PROVIDENCE — Six years ago, Gina M. Raimondo stood on the State House steps on a frigid first day as governor, talking about bolstering a state economy that was then “stuck in the wake of the Great Recession.”
On Wednesday, as she stood at a State House podium, poised to become a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, Raimondo talked about rebuilding a national economy that has been scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is very difficult for me to leave Rhode Island,” Raimondo said in what is expected to be her last State of the State speech. But, she said, “If I am confirmed as Commerce Secretary, it will be a privilege to serve in President Biden’s cabinet as we rebuild America and lift up those who have been left behind – a continuation of the work we have done together these past six years.”
The day began with a US Senate committee voting 21-3 to advance Raimondo’s nomination to be Biden’s secretary of Commerce to the full Senate. The day culminated with Raimondo reviewing “a year of heartbreak and struggle,” trumpeting a series of achievements, and essentially bidding farewell to her home state.
“Many years from now, we will look back at this year and everything we overcame together,” she said. “I hope what we remember is the strength, determination, and fortitude that carried us from some of the darkest days into a brighter, more prosperous, more equitable future.”
Raimondo, who would be leaving with two years remaining in her term, acknowledged that a lot of work remains to be done in Rhode Island.
“But I stand here confident that we have laid the foundation for a stronger and more equitable Rhode Island,” she said.
And she said that Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee – who she has not worked closely with over the past six years – is prepared to lead the state. “He’s passionate, he’s experienced, he’s committed to public service,” she said, “and he’s going to do a great job.”
Raimondo noted that McKee, a fellow Democrat, has agreed to keep the state’s pandemic response team in place, saying, “I want you to know that there will be no disruption to our state’s COVID-19 response.”
Raimondo – who in recent weeks has not answered questions from the press or taken part in COVID-19 news conferences – offered an update on coronavirus data. She said the weekly rate of positive tests has reached the lowest point in three months, and hospitalizations are declining.
On Wednesday, the Health Department reported that 12 more people had died from the virus, bringing the state’s death toll to 2,198. Another 446 people had tested positive, and 298 people were hospitalized.
But Raimondo said the state has conducted more than 2.5 million COVID-19 tests and delivered more than 100,000 doses of the vaccine. “We’re on the right path,” she said, “and the end is in sight.”
Monday marked 11 months since the first case of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, Raimondo said. “We have traveled a difficult path, but we’ve held on to hope – just as our state flag inspires us to do,” she said. “I will always have hope in Rhode Island.”
Raimondo said that when she first became governor, Rhode Island was “stuck in the wake of the Great Recession.”
“When we started, we didn’t have any of the job creation tools we needed, so we designed them from scratch,” she said. “Together, we went from having one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation to having more jobs than ever before.”
In February 2020, Rhode Island reported a record-high 508,500 jobs and an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. But the pandemic hit in March, and in December Rhode Island’s unemployment was up to 8.1 percent – the seventh highest in the nation – and the number of jobs was down to 461,900.
Raimondo said the state had just $84 million in commercial real estate investment the year she took office. “But by the end of our first term, we had record growth and over a billion dollars in new investment,” she said. “The long-empty Route 195 land in Providence is now a hub of innovation, with 2 million square feet of new development underway, creating thousands of new jobs.”
Raimondo underscored achievements in education, including how she championed the Rhode Island Promise program, which provides free tuition to eligible students at the Community College of Rhode Island.
“Since we started offering that scholarship to young people in Rhode Island, the two-year graduation rate at CCRI has tripled,” she said, “and we’ve seen a 500 percent increase among students of color.”
Last week, General Assembly leaders announced they will introduce legislation to make the program permanent, and Raimondo thanked them for “giving students a shot at the American Dream.”
Raimondo said the state raised the minimum wage four times during her tenure, and she would like to see it raised again. “How about it guys?” she said to legislative leaders. “Before I leave, how about we raise the minimum wage one more time?”
On Wednesday evening, the Senate Labor Committee voted 7-4 for a bill that would put the state on the path to a $15 minimum wage by October 2024. Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin joined the committee to back the bill, providing the decisive votes.
Raimondo noted that she made history by appointing Judge Melissa A. Long as the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and along with the appointment of former Senator Erin Lynch Prata, women now make up the majority of the state’s high court for the first time.
“I’m proud to have appointed highly qualified, talented judges at every level of our court system, including the most diverse group of judges in state history,” she said.
Raimondo also noted that in a November referendum, voters decided to amend the state constitution and remove the words “Providence Plantations” from the official state name.
“For too long, our state’s name was dragged down by a word so closely associated with the ugliest time in our history,” she said. “We can’t change our past, but we must acknowledge it and commit to a more inclusive future.”
Raimondo, Rhode Island’s first female governor, concluded her speech by directing a message to girls and young women in Rhode Island. “This world needs you,” she said. “We need your voice. We need your ideas. We need you to lead.”
Raimondo said that when she first asked to be Commerce secretary, she was unsure.
“But it was the women in my life – my mother, my sister, and even my teenage daughter – who gave me the push I needed,” she said. “They told me it was OK to be nervous, but that I had to look within myself and summon the courage to lead.”
Young women can be anything they want to be, she said, adding; “I’m looking forward to the day when one of you is our governor.”
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, and Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, issued a joint statement, saying, “This is a proud day for all Rhode Islanders to have our Governor about to join President Biden’s Cabinet. We congratulate her and share the hope for Rhode Island she expressed this evening.”
Over the past six years, the Assembly has worked with Raimondo’s administration to repair “decrepit” roads and bridges, expand full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs, and allow more students to attend community college, they said.
The pandemic made 2020 “a very difficult” year, but Raimondo “led with clarity and compassion,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said. “We pulled together as Rhode Islanders and persevered.”
Before the pandemic, Rhode Island had reached record employment levels, the legislative leaders said. “And we share the governor’s optimism that we have laid the foundation for a bright future.”
Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, delivered the Rhode Island GOP response following Raimondo’s speech.
“Rhode Island’s ballooning budget is unsustainable,” she said. “As businesses and nonprofits suffered great losses last year, Rhode Island’s outlandish budget grew to $13 billion. That’s $13,000 for every man, woman, and child in our state.”
While proposals have been made to increase taxes to close projected budget deficits, de la Cruz said, “You can’t squeeze more water from a rock, and you can’t squeeze more money from Rhode Islanders and businesses beleaguered by taxes, fees, and cumbersome regulations.”
Rhode Island needs to follow the example set by the majority of other states and adopt a line-item vote “so our governor can finally cut the fat permeating our state budget,” she said.
De la Cruz criticized the Democratic-controlled legislature for not providing more accountability and oversight of the executive branch during the pandemic.
“A governor’s emergency power was always meant to be limited,” she said. “However, the legislature’s refusal to reconvene or conduct basic oversight of the governor allowed continual, unilateral, and unchecked power by the executive branch.”
To correct this, Republicans have introduced legislation that would require the General Assembly to approve the extension of emergency executive orders, and it would require legislative oversight shortly after an emergency is declared, she said.
Also, de la Cruz said Republicans “vigorously oppose” a proposed moratorium on new charter schools.
Charter schools “have been one of the few bright spots for many urban children,” she said. “Yet some of our leaders want to halt that progress. Rhode Island families deserve more choice and ownership over their child’s education.”