Talking Politics

Challengers take their shots at McKee, who dismisses and deflects

By Ian Donnis
Posted 9/8/22

STORY OF THE WEEK: Televised debates on WPRI and WJAR last week offered a window into the state of the Democratic primaries for governor and the 2 nd Congressional District. Rivals tried piling on …

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Talking Politics

Challengers take their shots at McKee, who dismisses and deflects


STORY OF THE WEEK: Televised debates on WPRI and WJAR last week offered a window into the state of the Democratic primaries for governor and the 2nd Congressional District. Rivals tried piling on Gov. Dan McKee during one of the forums, criticizing him over the ILO Group controversy, his tie-breaking vote on the soccer stadium in Pawtucket and other issues.

McKee was dismissive of the swipes – the biggest barrage faced by the governor this campaign season – and each of the four rivals delivered their blows with gusto. Nellie Gorbea went on the attack, reflecting the consensus that McKee has strengthened his standing in recent weeks. Matt Brown and Luis Daniel Muñoz launched fiery populist missives. Whether this was too little, too late, a squandered opportunity to unseat McKee, will be determined by voters on Sept. 13.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes offered this closing message in characterizing the stakes in the election: “I think to myself, is the status quo good enough? Are we going to be okay with ‘meh’? No, I think we deserve much, much better. We need a leader who knows how to bring new thinking, who has a new path.” At the same time, Foulkes has lagged behind McKee and Gorbea in polls while spending millions on her campaign, raising questions about why the former corporate executive hasn’t run a more competitive race.

A similar dynamic was evident in the TV debates featuring the top CD2 Democrats. Joy Fox, Sarah Morgenthau, David Segal each made their case, while taking a few jabs at frontrunner Seth Magaziner. With Rhode Island set to soon turn the page to the general election, the primary outcome will either present a surprise or a reinforcement of the power held by political incumbents.


GENERAL ASSEMBLY I: I’ll have a story ahead of the primary on the high-profile Democratic clash between Lenny Cioe, who is backed by the RI Political Cooperative, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, the longest-serving lawmaker in the state.

Here are some of other top Democratic legislative primaries to watch, mostly featuring younger progressives against long-time incumbents: Giona Picheco is taking on state Rep. Charlene Lima of Cranston; Enrique Sanchez is squaring off against Rep. Anastasia Williams of Providence. Also in Providence: the bout between outgoing Ward 14 City Councilor David Salvatore and Sen. Sam Bell, the vanguard of the progressive flank in the Senate. Back to the House: Alex Kithes and Glenn Dusablon are squaring off for the rep seat vacated by Steven Lima.

Meanwhile, as I’ve reported, you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater contrast between the two candidates fighting over a rep seat in Cumberland, incumbent Jim McLaughlin and challenger Brendon Voas.


GENERAL ASSEMBLY II: The Rhode Island Working Families Party and the RI Political Cooperative have helped elect progressive legislative candidates through RI Politics 101: the candidate who works the hardest usually has a good chance of winning in the Smallest State. This was precisely how Sen. Cynthia Mendes of East Providence ousted her predecessor, Billy Conley, in 2020; Mendes and her supporters made more contact with voters by knocking on their doors than the incumbent. A similar dynamic can be seen in the current election season in the same district.

While EP City Councilor Robert Britto has a reputation for being responsive to constituents, Greg Greco (backed by the Co-op) and his supporters have been considerably more energetic in working the doors. A contrasting approach can be seen in how Greco is among the progressives opposed by the RI Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, through an almost $10,000 spend on mailers. One piece with a photo-illustration depicting Greco’s head emerging on a bird’s body from a cuckoo clock asserts he “has some really CUCKOO IDEAS!” and wants to take over the Statehouse with his “Socialist Friends.” Voters will decide which approach they find more convincing, (As Greco points out, he is not among the candidates listed on RIBCO’s campaign finance filing.)


COMING ATTRACTION: Starting Friday, Sept. 9, The Public’s Radio will be presenting a beefed-up 30-minute Political Roundtable: Election 2022. The inaugural episode will feature an in-depth interview with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza; a pre-primary panel discussion with Ted Nesi, Patrick Anderson and myself; my colleague Ben Berke on highlights from the Massachusetts primary, and some thoughts from voters on top issues and concerns. The segment will air each Friday, through the week after the November election, at 7:30 and 9:30 am and 5:30 pm (as well as online and via podcast).  


SHOW ME THE MONEY I: Gov. Dan McKee offered a straight-ahead answer when asked by WJAR’s Gene Valicenti if the budget will rise or fall next year under his watch. McKee said spending will go down, simply because of the exhaustion of federal COVID aid. He also vowed to produce another budget surplus – no small pledge since deficits have consistently greeted lawmakers returning to the Statehouse each January, until a recent run of black ink.


SHOW ME THE MONEY II: During the Channel 10 debate, Matt Brown hammered the Carcieri-era tax cut for wealthy Rhode Islanders. While it was hailed at the time as a step to boost Rhode Island’s regional competitiveness, Brown and other critics say it made the state’s tax regime more regressive. Rescinding the tax cut, Brown said during the debate, would make $1 billion available for other important needs for everyday people. But is that really enough to pay for RI Political Cooperative’s lengthy to-do list – universal healthcare, free quality child care, 10,000 green homes, and so on?

During an interview on Political Roundtable, state Senate candidate Jennifer Rourke of Warwick, one of three co-founders of the Co-op – said it would take about $700 million to build enough housing to eliminate homelessness. Establishing universal healthcare would be far costlier, although Rourke said other funding sources could help fill some gaps.


IN THE CLASSROOM: The general lack of progress in public education in Rhode Island over recent decades is an issue worth watching in the general election. GOP candidate for governor Ashley Kalus has vowed to focus on the issue; she released a statement this week this subject line: “How many Dems does it take to fix education.”

During an interview on Political Roundtable, GOP Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz (R-North Smithfield) described talking with business owners whose workers have difficulty filling out routine paperwork. She said more urgency and more choices are needed: “The kids who are in 8th grade who have the really low proficiencies in math and reading? They don’t have 10 years for Rhode Island to get [its] act together. They need options right now. They need options today.”


ODD BEDFELLOWS. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline became the anti-Buddy when he announced a run for mayor of Providence in early 2002 – a time when Cianci’s fate in the Plunder Dome investigation was far from certain. About five years later, by the time when Cianci emerged from federal prison after serving time for racketing conspiracy, his perch on WPRO became a launch pad for frequent criticism of Cicilline’s performance as mayor.

However, both Cicilline and the late Richard Egbert, Cianci’s Plunder Dome defense, had similar motivations for becoming lawyers. “In the prosecution of Jack Cicilline, I saw how unconstrained officials can weaponize the power of the government,” Cicilline writes in his new book, “House on Fire: Fighting for Democracy in the Age of Political Arson.” (h/t Ted Nesi.) I profiled Egbert in The Providence Phoenix, ahead of the Plunder Dome trial in 2002, and this was his explanation for taking up law: "The day that I saw my best friend's head split open by a baton when he was demonstrating peacefully against the war is a memory that I won't forget. That was the government out of control on its own citizens, not a foreign policy decision about whether or not they should or should not be in Vietnam. That was the stuff that I only thought you would see in watching a movie about someplace else."


CULTURE WARS: It says something about America in 2022 that local libraries have become battlegrounds. Via NPR’s John Burnett: “Texas leads the country in book bans. In the towns of Katy and Granbury, uniformed peace officers came into school libraries to investigate books with sexual content after criminal complaints from citizens. And the school district in Keller, Texas, pulled 41 challenged books off its shelves, including a graphic adaptation of ‘Anne Frank's Diary,’ ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir,’ and the Bible. Traditional-values groups are demanding the removal or restriction of books with explicit sex education, and books that unflinchingly document LGBTQ realities and the Black American experience. The American Library Association — in its unofficial tally — reports that challenges of library books have jumped fourfold, from 416 books in 2017 to 1,597 book challenges in 2021.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit

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