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After talks with small-business leaders, Vice President Harris promises: ‘I will keep coming back to R.I.’

On trip to state she promotes President Biden’s economic plans, says she’ll visit Central America to investigate migration issues

Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo arrived to participate in a roundtable with women who lead small businesses on Wednesday in Providence.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo arrived to participate in a roundtable with women who lead small businesses on Wednesday in Providence.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — While in Rhode Island Wednesday to meet with small-business leaders and promote the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion economic plan, Vice President Kamala Harris said she’ll travel to Mexico and Guatemala next month for her first trip abroad as vice president.

”Currently, the plan is for me to travel to Mexico and Guatemala on June 7th and 8th,” Harris told a small group of reporters at the end of the day, according to a White House pool report. “And I’m very much looking forward to that trip.”

The dates had not previously been made public, though Harris announced in April that she would travel to Guatemala “as soon as possible” and said plans were in the works for a stop in Mexico.

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Harris has been tasked by President Biden with addressing the root causes of migration from the so-called Northern Triangle, a group of Central American countries that includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Her trip comes as the United States saw record-breaking numbers of unaccompanied children crossing into the United States this spring, many fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.

On Wednesday in Rhode Island, however, Harris’s main focus was on small businesses and big economic plans.

She stepped off Air Force Two at T.F. Green International Airport shortly after 11 a.m. and was greeted by Rhode Island political leaders, including Governor Dan McKee, members of the congressional delegation, and the former governor, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

The first stop for Harris and Raimondo was Books on the Square, a bookstore in Providence’s Wayland Square, not far from Raimondo’s home. Raimondo’s son, Tommy, was there, and the vice president told him, “I was wondering where you were.”

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo as they visited Books on the Square.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo as they visited Books on the Square.Andrew Harnik/Associated press
Vice President Kamala Harris visited Books on the Square bookstore.
Vice President Kamala Harris visited Books on the Square bookstore.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

“This is my neighborhood store,” Raimondo told Harris as they walked in. “Best place ever.”

The vice president bought three novels and a cookbook. Governor Dan McKee picked up a book for himself, as well — “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” by Kamala Harris.

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From there, the vice president and the commerce secretary went to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a network of enterprises and business leaders that helps entrepreneurs maximize their social impact, to hear from small-business owners about how they’re making a difference in their communities and to talk about how new federal programs can help put people to work.

They joined all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation and SEG chief executive Kelly Ramirez at a “social impact pitch event,” which included “Shark Tank”-like presentations by Dr. Eugenio Fernandez, founder of Asthenis pharmacy in Providence; Sandra Enos, founder of Giving Beyond the Box; Sterling Clinton-Spellman, owner of Incred-A-Bowl; and Philip Trevvett, one of the founders of Urban Greens.

“Keep doing what you are doing, because you are models of the best of what we are doing in the country,” Harris told the business owners. “It’s about helping people see the possibilities.”

Meanwhile, a crowd of about 50 people waited in the rain across the street from the Wexford Innovation Center, hoping to catch a glimpse of the vice president before she attended a roundtable with women business leaders.

LeAnne Drum, a Providence College senior originally from New Jersey, was heading to a physical therapy appointment when she hit the “worst traffic in Providence” that she had ever seen.

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She didn’t make it to her appointment. Instead, she stood outside in a light raincoat, waiting for Harris’s motorcade. ”This is way better than physical therapy,” she said.

Shakeyri Arroyo tries to get a glimpse of Vice President Kamala Harris's motorcade as it arrives in Providence.
Shakeyri Arroyo tries to get a glimpse of Vice President Kamala Harris's motorcade as it arrives in Providence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Liz Hartley, of Providence, waited to see Harris while on her lunch break. She said she was happy to hear that former governor Raimondo was escorting Harris around Rhode Island.

”It sends a good message that she hasn’t left Rhode Island,” Hartley said.

Michelle Walker, also of Providence, who works for the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, said she would wait outside in the rain to see Harris. ”This is a historic moment for people of color,” she said.

Jyo Jaishankar, 17, stood with three other seniors from Moses Brown School in Providence.

”I’m Indian. It’s so nice to see some South Asian representation, especially in such a powerful position. She’s probably my biggest idol. I’m just really stoked to see her,” she said. “And I’ll wait here all day in the rain to see her.”

Quincy Kizekai, 18, stood beside Jaishankar. They FaceTimed his mom and told her he was about to see the vice president.

”It’s so nice to see someone that looks like me come here, and listen to what the community needs,” Kizekai said.

Michelle Sylvester holds a sign welcoming Vice President Kamala Harris to Providence.
Michelle Sylvester holds a sign welcoming Vice President Kamala Harris to Providence. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

During the business roundtable, Harris asked female business owners to help make the case to critics in Washington for why infrastructure spending should include investing in child care. She was joined by Raimondo and Jennifer Cavallaro, owner of Beehive Café; Minnie Luong, owner of Chi Kitchen Foods; Christine Paige, owner of Bliss Medical Hair Replacement Center; and Suzanne Ellis Wernevi, founder and CEO of Luna & Stella Jewelry.

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Harris said her definition of infrastructure is “things you just need to get to where you need to go.”

“We should not ask women to put their jobs before their children,” Harris said. “It’s a false choice.”

Wernevi said that the pandemic has proven that child care “is a societal issue and a business imperative,” adding that “I literally would not have a business if I did not have child care.”

Wernevi urged federal lawmakers to develop comprehensive plans to support children, saying, “Our country will benefit in so many ways if we view as collective responsibility.”

As part of the American Jobs Plan, Biden is calling for Congress to provide $25 billion to upgrade child-care facilities and increase the supply of child care in areas that need it most. He’s also calling for an expanded tax credit to encourage businesses to build child care-facilities at places of work, and $400 billion to expand access to home- and community-based care for older relatives and people with disabilities.

Biden’s proposal has drawn criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats in Congress, who have questioned the wide scope of the projects that would be considered infrastructure. The president has proposed increasing the corporate tax to 28 percent to pay for the plan, but Raimondo has said the administration is willing to compromise.

Not all Rhode Islanders were pleased by the vice president’s visit.

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Sue Cienki, the state’s GOP chairwoman, called Harris’s appearance “grandstanding,” said the former governor had “devastated” the local economy, and said it is “being wrecked again by the radical policies of the Biden-Harris administration.”

In a statement, Republican National Committee spokesperson Rachel Lee took Harris to task for being in Rhode Island instead of at the US-Mexico border.

“After 42 days of ignoring her appointment as Biden’s border crisis manager, Kamala Harris ventured over 1,858 miles from the border crisis,” said the statement. “Harris needs to stop playing political games in Rhode Island and go straight to our southern border.”


Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan. Lylah Alphonse can be reached at lylah.alphonse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.