Helena G. Buonanno Foulkes ’86, the president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Rhode Island.
Foulkes, who is a former executive at CVS Health, the drugstore chain, and a niece of former Democratic Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, declared her candidacy on Wednesday in a letter to supporters.
The date of Rhode Island’s Democratic primary in 2022 has not yet been set, but Foulkes is already facing a crowded field of competitors in her bid to succeed another Harvard alumna: former Governor Gina M. Raimondo ’93, who is now serving as Commerce secretary in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.
First appointed to the Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — in 2016, Foulkes was elected president of the board in April for the 2021-22 academic year, which will be her last year as a board member. She is expected to serve out the remainder of her term while running for governor, according to University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain.
There is precedent for members of the Board of Overseers to run for office while still serving Harvard. Most notably, John F. Kennedy ’40 remained on the board throughout his successful 1960 campaign for U.S. president.
Foulkes took the helm of the Board of Overseers as Harvard continued to wrestle with complications of the coronavirus pandemic, pledging in April that “my Overseer colleagues and I will do our best to help guide the University through this next chapter.”
Foulkes’s campaign maintained that running for governor would not distract from her role as president of the Board of Overseers.
“Helena is as committed to Harvard as ever, and she will successfully fulfill her responsibilities to the university, just as she has for the past five years,” campaign manager Emma Caccamo wrote in a statement Monday.
Just as she promised to Harvard affiliates, Foulkes wrote in her campaign announcement that she is prepared to help lead Rhode Island during a challenging time.
“The pandemic and years of Trumpian divisiveness forced us all to reflect upon our common humanity, even as our differences, real and perceived, worked to pull us all apart,” Foulkes wrote. “This is a time of both great crisis and opportunity in the Ocean State, and I am eager to spearhead the change that must come.”
In her first campaign video, Foulkes expressed support for creating environmentally sustainable jobs so that “the green economy is a driver of growth for all of us in the Ocean State.”
Her toughest primary opponent will be Governor Dan McKee, the former lieutenant governor, who succeeded Raimondo in January. Other declared contenders include state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and former Secretary of State Matt Brown.
In the days since announcing her campaign, Foulkes has received scrutiny for a $500 donation to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014.
“One of the last Republicans I contributed to many years ago was Mitch McConnell and it’s something I deeply regret and would never do again,” Foulkes said in a tweet. “It was before he colluded with Donald Trump to destroy the Supreme Court and more. I sincerely apologize.”
If elected, Foulkes would continue a tradition of political families like the Kennedys, Roosevelts, and Cuomos in dominating Democratic politics in the northeast. In addition to her uncle Chris who served five terms in the U.S. Senate, her grandfather Thomas J. Dodd served two terms as a senator from Connecticut, between 1959 and 1971.
On Sunday, Chris Dodd said he was “so proud” of Foulkes in a tweet congratulating her on the start of her gubernatorial campaign.
Despite the family connections, Foulkes said in the video that she “never thought about running for public office, but Covid changed everything.”