Governor Gina Raimondo believes that Rhode Island is in the midst of an economic comeback, and she wants another four years at the helm to solidify and expand upon those improvements.
Raimondo highlighted areas she felt were indicative of successful decisions made during her first term as Rhode Island’s first female governor during an hour-long visit to the Beacon headquarters in Warwick on Thursday. She highlighted multiple years of not increasing taxes, implementing more job training programming, reforming the state’s pension system and the ongoing RhodeWorks program as important accomplishments of her administration.
“I think we’ve gone from a really bad place with our economy and infrastructure to a much better place,” she said. “But I’m running to finish the job…I want to cement the recovery. I don’t want to risk going backwards.”
In order to get a chance to see her ideas develop in the way she hopes, Raimondo will have to win what is shaping up to be a highly contested gubernatorial race. Within her own Democratic party, Raimondo has two primary challengers in Matt Brown, former Secretary of State of Rhode Island, and Spencer Dickinson, former state representative.
Potential challengers across the aisle include Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who narrowly lost to Raimondo in 2014, Republican House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, former state rep. Giovanni Feroce and former Republican state representative and Rhode Island campaign chair for Donald Trump Joe Trillo, who has shed his title as a Republican to run as an independent.
According to a recent poll conducted by GoLocalProv, in accordance with John Della Volpe, Director of Polling at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, the race is currently deadlocked at 33 percent apiece for Raimondo and Fung, with Trillo gathering 16 percent and the remainder undecided. Other polls have shown Raimondo to be leading by a couple points, and one showed Fung with a 5 percent lead back in November of 2017.
Raimondo has already faced heavy criticism from her Republican challengers, primarily Fung, who sends out political emails often rebuking the governor’s handling of the state’s flawed new computer system for healthcare tracking (UHIP), the state budget and its ballooning deficit, as well as his charge that Raimondo seeks donations from out of state and has to rely on enticing business to come to Rhode Island through incentivized deals.
“This campaign is more negative earlier than the last campaign,” Raimondo said. “He’s [Fung] been all negative the whole time. No policy proposals, just straight out of the gate negative. That’s different than last time for me.”
Raimondo said that this election is happening amidst a period of increased anxiety among the populace, and that manifests in increased negativity through public discourse and through politicians who represent the public.
“I think people are just anxious. They’re worried about their kids, worried about paying their bills; they’re less secure in general. Mental health is through the roof in schools – issues of mental health and anxiety among kids,” she said. “That’s what I see and feel…A lack of stability.”
Raimondo pointed out how one of the only ways to increase stability within the state is to increase the number of quality jobs and help provide the training necessary for people to be qualified to work those jobs. While the Department of Labor recently released statistics showing that Rhode Island had surpassed 500,000 total jobs for the first time in state history, she said there needs to be continued focus in this area.
She hopes to expand the Rhode Island Promise program, which currently offers two years of free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island for qualified teens graduating high school – but not in the way you might expect.
Rather than committing to expanding the program to other state-funded universities such as Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island, Raimondo instead suggested a possibility of creating jobs training programs for older individuals to help them adjust to changing economic times.
“We need to do a lot more for people who are mid-career,” she said. “People who are 40, 35, 52, who have some college but don’t have a degree, who are never going to get another good job unless they get upskilled and don’t have the money. That’s the rub in America right now, and we have to come up with a Promise-type program to provide job training.”
“There are still a lot of people who aren’t feeling economic recovery,” she continued. “Kids born in poverty, middle aged people whose rugs are getting pulled out from under them because jobs are changing too fast. That’s where I want to focus more of my attention in the second term to make sure that everyone starts to feel it.”
She mentioned how, when she took office, the average time spent on hold with the Department of Labor and Training was an hour and a half when applying for unemployment benefits, and that job training was limited to a finite number of fields.
“Today average wait time is six minutes, job training programs are kicking butt, Electric Boat is adding 1,000 jobs,” she said. “I feel like we’ve turned the ship, but now I want to really go.”
Raimondo said that running for governor a second time – this time as the sitting governor – is a much more challenging and arduous process, requiring many additional hours to ensure she’s getting out into the state’s towns and cities and meeting as many people as possible.
“You just have to work 30 hours a week extra, find it, and put it into the campaign,” she said.
Now that she will have four years of policy decisions under her belt, Raimondo said that the citizens of Rhode Island will be able to hold her accountable to that record and make their own determinations as to whether or not she deserves another four years in office.
“We’ve cut taxes every year, added jobs every year, [there’s] RhodeWorks and [we’re] rebuilding our infrastructure – people can decide, do they like that or is it a good thing?” she said.
Raimondo said that if there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s fixing potholes and damaged roads. This is why she heralds RhodeWorks – the program enacted to toll commercial truck drivers to pay for the rebuilding of 150 structurally deficient bridges and performing maintenance on as many as 500 others – as perhaps the best policy decision of her administration thus far; one everyone can agree with.
“What they don’t agree with is how you pay for it – that’s mostly where we fight,” she qualified. “My theory was I didn’t want to raise taxes, and you can’t build bridges with no money. The federal government has left the building and they’re not giving us money, so I came up with tolls.”
Raimondo said the same could be said for school buildings. She said everyone agrees that schools need to be fixed due to decades of deferred maintenance, however nobody wanted to be the one to pony up and put forth a solution to actually pay for such work. However, residents will be able to make that decision for the first time in many years this November, when a $250 million bond goes to a vote.
At the same time, in spite of the negativity, Raimondo said that people are becoming politically active in ways that she hasn’t seen in the recent past. She spoke of the students from Parkland who spurred a new generation to speak out in resistance of gun violence, and talked about two pieces of legislation that will hopefully ward off firearms-related tragedies in Rhode Island being passed into law this year.
“There’s a lot of talk about all the negativity, and it’s real, but people are getting active in a way that they haven’t in a long time, and I think that’s exciting,” she said, adding that more women are running for elected positions at all levels within the country than ever before.
Raimondo said she worries “a lot about where we’re headed” as a country, and urged all individuals who are likewise concerned to exercise their rights to demonstration and to not allow bigotry in any form in Rhode Island.
“I think it’s important that people come together and stand up,” she said, later referencing how thousands attended a protest in Johnston during the recent Republican-led effort to gut the Affordable Care Act, which ultimately failed. “I think every private citizen needs to take their engagement responsibilities way more seriously than ever.”
“Somehow figure out how to express your rights as a citizen more than you ever have, because it will stop bad things from happening,” she continued. “I think every time you hear racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, you have to put a lid on it right away. Don’t let it happen. Because if it becomes normal, then we’re in big trouble.”
Raimondo said that, since she came from the private sector and wasn’t molded by the political process, that her status as an outsider has protected her from the traditional quid pro quo stereotype of Rhode Island politics.
“That culture and a tacit acceptance of it, is in my view what has held this state back for so long,” she said. “It’s a muck that has held us back and we have to move beyond that…I didn’t come from the system, I’m not of the system and that’s enabled me to bring about change.”
While she realizes that people remain skeptical of her tactics, Raimondo hopes people will come to agree that the state is recovering, and that it can grow to flourish under her continued leadership.
“Rhode Island is better than it was four years ago on almost every metric, and hopefully at the end of the day people will agree with that and acknowledge that and pull a vote to keep going down this path,” she said.