PROVIDENCE — The Rhodes scholar from Smithfield has officially made it to Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday afternoon, The US Senate voted 84-15 to confirm Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s nomination to be President Biden’s secretary of commerce, cutting short by nearly two years her tenure as Rhode Island’s first female governor.
She was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday evening.
“Now, where’s your family?” the vice president asked, looking around the the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building before administering the oath.
“Congratulations, Madame Secretary,” Harris said after the very brief ceremony. “It’s a great day.”
“It’s a great day,” the newly minted 40th U.S. commerce secretary agreed.
Raimondo, who flew to Washington on Tuesday morning, resigned as governor shortly after 6 p.m. that night. Her resignation letter was transmitted to Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, who immediately became the state’s 76th governor. He was sworn in, in Rhode Island, soon after.
Raimondo’s confirmation marks the next step in her steady rise in Democratic politics, which started in 2010 when she was elected state treasurer and has included six years leading her home state. Along the way, she enthusiastically embraced her role as a voice for the moderate, pro-business wing of the party, and she had a successful stint leading the Democratic Governors Association to wins in two southern states in 2019.
“She will lead with integrity and play a critical role overseeing a wide array of key initiatives essential to our nation’s future, from helping US manufacturers compete to investing in economic development to managing our ocean resources,” US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement. “She’ll build successful partnerships, bring people together, and help spur smart, sustainable economic growth,” said Reed.
US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, also a Rhode Island Democrat, said Raimondo “will be an important partner in protecting our imperiled oceans and growing the blue economy.”
Biden nominated Raimondo for the post on Jan. 7, but her confirmation was stalled by the Senate’s impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump and an attempt to block her nomination by Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz cited his concerns about Raimondo’s refusal to commit to keeping Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei on the department’s “entities list,” as the reason for his opposition.
The entities list essentially blacklists companies from doing business in the United States, and Raimondo later wrote to members of the Senate Commerce Committee to say that she supports actions taken against Huawei by the Trump administration. Still, Cruz said Tuesday he couldn’t support her nomination.
“The fact of the matter is that there has been a rush to embrace the worst elements of the Chinese Communist Party in the Biden administration and that includes Governor Raimondo,” Cruz said.
Raimondo, 49, grew up in Smithfield and graduated from LaSalle Academy before graduating from Harvard, earning her doctorate in sociology from the University of Oxford where she was a Rhodes scholar, and then getting her law degree from Yale. She worked as a venture capitalist before running for state treasurer in 2010.
Raimondo became an instant star in Rhode Island politics because of her vast national fund-raising network and her willingness as treasurer to reform the state pension system. She was strongly opposed by most public employee unions when she ran for governor in 2014, but she won a three-way Democratic primary and narrowly defeated Republican Allan Fung in the general election. She breezed to reelection in 2018, easily winning a primary from the left before dispatching Fung.
As governor, Raimondo focused on chipping away at Rhode Island’s unemployment rate, often by offering incentives to businesses to create jobs in the state. She frequently points out that Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate in the country while she was running for governor, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, the jobless rate fell below the national average.
She spent what would turn out to be her final year as governor as the face of Rhode Island’s response to COVID-19, earning national praise for her decision to quickly shift to remote learning for schools and later became one of the first Democratic governors to strongly advocate for reopening schools in the fall.
Her approval ratings soared during the early part of the pandemic, although she came under fire for not taking questions from the media after Biden nominated her to be commerce secretary.
With a $14 billion budget and more than 46,000 employees — including multiple Nobel Prize recipients — the Commerce Department has 13 different bureaus, including the Economic Development Administration, Minority Business Development Agency, US Patent and Trademark Office, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and US Census Bureau.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.