Election over, business community ready for action from R.I. Commerce

ELIZABETH M. TANNER was appointed the state's commerce secretary by Gov. Daniel J. McKee in June at a time when the future of his administration was uncertain because of upcoming elections. Now that McKee has won the election, it appears Tanner will have more time to oversee the direction of R.I. Commerce Corp. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
ELIZABETH M. TANNER was appointed the state's commerce secretary by Gov. Daniel J. McKee in June at a time when the future of his administration was uncertain because of upcoming elections. Now that McKee has won the election, it appears Tanner will have more time to oversee the direction of R.I. Commerce Corp. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Some in the Rhode Island business community have high expectations that R.I. Commerce Corp. will soon be taking a clear, swift path of action to assist local companies now that the dust has settled from the gubernatorial campaign trail.

The decisive victory for incumbent Gov. Daniel J. McKee on Nov. 8 gives more job security to R.I. Commerce Secretary Elizabeth M. Tanner, who had been appointed in June during an uncertain time less than three months before McKee faced a competitive five-way primary challenge.

Now that McKee has emerged victorious in the primary and cruised to a win over Republican Ashley Kalus by 19 percentage points, Tanner says R.I. Commerce is ready to move forward with initiatives focused on small-business support and attracting new companies into the state, with an emphasis on getting input from the business community.

It’s a set of priorities Tanner has voiced since moving from the chief of the R.I. Department of Business Regulation to commerce secretary in June, when McKee’s hold on the governor’s office was tentative.

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When asked recently if R.I. Commerce’s priorities have changed or shifted now that the election has concluded, Tanner said that the agency “remains focused on its consistent mission of improving the conditions of Rhode Island’s business climate in a way that makes the state an easier and more attractive place to launch and expand businesses.”

While Tanner didn’t indicate previously feeling stalled, some in the business community, including Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Erin Donovan-Boyle, are expecting R.I. Commerce’s activity to pick up speed in the near future.

“I think it gives Governor McKee and Secretary Tanner a mandate,” Donovan-Boyle said of the election results. “It was a pretty significant victory for Democrats in Rhode Island, and I think that enables their economic development and small-business agendas to move forward soundly and robustly.

“Working in conjunction with their partners in the General Assembly is going to be important, but the outcome of the election enables that partnership to win,” she said.

Democrats indeed reaffirmed an already strong hold on Rhode Island, despite projections of a “red wave” throughout the U.S. McKee’s win over Kalus by 19 percentage points makes his win the largest margin of victory seen in Rhode Island since 1992, when former Gov. Bruce Sundlun won by more than 27 percentage points over Republican Elizabeth Leonard.

And Democrats also swept other high-ranking state offices, including the lieutenant governor, attorney general and state treasurer posts. Democrats also won Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives when state treasurer Seth Magaziner defeated Republican Allan Fung, who led Magaziner in polls prior to the vote.

Tanner says the state’s business community faces challenges such as administrative red tape when launching or expanding a business, as well as barriers in the state’s talent pipeline and nationwide issues such as high inflation rates.

Already, R.I. Commerce has addressed financial difficulties through initiatives such as the Small Business Grant Program, Tanner says, which provides businesses up to $5,000 to assist companies with COVID-19-related impacts, and the agency’s upcoming Network Matching Grant program will roll out matching grants starting at $50,000 to help businesses with technical assistance or flexible workplace arrangements.

Donovan-Boyle worked with her in Tanner’s previous role at DBR under former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s administration and while advocating for legislation that streamlines the online business registration process.

Now Donovan-Boyle is eager to see how Tanner will run R.I. Commerce without a looming election.

“She’s a regular attendee at chambers of commerce and really has an ear to the ground on what issues are impacting our region,” Donovan-Boyle said. “I think [Tanner’s vision] has been on hold until the election, and now that she can move forward with Governor McKee, I’m sure she’ll be rolling out new programs and initiatives.”

A priority, Donovan-Boyle said, should be for R.I. Commerce to “meet businesses where they’re at.”

Tanner is pledging to keep these views in mind going forward.

“Everything we do at R.I. Commerce is based on the foundation of listening to the business community,” Tanner said. “We can’t solve problems we don’t know exist, so our team takes a proactive approach to staying in constant communication with business leaders across all sectors in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the challenges they’re facing.”

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