PROVIDENCE — From pensions to the pandemic, Governor Gina Marie Raimondo has been at the center of Rhode Island political life for a full decade now.
With Rhode Island’s first female governor poised to join President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce, we take a look at some of the moments that have defined her political career, from “Cooler & Warmer” to “Knock it Off.”
The roots of Raimondo’s political career reach back to a martini bar that stood – in terms of Rhode Island’s landmark-based geography – where Sh-Booms used to be.
Kate Coyne-McCoy, a Rhode Island political consultant and former congressional candidate, was working as a regional director at Emily’s List at the time, and while the group is known for supporting Congressional candidates, her job was to “build the bench” by finding Democratic, pro-choice women to run for state and local office.
Heading home from Washington, D.C., she boarded a train at Union Station and bumped into John J. “Jack” McConnell Jr., then a successful lawyer and now chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.
As the train sped north to Providence, Coyne-McCoy and McConnell huddled together, drinking beer and developing a long list of women who might “build the bench” in Rhode Island. That list included a young venture capitalist who had just co-founded an investment firm called Point Judith Capital.
“He says I suggested Gina, and I say he suggested Gina,” Coyne-McCoy recalled. “But somebody suggested Gina.”
The suggestion made sense from a Rhode Island political perspective: “She was Italian, she was a venture capitalist, she had an incredible educational background, and she was very Rhode Island – from Smithfield,” she said.
So Coyne-McCoy called Raimondo to introduce herself, and they met for a drink at Olives, where she asked if Raimondo had any interest in running for public office.
Usually, the women she talked to would respond with: Are you crazy? But Raimondo told her she was interested – it just wasn’t the right time.
“She said that was definitely something she would consider,” Coyne-McCoy said. “I don’t think she had thought it just because of me. She had thought about it before.”
They agreed to stay in touch. A political opportunity arose a few years later, but Raimondo was pregnant and turned it down. But in 2010, General Treasurer Frank Caprio decided to run for governor. And suddenly, the time was right.
Running as a Democrat, Raimondo trounced Republican Kernan “Kerry” King, the former chief legal counsel for Republican Governor Donald Carcieri, taking 62 percent of the vote to King’s 38 percent.
Many newly elected officials plunge into their new jobs, working long hours, Coyne-McCoy said. “But after six or seven months, they’re done with that,” she said. “But she has never slowed her roll.”
Between Emily’s List and her private consulting firm, Coyne-McCoy said she has worked with just about every female member of Congress. “There are a lot of smart people out there, but the woman is brilliant,” she said. “And I have never worked with anyone as relentless as Gina Raimondo.”
In an interview in Dec. 2020, Raimondo recalled the meeting with Coyne-McCoy.
“I remember that drink,” she said. “At that point, I was a little tentative. I was in the private sector, and it seemed like a scary, risky thing to do.”
But looking back, Raimondo said she would urge her younger self to go for it.
“I’d say: ‘Run.’ Yeah, sure, it’s hard and a challenge and difficult, but it’s an amazing thing to be in a position to be able to help so many people, especially now in a crisis,” she said, referring to the pandemic.
Raimondo drew national attention for the 2011 state pension overhaul that she championed as state treasurer.
“We must work with urgency because the pension system cannot be allowed to fail, nor can the state afford to fund the current system, at least not without massive tax increases or extremely painful budget cuts that will impact every single Rhode Islander,” she said in a 16-page report titled “Truth in Numbers.”
The Wall Street Journal hailed it as “arguably the country’s boldest” pension overhaul, saying it slashed the state’s unfunded liability by nearly half by freezing current workers’ accrued benefits, suspending retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age, and replacing defined-benefit pensions with hybrid plans that include a 401(k)-style component.
But the achievement also generated resentment in a small state where many people either lost money because of the changes or knew someone who paid a price.
“A lot of folks are still as angry as they were on day one,” said Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island. “Folks who had retired based their lives on the expectation of that guarantee.”
Walsh served on a pension advisory group that Raimondo and then-Governor Lincoln Chafee formed to gather input on the overhaul proposal. Public sector unions viewed Chafee as “the goalie” who would eventually stop the pension overhaul, he said, but Chafee did not live up to commitments he made to union leaders while campaigning and Raimondo fired up a public relations and media campaign that helped make the pension overhaul a reality. Unions challenged the overhaul in court but reached a settlement in 2015.
Walsh described Raimondo as a “high achiever” who might end up serving not only in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as Commerce secretary but in a future Cabinet, as well. “My free public advice is to make sure Janet Yellen is her mentor so that when she is Treasury secretary she has a perspective on it,” he said.
COOLER & WARMER AND UHIP
In 2016, the Raimondo administration launched a $5 million state marketing campaign that attracted far more ridicule than visitors.
Rhode Islanders were mystified, bemused, and outraged by the new slogan: “Rhode Island: Cooler & Warmer.” A promotional Rhode Island tourism video included a clip of a skateboarder in Iceland, the new tourism website was riddled with inaccuracies and outdated information, and the new logo — purportedly a sail — just didn’t resonate.
The Raimondo team had chosen Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic “I ♥ New York” logo, to create the Rhode Island logo. But Rhode Islanders did not ♥ “Cooler & Warmer.” And Raimondo managed to make matters worse by lecturing her critics, telling them “Let’s be positive and optimistic,” and “We have to get past this persistent negativity.”
The embarrassing rebranding effort fed skepticism about Raimondo’s fondness for out-of-state talent. But soon, the governor ditched the slogan.
“We need to hold people accountable, because Rhode Islanders deserve better,” she said, explaining that she had accepted the resignation of the state’s $135,000-a-year chief marketing officer and the state was recouping $20,000 from the firm that tried to use Iceland to promote Rhode Island.
While “Cooler & Warmer” was a hot mess, a much more consequential blunder came in 2016 when the Raimondo administration prematurely launched a $617-million public assistance computer system known as Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).
UHIP was supposed to streamline eligibility verification for benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized child care, and the state laid off Department of Human Services workers assuming their work could be done with fewer people using the new system. But the system had major problems that took years to fix.
The failure was at odds with the promise that the data-driven Raimondo would run government in a smarter, more technologically advanced way.
“Some see her as a technocratic Democrat, but this was a technological failure that cost taxpayers millions,” said Steven Frias, the Republican National Committeeman from Rhode Island. “This was an administrative fiasco.” The “botched” computer system “was not ready for prime time,” he said.
On Easter Sunday 2018, then-President Donald Trump tweeted “DACA is dead” – referring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that provides deportation protection for nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
The next day, Raimondo went to the Latino-majority city of Central Falls to express her support for the young “DREAMers.” “Rhode Island is a place of inclusivity, diversity, humanity, and public safety,” she said during a news conference.
In June 2018, Raimondo signed a law allowing those in the DACA program to get driver’s licenses in Rhode Island regardless of what happens to DACA at the federal level. Among those attending the bill signing ceremony was Rodrigo Pimentel.
Pimentel – now 23, living in East Providence, and studying at the University of Rhode Island – told the Globe he had reached out to Raimondo, explaining that he came to the United States from the Azores when he was 10 months old. His family overstayed their visas.
“Essentially, I told her I was a lifelong Rhode Islander, but that everything I had worked for was in jeopardy because of what the Trump administration was doing to the DACA program,” he recalled.
“It was amazing that Rhode Island had a governor that actually cared about that story and listened to it,” Pimentel said. “It shows she does listen to constituents and she does care about people’s humanity.”
Raimondo also helped raise $170,000 to cover the renewal fees Rhode Islanders covered by the DACA policy, so no state resident would have to pay the $495 fee to apply for a two-year extension of their status in the program.
“We’re not going to allow $495 to stand in the way of our neighbors’ dreams,” Raimondo said in a statement. “Now is the time to fight for our values and take action against hatred and bigotry.”
PROTESTS AND PRAYERS FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
More than 10,000 people took to the streets of Providence on June 5, 2020, to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
As a 9 p.m. curfew passed, a group of protesters engaged in a tense standoff with State Police and National Guard members on the marble steps of the State House. At one point, Raimondo emerged from the building to address the protesters and lead a prayer.
“I am listening. I hear you. I hear you. I hear your anger,” Raimondo told protesters. “You deserve change.”
She then asked them to join her in prayer, even as some protesters heckled her. “Keep it peaceful tonight,” she said. “We have work to do tomorrow.”
Some criticized Raimondo for failing to wear a face mask while wading into the crowd – thereby contradicting her own public health directive for people to wear face coverings during the pandemic.
“That was wrong,” she said later. “It was counter to our public health guidance, and I apologize.”
But others praised Raimondo, saying she had displayed courage and helped to defuse a volatile situation.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The Blizzard of ’78 is a defining moment for many Rhode Islanders, along with the image of then-governor J. Joseph Garrahy wearing a black-and-red flannel shirt as he rode out the storm at the State House, informing and calming nervous residents.
More than 40 years later, Raimondo’s decisive leadership and frequent, data-filled briefings during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired a memorable shirt of her own: Providence’s Frog & Toad gift shop began selling T-shirts emblazoned with Raimondo’s repeated admonition for those violating public health directives: “Knock it off!”
“We all need an Italian mother right now,” Frog & Toad co-owner Asher Schofield said. “Break out the wooden spoon.”
Though Morning Consult polls had often listed her among the nation’s least popular governors, Raimondo garnered positive national attention for her handling of the coronavirus outbreak, earning praise from Frias, the Republican National Committeeman.
“She was very clear and focused on science,” Frias said. “She did a pretty effective job of bringing down the spread of the disease.”
Her popularity soared as the pandemic worsened. In April, a Bryant University poll found 84 percent of Rhode Island voters trusted the information Raimondo was providing about the coronavirus, compared to 35 percent who trusted what then-President Donald Trump was telling them.
“That was probably the best moment of her governorship,” Frias said. “That was a high point for her.”
But he said that since being nominated for Commerce secretary, Raimondo has seemed less focused on the pandemic, skipping weekly news conferences and largely avoiding the press.