PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who spent much of her six years as governor attempting to spur economic development and lower the unemployment rate in Rhode Island, had been named as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Commerce Department.
“Rhode Island may be small, but our economy is mighty on the strength of our small businesses and innovative technologies,” Raimondo tweeted. “As Secretary of Commerce, I will harness that same American ingenuity to create good-paying union jobs and build our economy back better than ever before.”
The nomination, which requires approval from the Senate, appears to be a natural fit for Raimondo, who from her tiny state has beaten back challenges from the left and repeatedly dispatched Republicans to quietly emerge as one of the most successful moderate Democratic politicians in the country over the last decade.
The New York Times was first to report that Raimondo would be nominated to lead the Commerce Department, which promotes job creation and trade and oversees the census, among other responsibilities.
Raimondo, 49, a former Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Harvard and earned her law degree at Yale, came on the political scene when she was elected state treasurer in 2010. She drew the ire of public employee unions when she led an overhaul of Rhode Island’s pension system in 2011 and 2012, but still managed to get elected governor in 2014. She was reelected four years later, this time with the support of most of those unions.
Over the years, she has won praise on the opinion pages of the Times and the Wall Street Journal for being a pro-growth Democrat who has shown little interest in moving to the left even as her party drifts in that direction. She is now the longest-serving female governor in the country, and a successful stint in 2019 chairing the Democratic Governors Association helped raise her profile among mega donors.
Raimondo was one of the most prominent Democrats to back former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brief run for president last year, but she quickly threw her support behind Biden after his success on Super Tuesday.
Once Biden locked up the Democratic nomination, Raimondo reportedly made a strong impression in an interview for vice president, but Biden ultimately selected Senator Kamala Harris. In recent weeks, Raimondo has been considered for secretary of health and human services, and transportation secretary.
Although Raimondo has largely dodged questions about joining the Biden administration, commerce secretary has long been considered an ideal landing spot for her.
As governor, she revamped Rhode Island’s economic development office, and convinced lawmakers to approve multiple programs that allowed the state to offer millions of dollars in tax incentives to companies willing to relocate to Rhode Island. The office is now called Commerce Rhode Island.
Raimondo has acknowledged that she doesn’t enjoy handing out tax breaks to businesses, but she has also said the results suggest the incentives work. For much of her first campaign for governor, the state’s unemployment rate was above 8 percent. By the end of her first term, it was 3.7 percent. The jobless rate fell as low as 3.4 percent in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic sent it soaring as high as 18.1 percent.
Until the pandemic hit, Raimondo 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 an ill-fated “Cooler and Warmer” marketing campaign promoting business and tourism in the state.
During the pandemic, Raimondo displayed a data-geek’s passion for metrics and received praise for effectively delivering public health messages. In April, a Bryant University poll found 84 percent of Rhode Island voters trusted the information she was providing about the outbreak, compared to 35 percent who trusted what President Trump was telling them.
But over the past month or so, COVID-19 infection rates in Rhode Island have climbed, and in early December the state had the highest average daily case rate in the country.
Biden’s nomination of Raimondo will likely draw cheers from the business sector and criticism from progressives for many of the same reasons: Raimondo has always dazzled big donors from Wall Street and Silicon Valley for her unapologetic focus on the economy, but liberals in Rhode Island have said that approach has overshadowed working-class families.
“A terrible decision by Joe Biden, who has otherwise made solid Cabinet picks,” tweeted state Senator Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat. “Picking one of the most extreme advocates of corporate welfare to head the US Commerce Department will usher in an unprecedented flood of legalized corruption.”
Raimondo would replace current Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been one of the longest-serving members of Trump’s Cabinet.
It’s unclear when Raimondo will resign as governor, but Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee, another Democrat, would replace her for the final two years of the term.
Presumably, McKee will move try to appoint his successor in the lieutenant governor’s office, just as then-Governor Lincoln D. Almond appointed Bernard A. Jackvony to be lieutenant governor in 1997 after Robert A. Weygand became a congressman. But Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, plans to submit a bill that would allow the General Assembly to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said he has gotten to know Raimondo over the past five months. “And she is . . . well . . . awesome,” he wrote on Twitter. “I know this is great news for the country — and as an American, I should be happy. But as someone new to RI — this is a HUGE loss for us.”
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s businesses would benefit from having Raimondo in Washington, focused on economic development.
White said the business community will work with McKee once he becomes governor “to continue the progress that we have seen up to this point for the remainder of the term.”
Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said he was not surprised that Biden chose Raimondo.
“I think she will do incredibly well in the Biden Cabinet — this job is right up her alley,” Walsh said. “And it’s good to have a liaison to the business world in America and abroad that has a Democratic perspective but also a solid business background.”
Walsh said the teachers union might disagree with McKee about issues such as charter school expansion but it might agree with him more than it did with Raimondo about local control of education.
“I have spoken with incoming Governor McKee and he will start with a clean slate with us,” Walsh said. “When we agree with you, we will work hard to get our shared agenda accomplished, and when disagree, we won’t be shy about letting you know.”
Walsh noted that the news of Raimondo’s nomination comes as the Biden administration has reportedly chosen Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh as labor secretary and Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona as education secretary.
“It’s the Southeastern New England trifecta,” Walsh said.