PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island political world is holding its collective breath, waiting to see if its leader, Governor Gina M. Raimondo, will join President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as the head of the Department for Health and Human Services.
Politico and NBC News described Raimondo as a top contender for the Cabinet post on Wednesday, setting off a swirl of speculation about whether the term-limited Democrat will be offered the job and, if so, whether she will take it.
As a former venture capitalist and state treasurer, Raimondo had been viewed by some as a good fit for Treasury secretary, Commerce secretary, or perhaps Transportation secretary. But she has attracted national attention for the way she has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic as governor, and the Health and Human Services post would immediately thrust her into a high-profile, high-impact position.
“To her, it would present a great professional challenge, a chance to put her mark on health care policy for a very long time,” said political analyst Jennifer E. Duffy, a Rhode Island native who worked for 32 years at The Cook Political Report. “It’s a job that pretty much sets her up to do whatever she wants.”
But it would also require her to leave her work in Rhode Island unfinished. There are still two years left in her term, and the state is entering some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, opening field hospitals to relieve pressure on hospitals that are at capacity. Raimondo would have to consider whether Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee would handle the crisis well, and she’d have to weigh the impact on her family, which includes two school-age children, Duffy said.
“The timing is not great,” Duffy said. “The question is whether she wants it.”
Raimondo, 49, of Providence, is a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Harvard University and Yale Law School. Until the pandemic hit, she often ranked as one of the nation’s least-popular governors in Morning Consult polls, something observers attributed to lingering resentment over the pension overhaul she undertook as treasurer, high-profile blunders, persistent sexism in politics, economic struggles, and the deep-rooted cynicism fed by big scandals in the country’s smallest state.
Critics have pointed to Raimondo administration “disasters,” such as the public-assistance computer system known as UHIP (Unified Health Infrastructure Project), the death of children in state care, and the ill-fated “Cooler & Warmer” state marketing campaign. While Raimondo has displayed a data-geek’s passion for metrics and received praise for effectively delivering public health messages (even if it’s as simple as “Knock it Off”), COVID-19 infection rates in Rhode Island are far higher than in other New England States and continuing to climb.
In August, the New York Times reported that Raimondo had interviewed to be Biden’s running mate and “left the search committee dazzled.” While she’s not afraid to tackle politically perilous issues like drug prices or health care reform if she joins the administration, Duffy pointed out that her appointment could draw opposition from progressives and public sector unions.
“That is a whole other discussion: Can she survive in today’s Democratic Party?” Duffy asked. “Right now, I think you have a lot of tension within the party between strong progressives like AOC (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and the more mainstream Democrats about who controls the party.”
If Raimondo joins Biden’s cabinet, “that is the day the (2022) governor’s race starts,” Duffy said. “It will be the longest race in Rhode Island history.”
The list of potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island is already forming. It includes McKee, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, Moderate Party of Rhode Island founder Ken Block, and former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
On Wednesday, Paolino, the state’s Democratic national committeeman, said that if Raimondo did become Health and Human Services secretary, “it would be good for her, and it would be good for her country.”
During the pandemic, Raimondo has been as visible as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, providing regular televised updates about the virus, Paolino said. “Everyone has seen her press conferences,” he said. “She has been out there, fighting this problem.”
Paolino said he’d like to run for governor in 2022 but he’s waiting to see what happens — if Raimondo leaves and McKee does a good job handling the pandemic as governor, that would give McKee a big boost in 2022. But, he said, “If he fumbles the ball like Donald Trump did, that’s another story.”
Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, on Wednesday said he expects Raimondo to join the Biden administration.
“If the Biden administration offers her a suitable position, I think that when the call comes, you answer the call favorably to serve the country,” he said.
Walsh noted that the teachers union has disagreed with Raimondo over the pension overhaul and, more recently, has called for her to shift public schools to distance learning through the first of the year because of the pandemic.
But, he said, “That is neither here nor there when it comes to the opportunity to send a Rhode Island leader to a national position, and you have to have perspective on that.”
Raimondo would no doubt be one of the hardest working Cabinet members, Walsh said. “Woe be to her staff, who will get calls at 5 in the morning and at midnight.”