PROVIDENCE — Ask those who are ideologically left of Governor Gina Raimondo, and they’ll tell you she’s a union-busting pension reformer whose primary interest is handing out tax breaks to her bigwig campaign donors.
Those to the right of Raimondo would have you believe that she’s a bleeding heart liberal who put tolls on highways, tried to grab everyone’s guns, and then became a dictator during the COVID-19 pandemic, destroying small businesses in the process.
But after 10 years in public office, the reality is more nuanced. Raimondo is a pro-business Democrat who has repeatedly proved that she is unafraid to tackle thorny issues, especially if it could help her achieve an ambitious agenda and be judged more by the home runs she hit than the base hits she accumulated.
Now, as she prepares to leave the governor’s office with two years left in her term to join President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as commerce secretary, her legacy will largely be determined by how much her successor, Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, is willing to stick with her playbook on health care, education, and the economy, or whether he will tear it up and start from scratch.
“In being unafraid of what’s unpopular, she was able to get a lot done,” said Mike Raia, a former communications director to Raimondo who now works at Johnson and Wales University in Providence. “If you get people to eat their vegetables, they’re a lot healthier.”
Raia said Raimondo’s willingness to take up a “third-rail issue” like public pension reform immediately after becoming state treasurer in 2011 and early moves in her tenure as governor to stabilize Medicaid and the state’s health insurance program under the Affordable Care Act allowed her to swing for the fences on other issues, like when Rhode Island became one of the first states in the country to offer free community college to all students graduating from high school.
The college scholarship program, known as Rhode Island Promise, is scheduled to expire after the current school year, and state lawmakers haven’t yet committed to making it permanent.
Other Raimondo-led initiatives also have uncertain futures.
Rhode Island has built one of the most robust workforce development programs in the country, called Real Jobs Rhode Island, but there is no guarantee that it will remain a top priority for McKee or his new Department of Labor and Training director, assuming Raimondo-appointee Scott Jensen, a Maryland native, departs in the next year.
The state’s takeover of Providence schools, an intervention that Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has said will continue for at least five years, hasn’t gone as smoothly as Raimondo hoped, but she has fiercely defended the decision from the beginning. Infante-Green, another Raimondo hire who came from New York, has a contract that expires in 2021.
Commerce Rhode Island, the state’s economic development arm that was overhauled by Raimondo and offers a comprehensive suite of tax breaks, grants, and loans to support businesses and recruit new ones to the state, has always faced criticism from lawmakers who disapprove of an incentive-based economic development strategy. It’s unlikely that Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, one of Raimondo’s first hires as governor, will remain in his position much longer after she goes to Washington, D.C.
Despite persistent criticism from both the left and the right — she won two Democratic gubernatorial primaries against more-liberal challengers and defeated a popular Republican mayor twice — Raimondo has built a reputation as a politician with a short memory and a thick skin.
She maintains that she overhauled public employee pensions because she worried about the state’s long-term financial outlook, and many leaders vowed to never forgive her. But she chipped away at those relationships, winning support from laborers who appreciated her economic development strategy and later earning support to join the Biden administration from the president of Rhode Island AFL-CIO.
On Thursday, after word got out that she would be Biden’s commerce secretary, Raimondo picked up another surprising endorsement, this time from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
“Gina is as smart as they come and this is a very good job for her,” Weingarten said. “And as a result, it’s good for the country.”
Now McKee will have a plateful of consequential issues to address as Raimondo departs, all while leading Rhode Island through the tail end of the pandemic, with a virus that has infected more than 1,000 residents a day since Dec. 1 and has killed 1,910 people since last March.
Even though they’re members of the same party, McKee and Raimondo have clashed over Raimondo’s approach to supporting small businesses during the pandemic, and he has repeatedly called on her to release more federal COVID-19 relief funding to business owners. In turn, Raimondo has largely excluded McKee from every facet of her administration’s response to the pandemic.
McKee, who intends to run for governor in 2022, has not said how much he’ll seek to shake up the government once he takes office, but he has been planning for a transition more aggressively in recent weeks as Raimondo’s name continued to be floated for jobs in the Biden administration.
“I’ve been preparing for this since I took office,” said McKee, who previously served as mayor of Cumberland, in an interview last week. “I know the departments; I’ve been a mayor.”