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Rhode Island’s governor: Democrats need to be ‘obsessed with job creation’ in the age of Trump

gina raimondo

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Gina Raimondo.

It’s not every day that the Wall Street Journal’s right-leaning opinion section swoons over a Democratic politician. Gina Raimondo’s outspoken championing of tax and regulator reform have made her the rare exception.

Gushing over the Rhode Island governor in a November article titled, “An Island of Rationality in Blue-State New England,” opinion writer Allysia Finley praised Raimondo’s focus on regulatory and tax reform, painting her as a wonky, business-friendly Democrat at odds with a left-wing base committed to fighting battles over social justice issues.

“This year’s election has spurred soul-searching within the Democratic Party,” she wrote. “A debate rages between progressives who argue that Democrats need to double down on the party’s current strategy — that is, dividing the electorate into identity groups and promising a government program for every pot — and those like Ms. Raimondo who believe that boosting economic growth is the only sustainable path for their country and party.”

Raimondo is hoping her style of business-focused governance — with a focus on high-skilled workers, worker re-training, and new tax incentives for businesses — can provide a successful template for a wounded Democratic Party emerging from both a crippling upset presidential loss and years of decimation in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country.

During a recent interview with Business Insider, the governor appeared pleased that her economic message resonated outside of Rhode Island, but she chafed at the idea that her style of governance was at odds with the leftward tack of the party’s base.

“I agree with the last bit of it, but I don’t necessarily agree with the first part,” Raimondo said of the op-ed.

Since taking office in 2015, Raimondo has remained focused on lowering her state’s unemployment rate — which sat at 6.8% when she took office and has since shrunk to 5.3% — and touting her victories to voters. 

In December, Raimondo announced Virgin and Johnson and Johnson would be creating hundreds of jobs in the state, just several months after she announced a jobs training program with Electric Boat and the Department of Labor. The governor has also been one of the most public state advocates attempting to woo PayPal to Rhode Island after the company decided not to open offices in North Carolina due to the state’s controversial bathroom bill.

Raimondo argued that while Democrats would be better off if they’re “not afraid to be obsessed with job creation,” the results could easily appeal to left-leaning voters supporting greater long-term opportunities for middle-class workers.

“We need to have a strategy which provides for economic growth for everybody — not just people with college degrees and professional degrees, but everybody. And I think that the future of the Democratic Party will be brighter if we have leaders who show results on this score,” Raimondo said.

“I don’t think that’s anti-progressive,” she continued. “I’m doing a ton of work on providing job training for the long term unemployed. People who have been out of work for one, two, three years. A lot of work on getting folks who are in the workforce already, so they’re in their 30s or 40s, but who need some skills in order to get a higher-paying job. I think that is progressive. I believe that has to be where our party goes.”

“And I don’t think it’s helpful to just get caught up in the identity politics,” she added.

Hillary Clinton won Rhode Island by a wide margin. But Raimondo argued that the former secretary of state “failed to offer a compelling jobs message,” arguing she had “weak results” in the state.

“A lot of the areas that went for Trump in Rhode Island are places where people are feeling like they’re left behind in this economy,” Raimondo said. “As I’m out and about talking to Rhode Islanders, there’s still a high degree of anxiety about my economic future. Like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a job now, but is it going to last? Is it good? Can I save for retirement?’ There’s a lot of that, and I think that she didn’t convince those people that she was going to be able to do anything for them.”

By many measures, Raimondo doesn’t exemplify a typical Democratic politician in 2017.

A Rhodes scholar with an economics degree from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, Raimondo made a name for herself in the finance industry, founding Rhode Island’s first venture-capital firm. During her run for state treasurer in 2010, Raimondo raised $100,000 alone for the financial sector, a small amount by most state race standards, but larger than any other Rhode Island public official.

She’s focused much of her political capital on fixing Rhode Island’s fiscal woes.

First elected to public office as the state treasurer in 2010, Raimondo executed her central campaign promise: leading a massive inspection and overhaul of of the state’s pension system. The system threatened to bankrupt the state, as local governments floated public-employee layoffs and reductions in crucial public services like transportation and schools.

Despite warnings from Democratic allies that being the face of a public campaign to reduce benefits for future state employees would potentially doom her political future, Raimondo passed a reform bill that included no tax increases, while cutting benefits for future and some current retirees. She paused benefit increases and shifted away from some parts of the previously promised defined-benefit pension plans, in exchange for a 401 (k)-type retirement plan.

But while financial publications have lauded her pension reform efforts and attempts to woo employers, it remains unclear whether the move will pay off politically as her reelection looms in 2018. 

The pension battle made the governor a target for state employee unions, a constituency that tends to back Democratic elected officials. While she won election in 2014 without the union’s support, her approval rating remains one of the lowest in the country: A September poll showed only 38% of Rhode Islanders have a favorable opinion of her tenure, compared to 55% who disapproved.

Raimondo said the key to political success for Democrats — including herself — is bringing jobs into the state and assuaging fears about job losses, even if that means collaborating with Trump.

Though she claimed that she’s been disturbed by how Trump fueled the “anger and hatred towards immigrants, particularly toward certain faith groups,” the governor said she was keeping an open mind about the new administration. And she said she would certainly work with Trump to enact policies more favorable for the Ocean State.

“He’s about to be the president. I’m a governor. We have needs. I need workforce development grants, I need infrastructure grants, I need working relationships with his Cabinet,” Raimondo said. “I’ll talk to anyone if it’s going to help Rhode Island.”

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