TALKING POLITICS

The mother of all news weeks

By IAN DONNIS
Posted 1/13/21

After more than 10 years in elective office in Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo is approaching a new phase in her life. She's set to join President-elect Joe Biden's administration as Commerce secretary - a post that keeps her options wide open for the

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TALKING POLITICS

The mother of all news weeks

Posted

After more than 10 years in elective office in Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo is approaching a new phase in her life. She’s set to join President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as Commerce secretary – a post that keeps her options wide open for the future. (She could conceivably vie for a VP slot in 2024, run for the U.S. Senate, make a mint in the private sector, lead a prestigious university, or do more than one of these things.)

Supporters say Raimondo has moved Rhode Island forward, while critics remain unimpressed. Regardless of the view, the D.C. escape hatch will take her out of Rhode Island, with possible confirmation later this month, as the pandemic continues to rage.

The advent of COVID-19 precipitated Raimondo’s best approval ratings as governor, yet the crisis’ incessant demands have exhausted elected officials and everyday people alike. Now, Rhode Island will get a new governor, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee – and McKee gets a big boost in profile and fundraising ability ahead of the 2022 election season.

The scorecards on Raimondo’s tenure have already started, although assessing the full impact of her time leading the state will take longer. For now, one of the most striking things is how unexpected events – in this case the pandemic – have such a big impact. While building a more robust and sustainable economy was the sine qua non of Raimondo’s tenure – and progress was made – the effort remains incomplete due to the harsh toll of COVID-19.

***

Back when Donald Trump campaigned in Warwick in 2016, he expressed some of his now-familiar anti-media rhetoric to his supporters. When the event was breaking up, a young man walking by the press area glared at Kate Nagle from GoLocalProv and myself. “The media suck!” he shouted. My recollection is that Kate and I looked at each other and we had a quick laugh, because it seemed silly.

Well, no one is laughing now, after what happened last Wednesday. Over time, will the storming of the Capitol by an angry mob of supporters of President Trump be remembered as an aberration – one of the darkest days in the history of the republic – or a step on the way to a further decay of our public life?

In a tangible reminder of how much changed last week, fencing surrounds the Capitol. President Trump has said he will leave the White House ahead of Biden’s inaugural, but he also vows that his supporters will have a voice long into the future.

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Gov. Raimondo’s exit for D.C. is poised to set off the biggest political chain reaction in Rhode Island since U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy decided not to seek re-election in 2010.

Dan McKee gets to become governor, although the tenor of the transition remains open to question due to the frosty relations between the two state officials. “Crucially, our state’s COVID response will not be impacted,” McKee said in a statement Friday, a day after talking with the governor. “Governor Raimondo and I agreed it is in the best interest of Rhode Island that the team leading our state’s COVID response remains in place throughout the pandemic as we distribute the vaccine and continue Rhode Island's robust response. Nothing is more important to the success of our state.”

Notwithstanding efforts by state Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) to give the General Assembly the pick, McKee will choose his successor as lieutenant. The hopefuls include former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, former Sen. Donna Nesselbush of Pawtucket, Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), perhaps Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena (who said Monday he is not interested in an appointment to the post), businesswoman Lisa Ranglin, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, and who knows who else.

Aaron Regunberg, who lost a Democratic primary race to McKee by just 2,466 votes in 2018, used a statement to wish well to McKee and whomever succeeds him. Regunberg added: “When I ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2018, 49% of voters across Rhode Island supported our vision to use that office to shine a spotlight on the problems our communities face and find solutions that help everyday Rhode Islanders. I am excited to continue exploring another run for that office, and look forward to working to earn the support of my neighbors. Regardless of the political appointments that we may see in the coming months, it will be the voters of Rhode Island who will choose their next elected lieutenant governor in two years.”

***

During Gov. Raimondo’s formal unveiling in Delaware as President-elect Biden’s nominee for Commerce secretary on Friday, Biden lauded her: “She is one of the most effective and forward-thinking governors in the United States of America – the first woman ever to lead the Ocean State. She’s created an innovative loan program that’s helped minority-owned and women-owned businesses access the capital they need but wasn’t always available to them. She’s worked with employers to design skills-training programs so that local workers would be equipped to take on good-paying jobs in their own communities.”

As Biden was speaking, Raimondo’s critics at the Republican Governors Association offered their own perspective, pointing to negative business-climate rankings for Rhode Island, amid other clips. Added the RGA: “At a time when American families and businesses are coping with and recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commerce Secretary will play an oversized role in ensuring livelihoods that were upended are put back on track. Tasked with promoting business interests and American industry, Raimondo’s background and anti-business policies make her a questionable choice for the post at the department.”

***

Nick Domings, spokesman for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, shared this info from their team at the state library regarding the last Rhode Islander to serve in a presidential cabinet, and the last governor to leave mid-tenure: “Former Rhode Island Gov. J. Howard McGrath served as U.S. Attorney General from 1949-1952 under the Truman Administration. However, he did not leave his post as governor to serve in the Cabinet. He was governor of Rhode Island from 1941-1945, and U.S. senator from 1947-1949. Based on the team’s research, there has never been a sitting Rhode Island General Officer who has left to take a Cabinet position during her/his term. They also found that Gov. John Pastore was the most recent Rhode Island governor to step down - to take a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1950. Lt. Gov. John McKiernan stepped into the governor’s role for about two weeks (the shortest term in state history) after Pastore resigned and before Dennis Roberts, who won the November 1950 election, was sworn in as governor in January.”

***

In most weeks it would be huge news if Democrats won control of the Senate through two special election victories (in Georgia!!). Not last week. Here’s the view of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed – who will become chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee – on what Democratic control of the chamber will mean: “I think you will have an opportunity for President-elect Biden to move forward on many of the initiatives he's talking about. First is a much more effective response to COVID. Because without defeating COVID, we can't really restore the economy. Second, I think he will look at another stimulus package, which would be very helpful, particularly to the states as well as the individuals.”

“Then I think longer term, he's going to have to reestablish our positive relationships with allies all across the globe who have felt, I think, shunned or otherwise by President Trump. And then they're the big issues of climate change, which have a huge effect on Rhode Island, the Ocean State. He will be reestablishing, I hope, a sensible policy to diminish the effects of climate change, as much as we can. Those initiatives I don't think would be as strongly supported by a majority of Republicans in the in the Senate. They will get our support, and hopefully working with Republicans, because it's very closely divided, we can make some progress.” ***

It always comes back to Rhode Island, part infinity. The Commerce Department has oversight over the Census, so Gov. Raimondo could possibly be in place in time for the expected announcement that the Biggest Little is losing one of its two congressional seats.

The fallout from that is to be determined, but few observers expect a head-on collision between U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin. One theory is that Langevin could land in a new cyber position created as part of the most recent defense authorization. (If you want to bone up on cyber-war and cyber sabotage, “The Perfect Weapon” by David Sanger of The New York Times is an excellent place to start.)

***

The loss at age 66 of Bill Rappleye, the longtime political reporter for WJAR-TV, who more recently moved to RI-PBS, is heartbreaking. Bill was an excellent reporter and an even better person. He was down to earth, quick with a smile or quip and funny as hell. We miss ya, Rapp. May your memory be a blessing.

***

Via RI GOP National Committeeman Steve Frias: “From a historical perspective, Raimondo’s two most important accomplishments were probably the enactment of pension reform in 2011 and her management of the first wave of the pandemic during the spring of 2020. The first saved money; the second saved lives. As for her failures and short comings, I would focus on four areas. First, the budget: despite a strong national economy for most of her tenure as governor, Rhode Island wrestled with large structural budget deficits. Second, the economy: despite her various corporate welfare economic development programs and her borrow and build projects, Rhode Island was a cellar dweller economically as shown by its low GDP growth, low employment growth and its poor national rankings for business climate. Third, education: Rhode Island’s public school system failed to adequately educate our children as shown by RICAS testing and the state takeover of the Providence school system remains a work progress. Fourth, administration: her poor management of UHIP and other social services was simply an embarrassment. As to how Governor Raimondo ranks compared to other recent Rhode Island governors, although I personally found her overall job performance unsatisfactory, from a historical perceptive I think she was somewhat average when compared to her predecessors for the last half-century. One could perhaps make the case she was slightly above-average based on her two major accomplishments, as previously mentioned, and her ability to avoid major broad-based tax increases and corruption scandals.”

Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers’ union, credits Raimondo with a string of educational accomplishments: “pre-kindergarten, all-day kindergarten, the Rhode Island Promise program allowing students to attend the community college for free; an increased emphasis of funding for mental health and a continuing commitment to putting money into the implementation of the funding formula. From an education standpoint, there were a lot of really important accomplishments and we were very happy about that.”

Walsh calls Raimondo’s selection as Commerce secretary “a great achievement for her and a great thing for the state of Rhode Island.”

Asked how he rates Raimondo among governors over the last 40 or so years, Walsh said: “Well, without disparaging any of the others, I think it’s safe to say she was our smartest governor. And a lot of them were hard workers, but nobody worked harder than Governor Raimondo … I feel as badly for her having a pandemic going on for the last part of her service, as I did for Governor Sundlun starting his term with a financial crisis, because I think that those are great frustrations. I can only imagine what Governor Raimondo would have been able to do if she had the economy that Governor Almond had [from 1995-2003]. It would have been just wonderful, the things that we could have accomplished.”

***

J.B. Poersch, a longtime former aide to Sen. Reed who worked on Angel Taveras’ 2014 gubernatorial run, had some of the pride of authorship of Democrats’ big wins in Georgia, as president of the Senate Majority PAC. And Andrew Childs, a previous field director for Rep. Cicilline and Gov. Raimondo, was the coordinated director for Georgia Democrats in the run-off elections.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter@IanDon.

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