PROVIDENCE — At what point does Gov. Dan McKee’s “#RIMomentum tour” turn into a campaign?
Is the “tour” that began this week an effort by McKee’s team to put him in TV-ready photos for his re-election campaign?
Or is Democrat McKee simply walking the hard-to-define line between incumbency and campaigning while three of his rivals — Republican Ashley Kalus and Democrats Helena Fowlkes and Nellie Gorbea — spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on paid television advertising?
When asked, this was campaign manager Braxton Isaacs’ response to questions from the Journal: “Since these are official side events, I would direct any questions you have there.”
The response from McKee communications director Andrea Palagi: The “RIMomentum tour” is not a campaign event.
Asked about an event scheduled for Friday afternoon at Farmer’s Daughter in South Kingstown, “a multi-generational, woman-owned family farm” to highlight money in the state budget for “employer-led training programs,” she said:
“This is not a political event, this is an office event to communicate the investments in the FY23 budget and how those investments will affect Rhode Islanders.
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“This is very routine for the governor’s office after signing a budget,” she said. “We did the same strategy to highlight the Governor’s RI Rebounds budget passed by the General Assembly earlier in the year.
“No campaign funds are used, no campaign materials are distributed, and no campaign personnel are present for these press conferences. This is all about the work of the governor’s office and making that information available to the people of Rhode Island.”
What McKee’s opponents are saying
But Kallus disputed the underlying theme of McKee’s #RIMomentum tour, saying, “Rhode Islanders don’t feel momentum, they feel malaise.
“Dan McKee does the best Jimmy Carter impression. People know our state is on the wrong track … and this governor can’t deliver the change we need.”
Foulkes spokeswoman Audrey Lucas said, “If Helena were governor today, she would be more focused on getting things done for Rhode Islanders than on a publicity tour.
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“It’s been a week since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Instead of taking action like other Democratic governors, Governor McKee has yet to take executive action to protect abortion providers, despite promising to do so.
“And with a recession likely on the horizon and the rising cost of living hurting Rhode Islanders every day, it’s clear now is the time for leadership and action, not celebration.”
“Incumbency has its advantages”
John Marion, executive director of the citizen advocacy group Common Cause RI, said:
“Incumbency has its advantages, and incumbents have long sought to exploit them. In the early 1990s, in response to some scandals, the General Assembly saw fit to place some much-needed restrictions on the use of office budgets for what amounted to a free advertising campaign.
“Since they are prohibited by law from spending money to promote themselves, they are resorting to seeking the type of earned media Governor McKee is seeking with his #RIMomentum tour.”
The law he cites prohibits elected officials from using “public funds from any official budget under his or her direction for any publication, advertisement, broadcast or telecast of his or her photograph, voice or other likeness to be broadcast or distributed to the public during the 120 days before the election in which he or she is a candidate.”
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But it also said the law “shall not be construed to prohibit” an elected official from doing any of these things on “an official government website or social media presence … maintained in the regular course of official government business solely for general information or transparency purposes.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between holding office and campaigning,” Marion said.
“At the federal level, which has pretty good rules, the rulers have figured out how to use them by holding official events and election rallies in the same place, using the occupation of offices to subsidize campaigns.
“Rhode Island certainly could [tighter] rules than at present, but that would require incumbents to put constraints on themselves, something they are unlikely to do.”
Stops on the #RIMomentum tour
McKee kicks off her #RIMomentum tour on Tuesday.
The announcement begins: “After signing the historic FY23 budget, which provides relief for Rhode Islanders and invests in the state’s future, Governor [McKee] … will kick off his #RIMomentum Tour by announcing the opening date for DRIVEEV.
“DRIVEEV is the administration’s new electric vehicle rebate program … [to] support the adoption of electric vehicles by Rhode Islanders, small businesses, nonprofits and public sector organizations.”
The following notice from the governor’s office begins: “Continuing his #RIMomentum tour, Governor Dan McKee today signed into law historical legislation to make Rhode Island the first state in the country to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2033, the most aggressive renewable energy standard of any US state.”
According to the governor’s office, McKee “was joined in the signing by Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, Rhode Island AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Crowley and [the] bill sponsors.” The place: the solar depot in North Providence.
That was Wednesday.
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On Thursday, McKee held the following tour: ribbon cutting at the new Boskalis Offshore Renewables Office located in the Cambridge Innovation Center in downtown Providence.
On Friday, he headed to the Farmer’s Daughter in South Kingstown to “highlight significant workforce development investments contained in the FY23 budget he recently signed, which support employer-led job training programs and include support services for jobseekers.”
By comparison, Palagi, his communications director, provided links to news stories about events Gov. Ned Lamont is hosting at his activities next door in Connecticut, and Governor Kathy Hochul did this in New York.
“Governor Lamont has a CT Difference brand for his budget that was signed earlier in the year. His office also hosts events to highlight budget items residents should know about, such as his state’s version of the child tax credit,” she said.