Lone Bright Spot

Meet Gina Raimondo, the Only Democratic Star of 2014

First Gina Raimondo stood up to the unions and led a reform of Rhode Island’s pension system. Then she ran for governor ran as a ‘bold progressive’ who can get things done—and won.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Gina Raimondo was a few hours away from becoming the first female governor of Rhode Island, a bright spot in an otherwise miserable night for Democrats.

But for the moment, she was mortified.

Her old sister, Marianne, had showed up to her polling place wearing a black skirt, black top, and black heels.

“What is my crazy sister doing?” Raimondo asked an aide, pausing briefly from shaking hands with voters heading into a Smithfield middle school to do their civic duty.

“Marianne, you are looking cheery!” she shouted. “It’s not a funeral, you know.”

They embraced, and in a Rhode Island accent even thicker than her sister’s, Marianne explained herself.

“You know me, I always wear black,” she said. “Not tonight, though. Tonight I am wearing pink.”

“Tonight,” was Raimondo’s Election Night party at the Biltmore Hotel, where in front of thousands of fans chanting “Go, Gina, Go” she would herald a new way forward for Democrats after another midterm drubbing.

It was an occasion that called for something that stood out from the crowd a bit, and as unlikely as Marianne’s color choice was, it was nowhere as unlikely as Gina herself becoming just the second sitting female Democratic governor in the country.

Raimondo has a résumé that reads more like an attack ad a Democratic consultant dreamed up to hit Republicans than the career of someone who leads one of the nation’s most Democratic states. She was valedictorian of her high school class, went to Harvard, Oxford, and law school at Yale, and clerked on the federal court of appeals, but then gave up her law career for a career in venture capital.

If there are in her venture capital period Mitt Romney-esque examples of outsourcing and shuttering factories to reward investors, her opponents have been unable to dig them up. Instead, Raimondo describes her financial career as investing early in companies that had good ideas but lacked capital; among them was one that helped save the Narragansett Brewing Company, which makes a lager that is to Rhode Island what Chianti is to Tuscany.

After a flukily easy race to become the state treasurer, Raimondo, then not yet 40 years old and with no political experience to speak of, wrapped her arms around the biggest third rail in politics in Rhode Island and around the country: reforming the state’s pension system.

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How ill-advised was this? Consider that in New Jersey, Chris Christie was at the same time delighting audiences by publicly browbeating retired public school teachers on their feathered retirement nests. In Wisconsin, citing the same budgetary concerns that Raimondo did, Scott Walker was trying to curb the power of public sector unions and setting off a full-scale revolt in Madison.

A lot of the time, when pols talk of pensions, the conversation seems like either an exercise in mongering fear or in scoring cheap political points. The former because the political class has been warning for decades about a coming pension disaster that has never hit; the latter because it can be an easy way for conservatives to score a bank shot—knocking government workers, including teachers and health-care workers, and bashing the notion of a thriving and effective government, all in the name of keeping taxes low.

In Rhode Island, this was not the case. The town of Central Falls declared bankruptcy in the face of $80 million in unfunded pension and benefit obligations, and with a retiree health benefit liability five times the city’s annual revenue. Retirees there were already receiving pension checks half the size of what they had been promised.

“In Rhode Island, it was no abstract. I am certain what would have happened to Rhode Island” if reforms had not been made, Raimondo said as she swiped the newsboy cap off the head of her 7-year-old son, who was accompanying her on Election Day. “I don’t know about other places, but Rhode Island had a system that was factually, mathematically unsustainable. It was designed—forget right or wrong or indifferent—it was designed to work so that you made significantly more money retired than you did working.”

As Raimondo tells it, most public sector workers in the state were able to retire at age 55 with 80 percent of their pay. They received 3 percent annual, compounded raises, and so were in a few years making more not working than they did on the job.

And so Raimondo persuaded the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass a series of reforms that included delaying the retirement age, suspending cost-of-living increases, and switching new hires to a defined contribution plan, even as protesters flooded the state capital with signs that said “Rhode Island Is Not Wisconsin.” The largest state employees union released a “forensic audit” that accused Raimondo of using the reforms as “an opportunity to enrich herself and her hedge fund backers.” The pension fund, the union declared, had fallen victim to “a Wall Street coup.”

After the reforms passed, Raimondo became something of a hero on the issue of pension reform, proof that not only could a politician stand up to the powerful public sector unions, but that a Democrat could.

Her opponents, meanwhile, labeled her “the Democratic Scott Walker.”

When asked if this characterization had any validity, Raimondo seemed taken aback—I am what?

To the contrary, she said, she did not necessarily believe that collective bargaining needed to be reformed.

“The core difference for me was that it was not ideological,” she said. “When I look at Christie or Walker, it seems to me that their approach was very much about breaking unions. My focus wasn’t ideological. It was that we have serious fiscal problems that are going to bankrupt cities and towns—literally—and hurt a lot of people. The pensions wouldn’t be there. There wouldn’t be money for the government to run. So I was much more about ‘Hey, let’s get results and solve some problems.’”

When she began her race for governor in 2014, Raimondo was a considerable underdog, mainly because unions, while decimated nationally, remain powerful forces in big urban centers like Providence, and the public sector unions, which rely on getting friendly politicians elected for their very livelihood, have sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations.

Plus, it is no easy thing for a politician who has taken a goodie away from her voters, rather than given one to them, to make a case for her election.

“We knew it would be hard. The union faithful usually show up in a primary,” she said. “And we knew the general election would be hard, too. But what we were saying to people, which was true, was that if we didn’t do anything, then it would get a lot worse.”

She cited the example of Central Falls and of the town of West Warwick. The latter’s pensions were funded at 20 percent of what was needed.

“What I tried to say was ‘Look, we don’t want to do this. Nobody wishes to change the pension system. It stinks. It’s hard. I wish I didn’t have to. But if you look in the long term’—which is impossible, right? What we are trying to do here is get voters to pay attention to the long term, but everybody is angry about what is happening in the short term.”

But Raimondo ran a targeted, data-driven campaign that, like the pension reforms, was driven by the facts and not by emotion. To wit, in the final days of the general election, when it seemed as if all of Rhode Island was awash in campaign signs for everything from U.S. Senate seats to obscure ballot initiatives, “Raimondo for Governor” signs were hard to find. Better, the campaign realized, to focus time and energy on something that mattered, like knocking on doors and making phone calls, than having a bunch of signs around to make you feel better.

But more important, and why Raimondo matters to the Democratic Party moving forward, is that she couched her reforms in the language of liberalism. Claiming to be a “bold progressive,” she argued that unless the pension issue was dealt with, there would be no money for schools, for the safety net, or for infrastructure, or any progressive priorities beyond sending checks to retirees.

“Let’s be realistic,” she said. “These schools are falling apart. Where are we going to get the money to rebuild schools if someone is retiring at 53 and getting a 3 percent annual raise? These kids are not going to get a new school.”

She talked about how the state had decimated funding for support systems for those with physical and mental disabilities, how no new schools had been built and teachers were not getting annual raises, how tuition at state colleges had gone up to make up for a reduction in state funding—all, she said, because of the pension problem.

And so as much as the Netroots seek to tag her with every ill of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party—“Raimondo sold out the working men and women of Rhode Island by using her Koch brothers scare tactics to slash pensions for state workers,” one wrote—Raimondo insists the label doesn’t fit.

“People talk about Social Security,” she said. “There is no parallel between Rhode Island’s pension and Social Security. You can raise taxes on the rich in America! We should raise taxes on the rich in America. But we can’t do that in Rhode Island. There is no economic growth, so we are stuck with a system that is poorly designed and that is collapsing in on itself.”

And if she is not a Democratic Scott Walker, she ain’t a Democratic Chris Christie, either.

“I hate his approach,” she said. “Listen to him talk to public school teachers. It’s horrible! He is very disrespectful to unions. He is very disrespectful to teachers. It’s very us versus them: ‘Oh, they have to work longer. Tough luck.’ I heard him say that. That is mean.”

As the polls drew to a close on Tuesday night, there was some fear that union members would not coalesce around Raimondo, preferring instead to register a protest vote for Robert J. Healey, a perennial candidate who last ran four years ago for lieutenant governor on the platform of abolishing the office. The fears were not unfounded; Healey got more than 22 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to deny Raimondo, who bested Allan Fung, the Republican mayor of Cranston, by three points, even though the powerful teacher’s union and the AFL-CIO declined to back her.

And now, for Democrats, Raimondo is perhaps the only star to emerge in 2014, and even more important, a way for the party to thread the needle as it balances the needs of its labor base with other progressive priorities.

“There is a collision course that is brewing between two priorities: a safety net for the elderly and programs for schools and communities,” said Jonathan Cowan, head of the centrist think tank Third Way. “And as the nation ages, that conflict becomes more real. The truth of the matter is that given the rate of taxes of which most people are willing to accept, you can’t pay for retirees’ health care and take care of schools and children and infrastructure.”

And even before the votes were counted, Raimondo was positioning herself as a major voice in the debate.

“I want to show two things,” she said. “One, that Democrats can solve big problems and get things done. And two, that as a public official you can make tough choices, do the right things for the right reasons, and upset some people. And still get elected.”