Foulkes came close last year to defeating Dan McKee in the Democratic primary for governor. The thinking is that she may take another shot for governor in 2026. But how can Foulkes stay in the public eye until then? And now that she’s not a candidate, what does the former CVS executive have to say about the top challenges facing Rhode Island? I’m Ian Donnis. This week, I’m going in-depth with Helena Buonanno Foulkes.


Ian Donnis: Welcome back to the public's radio.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes:Hi Ian, it's good to see you.

Ian Donnis: When you announced your decision this week not to seek election in Rhode Island's first congressional district, you -- we'll get into your explanation a little bit shortly. But I wonder you're a former corporate executive clearly. And if you ran for Congress, and you won, you would have been the lowest ranking member of Congress in a minority party. And it would have been a years long fight to have influence was this kind of mismatch between your experience and your possible future role, the deciding factor in choosing not to run?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: I look, I have a lot of respect for the job. It's incredibly important. But it did come down to where I saw my own strengths. So it was less about that job and more about what I'm good at, which is leading people and being an executive, for sure.

Ian Donnis: And you say that you would like to focus your energy on working with the community here in Rhode Island, to try to address local issues. What do you envision that looking like over the next few years?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, maybe I could tell you about the journey I've been on since my race, because I have really enjoyed being immersed in Rhode Island. And that was a big part of my decision as well. So what I did is after the race, I reached out to a whole bunch of people. And I said, I'd love to help you if I can. And I had many people take me up on that. And really just in a organic collaborative way. There's nothing formal in most of these situations, just people who wanted to tap into my experience. So I'm working on education in a few fronts, which I just love. I'm working in Johnston, with the school construction committee, we can talk more about that with Mayor Polisena junior. I'm working informally in Central Falls on various education issues. I've been helping Sophia Academy, which is a great five through eight school for girls and Providence help them raise money. I've also been working on healthcare, so with Women and Infants, which is building a new labor and delivery center. So I've been really enjoying helping fund that effort. And I've also been using some of my experience in the business world to try to attract new businesses to Rhode Island.

Ian Donnis: Last year, you came on strong at the end of the campaign for governor in primary season, you wound up losing to Dan McKee by three points in the Democratic primary. With the benefit of hindsight, do you think there is anything you could have done differently to have brought about a different outcome?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Oh, absolutely. I mean, look, this is part of I think all of us is we grow by learning from our mistakes and things that don't go right, are usually our biggest teachers, not our successes. And that's been true for me my whole career, there are a lot of things that haven't gone right in my career. But those have been great periods of growth for me. And that was true about losing that particular race. I mean, I learned so much, and we could get into it. But I also learned that in the last 30 days, you know, 30 days out from that race, I was way behind in the polls, and people thought I had no shot. And what I could feel on the ground was really different. I could feel that people were responding. Once I had the couple of debates, people really started to see me. So while it was disappointing to lose, it was also incredibly encouraging and positive. And I loved the experience, quite frankly.

Ian Donnis: What's your thinking right now on whether you'd like to take another shot at running for governor? Perhaps in 2026?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: I really don't know. I mean, I'm not running for anything. Right now. I'm trying to help locally and give back. And I just don't know what the world will look like in three years time. What will I what my personal life will be like or what the state of the state will be. So I just don't know.

Ian Donnis: Labor is an important constituency in Rhode Island, and it was a key source of support for Governor McKee and the Democratic primary labor to put it diplomatically does not seem enamored of you for some reason. If you do hope to reemerge as a candidate, how would you bolster your support among labor?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, I've actually had some great conversations since the race with parts of the labor community. And so I think it's not right to put them all in one bucket. I think more than anything, people didn't know me, that wasn't just labor. That was people at large, who, in many ways made assumptions about me based on my corporate background. And then honestly, as they got to know me, they felt more comfortable. So that wasn't just true of labor. There are lots of parts of the state, where as the journey went on, and people really understood my perspective, how I listened, how I lead, they felt more comfortable. So my feeling is that will change over time with lots of groups including labor.

Ian Donnis: We're talking here with Helena Buonanno Foulkes. You mentioned earlier how one of your current roles is serving on the Johnston school building committee. Johnston's an interesting community in that it's seen as a traditionally Democratic town, but in the November election last year, four of the five state general offices, voters, there preferred Republican candidates. You really got clobbered in the primary there by Governor McKee, much worse than your statewide level of support. So what do Democrats need to do to win back voters in communities like Johnston?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, I don't know in particular other than listen and learn. And I think that in Johnston, former Mayor Polisena and now, Mayor Polisena Jr., have made it in a really attractive town for people to come live and set up businesses. And I think they're fiscally responsible and doing a lot of smart things. So I think over time, people will be attracted just to the right person, maybe maybe not worry so much about party as much as who's the right person to lead in whatever function, I have great admiration for what the new mayor is doing. And he's really looking at the bonds, which they approved a couple of years ago in a very responsible way, and listening deeply to his community. And so for me, it's a chance to get to see all of that in action. How do decisions get made. And my goal is to be a thought partner for him, and help the town itself produce the best possible outcomes with the money they have, and build great schools for our kids.

Ian Donnis: You're a former high level executive with CVS. So I'd like to get your thoughts on a couple of economic issues. There's quite a bit of uncertainty about the economy. Now with the failure of a couple of out of state banks. There's a school of thought that the Federal Reserve let the economy run too hot for too long, with very low interest rates. What do you think?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Yeah, I think that I think some people have been saying this, and I've been talking about the looming possibility of recession for quite some time. I think that a lot of this is very complicated, for sure. But the Fed is responding aggressively now. And inflation is fairly stubborn at the moment. So I think it's going to be quite some time. And I've said to a lot of people that I advise whether it's boards or individuals that this is a time to look really hard at your cost structure and make sure that you're preparing for future, just as we all do as individuals when times get a little tougher.

Ian Donnis: We see this week how Pawtucket is delaying the bonds on its envisioned soccer stadium. How else do you expect this climate of higher interest rates to affect the development atmosphere in Rhode Island?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, this is this is happening everywhere, I would say Pawtucket is  slightly different. I mean, certainly higher rates are creating more pressure. But if you look back on this deal last year, I think there were a lot of people raising concerns about whether this was a long term viable deal whether the developer had actually raised enough equity, so I would put that to the side. But using Johnston as an example. It's a great example of a town where when they did the bond, the world looked like one thing and now interest rates have doubled and construction costs have gone up. So what the what the mayor and the town are doing is responsibly looking at what they have now looking at their future income and saying what can we afford? We need to tighten our belts a little bit and do the best we can with the money we have.

Ian Donnis: Rhode Island has the dubious distinction of traditionally having been a first in last out state first into recession last out, from your perspective, what should the state to to try and avoid that to try and emerge in a stronger position moving forward?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, I think the best thing we can do is continue to create an atmosphere where we're attracting more people and more businesses to come to the state. And we need to be -- if you look at the Inflation Reduction Act that the Congress has passed with President Biden's support. Unfortunately, a lot of those dollars are going elsewhere. So the Northeast in general is not a beneficiary of a lot of the new federal subsidies. And I think that's because we're not as competitive as we need to be. So when I think about the future of Rhode Island, we need to create an atmosphere where we're inviting more people in, what that will do is raise our tax base our revenue so that we can afford to invest in all the people who need our support in the state.

Ian Donnis: Speaking of investing in people, there's a new book by sociologist Matthew Desmond, that's getting quite a bit of buzz who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review last weekend. He's been on NPR, I don't know if you've had chance to see any of this coverage. But he's arguing for the abolition of poverty, that it's not enough to just nibble at the margins. And he says there's really the adequate amount of money in the US if wealthy people paid their current taxes that there would be more than enough money to almost wipe out poverty in its entirety. Your pretty affluent person. What do you think of that idea that we need a broader abolition movement to wipe out poverty?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, I haven't read his book or read about it. But I fundamentally wholeheartedly agree with the argument that poverty holds all of us back not just the people who are experiencing poverty, but the whole community. And I think it's critically important that we're giving people access to great education, great paying jobs. This was the foundation in many ways of my campaign to make sure that we lived in a state where all people had incredible opportunity for upward mobility. And that's not the case today. So I think it's a really important issue.

Ian Donnis: You're native Rhode Islander, and many people here love hold on whether they're natives or transplants. Do you think there's something that's holding Rodon back from reaching its potential? I mean, you mentioned the need for the state to be more economically competitive. But are there tangible things that you can point to that are holding Rhode Island back?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: I think the biggest thing that holds Rhode Island back is that we tend to be tough on ourselves and not be as expansive in our thinking about what what possibilities could be for all of us. So as I talk to people in the campaign about what worried them, what excited them what I tended to find was, we have our experiences of what it's looked like here. But we don't always look like look at what great could look like in other states and other parts of the country. And so my hope for Rhode Island would be that we have a leadership team, which is really looking outward and looking for best practices, and looking to make Rhode Island one of the greatest states in this country, because to your point, it's an absolutely fabulous state in terms of its beauty and its history. But I don't think we're living up to our potential right now.

Ian Donnis: To close with a question on the housing issue, you're in the process of moving from Narragansett back to Providence. Narragansett is one of those communities where residents might be concerned about quality of life when there's talk about building more housing or relaxing zoning codes. How do you think that issue can be more effectively addressed?

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Well, I'm glad that the speaker is really attacking that issue. And Stefan Pryor is also making good progress because it's a crisis. And in the campaign, I talked about adding 20,000 units to our basis, which is what we need. And I think there are a lot of ideas that each town will have to think about. But I'll give you a simple one, accessory dwelling units, this is something as simple as taking your garage, and allowing it to be turned into an apartment where perhaps a young or older couple could live with less space. That seems like the kind of really practical solution, which I see in California and Massachusetts now being used, which to my earlier point of looking elsewhere for great examples, to me is kind of a no brainer. And so I'm looking for those kinds of changes to be made so that we really can address the housing crisis. And I think a lot of towns will embrace those changes because when I talk to people across across the state, they care a lot about this and they want to be done. They want it to be done in a in a thoughtful fashion.

Ian Donnis: And that idea for accessory dwelling units is part of the package unveiled by Speaker Shekarchi. We've got to leave it there because we're out of time. Thank you so much for joining us. Helena Buonanno Foulkes.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes: Thanks, Ian.


Rhode Island Republicans held the governor’s office from 1995 through 2011. More recently, though, the local GOP has struggled for relevance.  The party holds just 14 of 113 General Assembly seats, and Republican candidate for governor Ashley Kalus lost by a wide margin last November. Now, the Rhode Island GOP will elect a new chairman this weekend. Two candidates are running: former chairman Giovanni Cicione and Joe Powers, who lost a campaign for state Senate in Cranston last year. Time will tell whether the winner will have more success in leading the GOP cause forward here. For more insights on Rhode Island politics, check out my Friday TGIF column posting around 4 today on my twitter at IanDon or at the publics