Gina Raimondo Confronts Rhode Island’s Uncertain Future

Rhode Island’s first female governor won support for her leadership during historic snowstorms, but it’s unclear whether courts or lawmakers will side with her on major pension and budget issues.
by | April 2015
“People talk about work-life balance,” says Gov. Gina Raimondo. “I view that as over a lifetime. At this moment in our lives, we’re doubling down on work. There’s no balance.” (Photos by David Kidd)

On the day she assumed office in January as governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo told the state that her agenda would be shaped by a combination of stubborn outside forces: high unemployment, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and a pervasive pessimism among citizens about whether their situation would improve. “The challenges that any governor inherits define the possibilities before them,” she told an audience at the capitol.

What Rhode Island’s first female governor couldn’t know was that her leadership skills were about to be tested by a different kind of outside force. A series of blizzards would dump several feet of snow on the state and effectively shut it down for days. As common as snow is in New England, it still has the potential to shape political fortunes. Longtime Rhode Islanders still fondly remember Gov. Joseph Garrahy and the plaid flannel shirt he wore while leading the state’s response to the Blizzard of 1978.

Raimondo passed the snowstorm test. She did what governors are supposed to do but sometimes forget to do in those situations: She consulted and communicated. There were regular briefings for legislative leaders, mayors, chambers of commerce, the local electric company, the state police and the National Guard. The governor put herself before the public in regular news conferences. She imposed a travel ban, and it was widely followed. She even checked in with local leaders after the first blizzard to see what she could do better the next time -- a  wise move, it turned out, as the storms kept coming.

Managing the blizzard well helped the new governor win the confidence of her state. But she did not run for governor to deal with weather. A former venture capitalist and one-term state treasurer, she talks tirelessly about jobs. During her campaign, she claimed to have created 1,000 jobs in the private sector and to have helped in relaunching Rhode Island’s signature beer, Narragansett. She talked so frequently about boosting tourism, training workers for high-skilled jobs and reducing regulatory burdens for businesses that one of her campaign commercials featured her young daughter, Ceci, rolling her eyes and telling viewers, “Our mom talks about her jobs plan all the time.”

Even while Raimondo and her staff were hunkered down at the state’s emergency management headquarters, the governor took advantage of lulls in storm-related activity to hold discussions on workforce development. “She is not going to waste a moment,” says Raimondo’s chief of staff, Stephen Neuman.

And she never seems to. Sheer exertion, Raimondo says, is how she keeps on top of both short-term crises, like snowstorms or a meningitis outbreak, and her long-term goals for the economy. “People talk about work-life balance,” she says. “I view that as over a lifetime. At this moment in our lives, we’re doubling down on work. There’s no balance. I’ve yet to find a problem that can’t be solved with more work. It’s my personal philosophy.”

The doubling down comes at a critical time. Most governors are remembered for what they accomplish in their first few months in office. Usually still popular, they can push an agenda through the legislature more easily than later in their tenure. Yet they must champion that agenda at the same time they are putting together a staff and getting up to speed on the huge range of issues that cross their desks. “It’s incomparable to any other job, or most other jobs,” Raimondo says. “On any given day, you deal with public health, public safety, labor and training, schools, the economy. The breadth is huge.”

Raimondo has had some important things going for her. She and much of her staff were already well-acquainted with state government. As the first Democrat elected governor in more than 20 years, she is friendly with the Democratic leaders who control the legislature. And the outgoing administration of Gov. Lincoln Chafee was, by all accounts, extremely cooperative in the transition.

“You need to spend just as much time on fleshing out your agenda as you do in hiring your team in the transition,” Raimondo says. “Because, once you are the governor, you have to hit ‘Go!’"

Raimondo’s victory came after nearly a year of official campaigning, and an even longer time in the spotlight. As state treasurer, Raimondo spearheaded an effort to restructure Rhode Island’s huge pension debt. The move meant taking on the state’s powerful public-sector unions, but Raimondo laid out her case by amassing financial figures and warning that failure to act soon would require even more painful cuts later. Her legislation passed overwhelmingly (although legal challenges remain), and she gained national attention. More important for her political future, “Gina” became a household name in Rhode Island.

The governor, who is 43 years old, has the sort of biography you might expect in an Aaron Sorkin script. She grew up in a blue-collar, Roman Catholic family in a Providence suburb, then studied economics at Harvard and graduated at the top of her class. She attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. Among her classmates there were Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator from New Jersey; Eric Garcetti, now the mayor of Los Angeles; Bobby Jindal, now governor of Louisiana; and Andrew Moffit, who became her husband. Raimondo finished off her education with a law degree at Yale. Later, she started Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm, and in 2010, she ran for treasurer and won handily.

But Raimondo’s run for governor did not go quite as smoothly. In 2014, Rhode Island voters were in a sour mood. For nine straight months, the state had had the highest unemployment rate in the country. An effort to jump-start the high-tech industry blew up when 38 Studios, a video game company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, defaulted on repayment of the $75 million it borrowed from the state, and then declared bankruptcy. The speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives resigned last spring, a day after the FBI and other law enforcement agencies raided his house. Labor unions were still smarting from the new pension law that raised the retirement age for government workers, and reduced payouts to retirees.

Still, Raimondo was able to win the Democratic primary by a comfortable margin because the unions split their support between two of her opponents. Another three-way race in the general election was far closer. Raimondo beat out a Republican mayor and a little-known third-party candidate who captured more than 20 percent of the vote. On election night, Raimondo stood at a lectern in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by her family and a rowdy crowd of supporters who kept interrupting her with chants of, “Go, Gina, go!”

“Tonight,” she said triumphantly, “Rhode Island showed Rhode Island is ready for a governor who is going to turn this state around.”

With that, Raimondo had eight weeks to prepare to take office. “The transition is overwhelming,” she says. “You wake up the next day and the most striking thing is the campaign ends like that. It’s an abrupt end. You don’t wind down your campaign. Campaign over. You’re the governor-elect. I’m not sure I was prepared for how abrupt it was.”

Raimondo started recruiting a team the very first night. When Providence lawyer Kevin Gallagher congratulated her at the Biltmore Hotel reception, she asked whether he would volunteer for her transition team. Gallagher figured he would help the team for a few days. He ended up as a deputy chief of staff.

The transition team was carefully crafted. Its co-chairs were a Democratic state representative who had run Raimondo’s campaign for treasurer; a marketer who led the Providence-area chamber of commerce; and a wind energy executive who had worked in Providence city government.

Raimondo’s chief of staff, Stephen Neuman, worked for Democratic governors in Maryland, Missouri and North Carolina before coming to Rhode Island.

Within three days of her election, she started talking to Neuman, whom she hired as chief of staff. Neuman is a St. Louis native who had worked for Democratic governors in Missouri and North Carolina. Most recently, he had been a top aide to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Neuman’s appointment came as a surprise to many longtime followers of state politics. “Everyone in Rhode Island is scratching their head, thinking, ‘Who is this kid?’” says Daniel Beardslee, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, who has worked in state politics for 41 years. “But I think it’s better. As chief of staff, looking at things from a non-Rhode Island perspective is needed more than it’s not needed. The traditional Rhode Island way is a handicap.”

Raimondo also named an outsider for the newly created position of commerce secretary, which, given her emphasis on reviving the economy, is one of the most visible posts in her administration. Her pick, Stefan Pryor, is a former Connecticut education commissioner. Pryor also worked with Cory Booker when Booker was mayor of Newark, N.J., and served as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, an agency charged with guiding development of the area after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

A majority of the staff in the governor’s office are women -- 56 percent, compared to 40 percent of the initial staff for Chafee, who won office as an independent but later became a Democrat.

One helpful bit of advice Raimondo received was not to spend the early weeks focusing exclusively on personnel decisions. “You need to spend just as much time on fleshing out your agenda as you do in hiring your team in the transition,” she says. “You need to spend as much time, if not more, developing your agenda, because, once you are the governor, you have to hit ‘Go!’ The more prepared you are with the agenda, as well as the team, the better off you’ll be.”

One of the first steps the governor took was to study the Rhode Island economy in great detail. The more she studied, she says, the weaker she realized her state’s position had become. The unemployment rate is still among the highest in the country, and the jobs being created in the state now pay considerably less than the jobs lost during the Great Recession. Raimondo says that Rhode Island’s economic woes are not simply a result of regional forces. Rhode Island is faring worse than neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, which have higher per-capita incomes. The state has done less to attract tourists, federal research dollars and small businesses than its neighbors, she says.

Before she was sworn in, Raimondo invited 80 business leaders to a closed-door brainstorming session in downtown Providence to discuss ways to improve the economy. They focused on areas she stressed during her campaign: workforce development, infrastructure, small business, tourism and manufacturing.

During her first two months in office, Raimondo announced the areas she planned to focus on, but offered few specifics. She’s constrained by the fact that next year’s budget is projected to be $190 million in the red, with fiscal shortfalls only growing larger in succeeding years because of increasing Medicaid costs and reduced gambling revenues as a result of casinos opening in Massachusetts. An adverse decision in a court case over Raimondo’s pension overhaul could blow an even bigger hole in the budget and, knowing this, Raimondo and the state have been pursuing a settlement.

The budget situation puts the governor in a tight spot. Raimondo contends that Rhode Island cannot afford to raise taxes, lest it scare businesses away. But it can’t keep cutting spending, either. Aid to localities has shriveled up, and economic development efforts have suffered since the implosion of 38 Studios. Raimondo has telegraphed her intention to pare Medicaid spending and possibly to use new highway tolls or public-private partnerships to boost infrastructure spending. But she says the best way to balance the budget is by supporting growth in “decent-paying” jobs, which would, in turn, boost state revenues.

Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller says Rhode Island residents expect Raimondo to handle the state’s economic problems in the same way she dealt with the pension problem. “The voters expect her to be as persistent on [the economy] as she was on the pension deal,” Schiller says. “That’s her reputation, starting something and finishing it. That’s going to be the benchmark for Gina Raimondo.”

Indeed, as she worked on her first budget proposal, the governor began mustering numbers on the problems facing Rhode Island in order to build a case. “It’s not about scaring people. It’s about motivating people to act,” she says. “I just want to tell people, if we do change course, we have great potential. If we don’t change course, we’re letting our kids down, we’re letting our people down, we’re letting our families down.”

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed hopes Raimondo’s budget will do better with the legislature’s Democratic majorities than those of previous governors.

But even as she was meeting weekly with legislative leaders and consulting them on budget questions, she found herself dealing with one of the first public rifts between the governor and legislative leaders since her inauguration. During a February visit to Washington, D.C., Raimondo described how budgets had been fashioned in Rhode Island in previous years. She said the legislature rewrote governors’ budgets “often in the dark of night, in a quiet room -- the lobbyists and the General Assembly get together and they hack it up every which way and out pops a budget. That’s bad for everybody as far as I can tell, so my job is to shine a light on that whole process.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called Raimondo’s remarks “very disappointing in light of the spirit of cooperation that everyone spoke of on inauguration day.” He said it was the governor, not the legislature, that had been developing her budget in secret.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, though, says Raimondo’s ongoing discussions with legislative leaders, and the fact that she is a fellow Democrat, could improve her chances of getting her way in her first year as governor. “Where, with a Republican governor, traditionally the General Assembly might simply rewrite the budget upon introduction, I am very hopeful that we will continue to work with her so that it is this governor’s budget,” Paiva Weed says.

Rhode Island rallied around Raimondo as she faced her first blizzard as governor, but the economic and budget woes will not pass so quickly. Whether the public stays with her long enough to get through those problems could depend on how well Raimondo’s initial preparations have positioned her to weather the storm ahead.