PROVIDENCE — A landslide? Hardly. But in winning reelection with 53 percent of the vote in November, Gina Raimondo earned what no Rhode Island governor has achieved since 2006: a majority.
In a multicandidate race, that’s a mandate, Raimondo says. And now a politician who rose to prominence by pushing pension reforms that enraged public employees is using her mandate to pursue a list of progressive policy goals: expanding a tuition-free college program, universal pre-K, raising the minimum wage, new gun safety laws, pot legalization. She is calling for more money for public schools, after a round of distressingly low student test scores.
On a national level, Raimondo, 47, is the new chair of the Democratic Governors Association, a position that will require more out-of-state travel and will probably raise her profile outside of Rhode Island.
Yet rarely is anything easy in Rhode Island politics, where a cynical electorate always seems to be anticipating the next political scandal or government blunder. Elected in 2014 with 41 percent of the vote, Raimondo saw generally weak approval numbers throughout 2018. Meanwhile, a short drive up the highway, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts spent his first term basking in approval ratings around 70 percent, often the highest among governors in the nation.
Raimondo’s signature issue as state treasurer — public employee pension reforms that suspended cost-of-living increases, among other changes — “divided her Democratic base, and it has taken a long time to recover from that,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and a specialist in Rhode Island politics.
Yet Raimondo made significant progress in 2018 and “won by a larger-than-expected margin,” he said.
In a recent Globe interview, Raimondo said low approval ratings seem to come with the territory for Rhode Island governors. “As a result, I try not to focus on it and focus on the results of the job,” she said.
During her first term, she concentrated on rebuilding infrastructure and expanding job training. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate fell from 6.8 percent the month she was elected to 3.8 percent four years later, according to state figures.
“When I first got here right after I was elected, things were not looking good,” Raimondo said. “The whole time I ran for office in 2014, for most of the months of that year our unemployment was number one in America. Every governor feels like they inherited a tough hand but I really did. I felt like, all right Gina, focus on the economy, get people back to work. You’ve got a crisis. You’ve got to make something happen.
“We’ve done that,” she said.
Success over the next four years will be measured by how the state maintains and builds on those gains, Raimondo said, and whether Rhode Island can make its economy better able to weather broader economic downturns.
“We need another four good years in order to really solidify our economic comeback,” she said. “For too long, Rhode Island has been ‘first in, last out’: first into the recession, and last out of the recession. I want to change that.”
Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller, however, said “dark clouds” could threaten Rhode Island’s recovery if the national economy spirals down.
“Raimondo has to worry about protecting Rhode Island’s economic resurgence, and that will prove challenging with an ever-increasing state budget and municipal pension problems at the local level, including the state’s biggest city, Providence,” Schiller said by e-mail. “It will be a big balancing act for her to keep the state’s economy on track.”
The success of Raimondo’s second term also will hinge on improving a public education system that “has been recently bruised by low test scores,” Schiller said.
Rhode Island began using the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to test students, and found that on the whole, Rhode Island kids scored 17 points lower than their Massachusetts counterparts in English and 20 points lower in math. As the Providence Journal starkly put it, if the state of Rhode Island were a single Massachusetts school district, it would rank in the bottom 10 percent of all systems.
The lackluster results underscore the need for improvement, Raimondo said.
“You have the best public schools in America,” Raimondo said of Massachusetts. “And why? Because in the 1990s Massachusetts undertook a major education reform and, critically, stuck with it. In Rhode Island, we haven’t. We’ve had too many different flavors of reform, not sticking to one strategy, and the results show it.”
The test scores have “shed a light on all the work that we need to do.” she added. “That will be a major focus of mine in a second term.”
Rhode Island pollster and political analyst Joe Fleming said student test scores “are not going to improve overnight,” but that Raimondo needs to see some gains to have her second term be judged a success.
As the new chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association, Raimondo will be responsible for getting more Democratic governors elected, a task she seems eager to tackle.
“This year we’ve got races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi,” she said. “I want to be competitive in all of these races. . . . That means raising money, helping these candidates find campaign managers, running good campaigns, doing everything we can to help them win.”
She also has plans for a “good ideas incubator” within the association to showcase innovative policies of Democratic governors.
“The DGA is a great platform for building a national brand,” said West. “It can lead to Cabinet positions or other posts.” Her selection indicates that Raimondo is “well respected nationally and seen as a rising star,” he said.
Raimondo is term-limited and cannot run again for governor. She has been discussed as a potential presidential candidate, but she says she does not think about her next job.
“I don’t, though no one believes me,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not running for president in 2020. I’m not interested in a Cabinet position. I have four years. Look, I think we’re doing a good job. I’m really committed to it. I need another four years to do what we said, to cement the change.”