christmas Ping-Pong tournament — a competition in which no mercy is expected, or given.
Calculated or not, McKee seems to have been in the right place at the right time more than once in his political career, fortuitously facing opponents with some major flaws and, of course, standing at the ready when former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo made her long-anticipated leap from state to federal politics in 2021.
“He narrowly won a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2018, and then moved up when Gina Raimondo became commerce secretary in 2021,” says Ian Donnis, political reporter for the Public’s Radio. “Helena Foulkes ran a competitive primary race against McKee last year, and we can only wonder how the result might have been different if she had been a little more aggressive. And McKee was fortunate to face a general election candidate, Republican Ashley Kalus, whose limited time in Rhode Island undermined her appeal. Still, you have to give McKee some credit for winning these races and steadily moving up the political ladder.”
More determined than dynamic — veteran political analyst Joe Fleming calls McKee a “hard worker” who often gets underestimated because of his unassuming nature — McKee is hardly a political novice. He served a combined twenty years on the Cumberland Town Council and as mayor, then another seven years as lieutenant governor before his constitutional elevation to the governor’s office in March 2021. His resume also includes a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, one of the top schools of public policy and public service in the country; he earned his degree in 2005, while still serving as mayor of Cumberland.
If McKee strikes some, like Donnis, as an “accidental governor” for the way he initially took office, his background suggests that he’s about as prepared as anyone to take the top leadership role in the state. “The issues he cares about, he cares about very passionately,” says fellow Democrat and Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.
Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio say McKee did a creditable job in presenting his first state budget as governor and establishing a good working relationship with the legislature — not always a given in Rhode Island, even when the players share the same party affiliation. Fleming agrees that McKee has established a solid relationship with the General Assembly, which approved most of his stated funding priorities for fiscal year 2023 — albeit sometimes at levels less than requested — in areas like housing, child care and small business, as well as eliminating the much-despised annual excise tax on automobiles.
“He’s been up front and frank on the issues,” says Ruggerio, who is currently reviewing McKee’s FY2024 budget, adding that people should not be fooled by the governor’s “aw, shucks” persona. “When he has something he cares about, he can be very tough,” he says.
McKee is a big believer in the axiom that sports — and particularly team sports — build character and life skills. The McKee brothers all played basketball at Cumberland High School (Dan played baseball, too), winning a state championship along the way. For years, he coached youth basketball in his hometown, mentoring young athletes and winning two AAU state championships.
“It was a great way to connect with kids and share with them skills on the court and lessons in life,” McKee says. “I learned more from basketball than I did when I went to the Kennedy School of Government.”
McKee’s basketball mantra is so ingrained that daughter Kara recites it by heart: “Share the ball. Contest every shot. Go after every loose ball and rebound,” she says. “He sees the potential in everyone; he’s very competitive, but in a teamwork-oriented way.”
Outside of the arena, the lessons still apply for McKee. “‘Share the ball’ means share opportunity with people,” he says. “‘Contest every shot’: Work hard every day. ‘Go after every loose ball and
rebound’: Effort is important.”
If Dan McKee was never a mayor, never a lieutenant governor or governor, he would still be remembered for his work as a coach and mentor for kids in Cumberland and northern Rhode Island. Nothing better exemplifies this than his decades-long relationship with two brothers from Woonsocket, Derrick and Eric Abney.
In the 1990s, the Abney brothers were promising youth basketball players, drawing McKee’s attention while he was forming an AAU team called the Rhode Island Shooting Stars.
“We were good basketball players, but it ended up being more than that,” says Derrick. “He motivated us to do the right things in our lives and offered guidance as a father figure.”
The team succeeded on the court, helping propel the brothers’ dreams of going to college and playing ball. But the brothers were arrested on drug charges, which led to the loss of their scholarship offers.
McKee continued to stay involved, helping the Abneys obtain legal representation and showing up at court dates to offer support. Fast forward twenty years, and both brothers have good jobs, houses and families — their own and the McKees, who they still see over the holidays.
“We still call him on his birthday and on Father’s Day,” says Derrick. “His integrity is unparalleled, and that’s why me and my brother love him. He’s a special guy to take two kids from the inner city and care for them as his own.”
Even notoriously informal journalists feel some compunction to “suit up” when visiting the governor’s corner office in the State House, but McKee is waiting for our second interview on a Monday afternoon in a suit jacket with no tie, his white shirt unbuttoned at the collar (this time, I don’t notice the shoes).
McKee’s casual nature clearly isn’t something he puts on for effect. Our chat happens to coincide with a life event far more significant than his pickleball debut: The governor’s daughter-in-law, Laura, and son Matt announced the birth of the first McKee grandchild, Mabel James McKee — news he excitedly shares as we settle in around a conference table.
If simple humanity counts in politics the way we all say it should, the ceiling on McKee’s governorship is high. In a wide-ranging conversation, his command of facts on policy issues is impressive. He’s animated when discussing municipal issues, education, small business and health care, not coincidentally the key issues identified in his budget, State of the State speech and RI2030, the blueprint he developed during his interim term. (He’s also eager to promote the new “Keep Rhody Litter Free” campaign, a state/local partnership for which first lady Susan McKee serves as spokesperson.)
However, for all the significant programs and proposals he touts — the repeal of the car tax, trimming the state income tax, offering assistance on down payments for first-time homebuyers, $20 million for local communities to improve roads, matching the education achievement levels of the neighboring state of Massachusetts, to name a few — what McKee is really asking for is a show of faith, both from legislators and residents.
Rhode Island, McKee says, emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with a budget surplus, low unemployment and a high vaccination rate — all of which he takes a measure of credit for. Comparing the moment in time to the period immediately following World War II, he says there’s a unique opportunity for the state to address some of its longstanding problems — not the least of which is raising the income of all state residents — “if we’re able to find the determination we had and transfer it into a nonemergency situation.
“There is truth in the saying that you are what you believe,” says McKee. “It is an emotional issue, and you need to have the policy to match it. As leadership, the biggest thing you bring to the table is creating the belief that good things can happen.”
McKee may be affable, but he isn’t a candidate for sainthood. His nice-guy reputation took a hit when a hot mic caught McKee blowing off a congratulatory phone call from opponent Helena Foulkes on primary election night. “Anybody with a brain in their head would not be calling when they’re watching me on TV giving an acceptance speech,” he told reporters at the time. Small potatoes, to be sure, but not the kind of grace in victory you’d expect from someone with a lifetime of playing and coaching competitive sports.
The biggest controversy he’s faced so far as governor took place during his interim term, when McKee’s administration awarded a $5.2-million educational consulting contract to ILO Group, a firm closely tied to campaign supporter Mike McGee, despite the fact that the company’s bid for the work was substantially higher than the one submitted by a competing firm.
This led to accusations of a sweetheart deal and funneling taxpayer money to friends, including by McKee’s 2018 primary opponent, J. Aaron Regunberg, who called it a case of “misuse of power” and accused McKee of “failing to meet the basic ethical standards necessary for our government to function.”
A different politician might have gone into damage-control mode, but McKee met questions about the deal with more than a hint of indignation.
“I don’t need an investigation to know what I did or didn’t do. I know what I did was absolutely in the best interests of the people of Rhode Island,” he told Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick during a heated November 2022 interview. McKee said that the
resulting investigation by Attorney General Peter Neronha and the FBI “is going to come up empty,” and called the accusations against him and his staff “unfair, dishonest and shameful.”
Some have called McKee’s refusal to admit fault in the ILO case defensive; a less damning word might be “adamant.” It’s clear the one thing that really pushes McKee’s buttons is having his honesty and integrity challenged, but his habit of contesting his questioners in return hasn’t won him too many fans among the local press corps.
“He does get offended too easily, but as chief executive he will develop the callouses to deal with that better,” says House Minority Leader Representative Michael Chippendale.
The Republican leader has only had a single meeting with McKee as governor, which he described as cordial. “It became spirited, but not outside the norm of political differences,” he says. “It was not back-slapping, but he’s not someone who is impossible to work with.”
McKee is far more of a policy wonk than a political happy warrior. “Campaigns,” he says, “are the price you pay for what you want to do.” Undoubtedly, his most savvy move during the gubernatorial campaign was releasing an ad starring his ninety-four-year-old mother, Willa.
It’s a rare politician indeed who would view a grown adult cohabitating with his mom as a political asset, but McKee leans hard into the notion, calling himself out as “the governor who lives with his mother” not two minutes into his first State of the State address. Political observers said the ad made McKee a more likable, relatable candidate at a point in the election when attack ads were coming fast and furious from other candidates.
Family is hugely important in defining who Dan McKee is, and his father is the obvious role model. “Dad and people like (former Cumberland police chief and later Providence commissioner of public safety) John Partington were a big influence on a lot of people’s lives, including mine,” says McKee, who took his father’s old office chair with him to the governor’s office, and has a portrait of Partington hanging on the wall.
“Dan is a carbon copy of his father,” says McKee family friend and campaign volunteer David Swann. “His whole mission in life is to help out other people.”
“Dad lives every day to make Grandpa proud,” says daughter Kara.
McKee’s competitiveness, however, comes from his mother, Kara says. In the campaign commercial, Willa McKee jokes that she might occasionally let her son win a card game. In reality, Kara McKee flatly states: “Grandma does not lose at cards.”
Other than stepping into office when a sitting governor resigns (like Raimondo), is impeached, incapacitated or dies, the defined role of the lieutenant governor is murky. Perennial Cool Moose Party candidate Robert Healey famously ran for the office with the intent of abolishing it.
But McKee managed to turn that blank slate into a platform for some of his policy interests, working with twenty-six Rhode Island mayors — a group he’s quite comfortable around — to file a liability lawsuit against pharmaceutical firms involved in the opioid crisis, and helping to organize a coalition of small businesses to ensure that they received a fair share of federal CARES Act funds during the pandemic.
McKee also embarked on a statewide tour, meeting the mayors of every town and city as well as farmers, car dealership owners and other small business owners. In interviews, he frequently points to the inclusive symbolism of the thirty-nine town flags that appeared
onstage during the State of the State and now line the rotunda of the State House.
“As lieutenant governor, he really did make great strides toward demonstrating that he was working to understanding and appreciating some of the more municipal specific issues,” says Chippendale, whose rural district in the northwestern corner of Rhode Island skews strongly conservative. McKee “built a considerable amount of goodwill” by touring the state, he says: “He really endeared himself to folks in the part of the state I represent.”
Chippendale also says that McKee slid further to the left as he sought votes in the 2022 campaign, but remains hopeful that as governor he will work in a bipartisan fashion with the state’s small contingent of Republican lawmakers.
“We’re bracing for a recession, but his campaign seemed to be more reactive to the fringe of his party. I think that absolutely was the case in the Democratic primary and the general election, as well,” says Chippendale. “When he ascended, that municipal experience positioned him ideally to be successful as governor. He has everything necessary to be a great governor. The willingness is the question mark, or does he want to bend to the whim of the day?”
Like mayoral politics, interacting with owners of small businesses is solidly within McKee’s comfort zone. His father, James McKee, ran a home heating oil company, McKee Brothers, that’s still in operation today and led by the governor’s brother, Mike.
“My father was on call 24/7,” says McKee. “Every day was a working day; every day you’re on duty. Small business is a part of my life.”
Inspirational speeches don’t come naturally to McKee, but he talks like a good coach. “We want to look for the best in this state. We want to look for the best in our fellow Rhode Islanders. And sometimes, looking for the best and seeing the best in what’s around us is half the battle,” he said in his inaugural address.
A lot of politicians say things like that; what’s striking is the general consensus that McKee really believes it. “Dan wants to do what’s best for the people of Rhode Island, that’s nothing that I would ever question,” says Chippendale. “I think he’s a compassionate, caring person dedicated to the people of Rhode Island,” adds Shekarchi.
For McKee, sharing the ball has always meant putting the team above the individual; even some detractors give him points for being willing to listen and learn rather than trying to prove that he’s the smartest guy in the room.
“My dad always said if you go into a place and someone has a good idea, then push as hard for it as if it had been your own,” Kara McKee says.
“I’ve been on three transition teams with him and never seen him be self-promoting,” says Swann. Yet touting your accomplishments is what gets politicians reelected, and McKee is not so selfless that he’s unaware of his accomplishments: he rattles them off effortlessly, even when not in campaign mode.
His father’s lessons on humility only go so far: McKee is confident enough in his own abilities to state, as he did during one discussion about charter schools, “I know education better than anyone who has ever had this seat.”
The question is whether Rhode Islanders will see beyond McKee’s old-school persona and emphasis on teamwork over entertainment value — so at odds with the twenty-first century political reality show — and give McKee the support he needs to accomplish his goals as governor.
“People might not know much about me, but how much do you really know anyone?” says McKee. “Part of the skill is to get things done, not through fake headlines. Maybe people pay attention, or maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting things done.”
The Unexpected Governor (above) | Politics | Changing of the Guard | Business | People to Watch | Arts | Law | Development | Sports | Philanthropy | Education | Health | Labor