Foulkes would focus as governor on helping businesses grow

(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories speaking with this year’s gubernatorial candidates about their economic vision for Rhode Island.)

PROVIDENCE – Gubernatorial candidate Helena B. Foulkes says her economic vision for Rhode Island coming out of a pandemic is partly tied to improving the state’s education system. Foulkes, a Democrat, unveiled a public education plan on Tuesday she told Providence Business News is a step toward fulfilling her top priority if elected governor of helping the state’s businesses grow and prosper.

Foulkes, a former CVS Health Corp. executive and CEO of Hudson’s Bay Co., is running against fellow Democrats that include Gov. Daniel J. McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and two 2018 gubernatorial candidates, community activist Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, who ran as an independent, and former Secretary of State Matt Brown. The Democratic primary will be held on Sept. 13. The general election is Nov. 8.

Foulkes left Toronto-based Hudson’s Bay in March 2020 and now does some consulting work while serving on several boards. Even though she has never run for office, Foulkes says her sense of conviction and confidence in her decision is higher than six months ago when she kicked off her campaign. “I can see so clearly the impact that I could have on the state,” she said. “I feel I can make a difference.”

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• What is your economic vision for the state – meaning what would be your plans as governor to grow the state’s economy?

The No. 1 focus I have is making sure we support our existing businesses and help them grow. There is a lot we could do to create a better business climate for existing businesses. I also feel very strongly that we should be investing in growth sectors – life sciences, the green and blue economy, manufacturing, etc. We are in a really great position geographically, being 50 miles south of Boston, but also with all of our universities to take advantage of our assets. The reason that all matters is I think it creates great job opportunities for everyone in the state. And a critical aspect to all of this is making sure people have access to job training, so that whether they are in high school or older they can get the skills they need to compete and build great futures.

Those are things that I care a lot about, but the No. 1 thing that I believe we should do right now to create a thriving economy is invest in our public schools, because I think COVID learning loss has been really devastating. And I believe the governor isn’t acting with a sense of urgency he should to address this issue. When I think about competing economically with Massachusetts, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to compete until our public schools are as good as theirs. When I recruited families over the years to CVS, what I found so often is they would come to work at CVS, but most often they bought homes in Massachusetts to take advantage of the public schools and drive to work in Woonsocket. I think this is a huge moral issue; I think it’s an economic issue; and I think there is a lot we could do to invest in COVID learning loss.

• How do you foresee building a better business climate in the state?

I have spoken with small and medium-sized businesses every week. I have been visiting them. What I most often hear is: It’s too complicated, and we don’t ever really feel that people view us as part of a great solution for the state. Examples of that are: We are only one of about a dozen states that tax the Paycheck Protection Program loans. Those were loans that were taken out by places like Gregg’s and Chelo’s to keep people employed. Now, after the fact, they’re asked to pay a very high tax bill. That makes them wonder how much we want those businesses to continue to grow. I have talked to people who own small businesses where they have locations in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I talked this weekend to a guy who has an architecture firm. He said he has a dozen people in Boston, and a couple of people in Rhode Island, and you should look at the level of regulation and bureaucracy that gets in my way in Rhode Island versus Massachusetts. And I would love to be able to streamline that for small businesses, because we want them to be setting up shop and growing in this state. We don’t want to create an environment that encourages them to go elsewhere because it’s too hard here.

• What strategy or plans would you have for working on the state’s economic development with the R.I. Commerce Corp.?

The thing that I hear most often is people don’t know how to access the programs and funds that we have available today. I don’t think we have a problem with insufficient funding. I think we have a problem of making it clear and transparent to everyone across the state, no matter what community you live in about the funding that is available. I think that we want to make sure that R.I. Commerce Corp. is set up for navigators across the state who can help people in every single community access the funds that are there. And that is the No. 1 thing that I hear from people is, help me get access to these funds. They might know the program exists, but they don’t know how to get in and access it to learn how it works.

• What have you learned from your background that feeds your economic vision, including your work as an executive at CVS Health, that would help you hit the ground running as the next governor?

First and foremost, the governor is the chief marketing officer for the state – and I know how to listen, and I know how to attract.  I have done that my whole career. I think that’s a very important role that the governor plays. I could see, firsthand at CVS, this education gap that we had, and how hard it was to attract people, and I only think it’s going to become harder. I spoke with someone who has a business downtown where he has [people with advanced degrees] working for him, and he said, “The people I am trying to attract, don’t want to send their kids to public schools in Rhode Island. It makes it hard for me to expand here.” So, it’s listening; it’s being a good marketer, and it’s understanding that when businesses are successful people can prosper. You know CVS was started by two brothers in the ’60s in Woonsocket, and it’s become a big company with 8,000 employees in the state. I think it’s one where I would like to be fostering the next CVS. How can we attract them, and help them grow, and many Rhode islanders would be lifted up by great jobs and a great future.

• What are your thoughts about how the state has allocated federal COVID-19 relief dollars?

I have not seen from anyone a very clear and specific plan that holds ourselves accountable to the results that it could have. For me, I start from a perspective of what is the strategy; what are the priorities we have; and how do we invest dollars to achieve those goals? And so, my No. 1 priority would be education, and specific ideas around that. What I am very worried about is our ability to hold people in the administration accountable for where we are spending this money. An example is a year ago we received $200 million from the federal government to make sure that people didn’t get evicted from their homes. Well, we’ve only spent $100 million of it. I spoke with community leaders who say they are trying to help people in their community get access to these funds, and they don’t know how to do it. So, we should be holding the governor and the team around him accountable for making sure that the money that we get is spent wisely.

• Do you think that the wealthy should pay more in taxes?

I think the most important thing right now with the $600 million surplus and the billions of dollars coming from the government is we should really focus on how to make sure we’re spending that money effectively. And I have laid out education as my No. 1 priority. But I am not thinking about raising taxes right now, because I think we have a big surplus. And I am very focused on how we could provide tax relief for lower income and middle-class families in Rhode Island. What I hear every day is people worrying that they are being priced out of the state. That it is getting too expensive to be here. So, I would want to be looking at those surplus dollars and making sure that tax relief is going to lower and middle-class families.

We are in a critical moment in time, where we are hurting coming out of COVID, but we’re getting billions of dollars. We really need someone who can get things done for all Rhode Islanders, and make sure that we put Rhode Islanders on a path where they can have great futures. I really believe that my experience allows me to do that like no one else in this race. I know how to get stuff done. And, I also know how to hold myself, and my team, accountable for serving the people of Rhode Island.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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