The State of the State message on Wednesday, February 3, an annual tradition that usually provides the governor with an opportunity to lay out plans for the coming year, instead took on a valedictory tone for Gina Raimondo, expected to resign and be succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee as soon as she is confirmed by the US Senate in a matter of days or weeks as Secretary of Commerce in the new administration of President Joe Biden. Her nomination was advanced earlier in the day on a bipartisan 21-3 vote in the US Senate Commerce Committee.
Due to pandemic precautions addressing a nearly empty House chamber occupied only by her immediate family and House speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate president Dominick Ruggerio, in the course of about 40 minutes Raimondo avoided most of the usual topics, not even mentioning the budget for the coming year that will now be the headache of McKee.
Considerable criticism has been directed at Raimondo who, presumably at the instructions of the Biden political team worried she would say something that could endanger her chances of Senate confirmation, has avoided public appearances and has not taken a question from the press for almost two months. The contrast between Raimondo’s accessibility at daily press conferences months ago earlier in the pandemic has caused some to describe her lately as “missing in action.” While that may not be entirely fair, the public perception is important.
Raimondo in 2020, because of the pandemic that caused massive unemployment and economic contraction, faced the worst crisis of any Rhode Island governor in at least a century, and arguably since the Civil War of the 1860s. Acknowledging this, she emphasized that she was looking forward, saying “2021 will be our year of rebuilding.” Raimondo went out of her way to praise McKee, whom she has for years marginalized and excluded from any serious power or influence, at one point months ago responding to press questions about criticism of her from McKee by saying he was welcome to call her office like anybody else. She was far more conciliatory now: “There’s a lot of work to do, but I stand here confident that we have laid the foundation for a stronger and more equitable Rhode Island, and I know that Lt. Governor McKee is prepared to lead our state. He’s passionate, he’s experienced, he’s committed to public service, and he’s going to do a great job. I want you to know that there will be no disruption to our state’s COVID-19 response, and Lt. Governor McKee has committed to maintaining the entire statewide response team. I also want you to be reassured, as I am, that we are in a good, stable place.”
Raimondo repeatedly returned to the horrors of 2020, noting the families affected by deaths from the virus. “Let’s begin by recognizing the nearly 2,200 families across our state that have lost a loved one to COVID-19. This virus robbed so many of you of the chance to properly say goodbye.”
Acknowledging the shared pain, Raimondo said, “Every single day I heard from healthcare professionals working overnight shifts without a day off; parents balancing work with virtual learning; waiters, waitresses, cashiers and clerks out-of-work, surviving on unemployment insurance, worried about when, or whether, their jobs would come back; small business owners who wanted to stay open and make payroll but didn’t know how much longer they could hold on…”
Noting that much of the burden of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women and on racial and ethnic minorities, Raimondo quoted Biden’s campaign slogan – “Build Back Better” – in advocating that equity should focus economic recovery. “Rhode Island is prepared to meet this moment. I know that because of the work we have done together over the past six years to make our state stronger. We have made investments in Rhode Islanders – in skills and education, job creation, infrastructure, healthcare, equity and sustainability. On this foundation, we will build back better. And we’ll make sure that no one is left behind. It will take all of us to rebuild this economy, and that means everyone must reap the rewards.” Of course, Raimondo is not expected to be around when it comes time to realize those goals, so her words are effectively an exhortation to McKee and others.
Of her accomplishments in six years as governor, Raimondo emphasized educational policy. “We quadrupled the number of public Pre-K classes and made all-day kindergarten a reality for every child. We became the first state in America to teach computer science in every public school. We increased the number of high-quality career and technical training programs in our high schools by 60%… We took bold steps to make community college tuition-free for every high school graduate. At the time we did that, few states had taken this path. Now our country looks to us as a model. And since we started offering that scholarship to young people in Rhode Island, the two-year graduation rate at CCRI has tripled, and we’ve seen a 500% increase among students of color.”
One of the bigger political risks Raimondo took was asking voters to remove “Providence Plantations” from the official name of the state, narrowly passed in 2020 after being shot down in flames a decade earlier by a lopsided negative vote. “For too long, our state’s name was dragged down by a word so closely associated with the ugliest time in our history. We can’t change our past, but we must acknowledge it and commit to a more inclusive future. Last year, the people of Rhode Island came together and made history, voting to finally remove the word ‘plantations’ from the official name of our great state.”
To the surprise of no one, Raimondo made an almost obligatory farewell. “It is very difficult for me to leave Rhode Island. If I am confirmed as Commerce Secretary, it will be a privilege to serve in President Biden’s cabinet as we rebuild America and lift up those who have been left behind – a continuation of the work we have done together these past six years.”
As the first woman to serve as governor since Rhode Island was settled in 1636, Raimondo was conscious of her role for posterity. “I’d like to end tonight with a special message for girls and young women across Rhode Island. This world needs you. We need your voice. We need your ideas. We need you to lead. When I was first asked to serve as Commerce Secretary, I was unsure. But it was the women in my life – my mother, my sister, and even my teenage daughter – who gave me the push I needed. They told me it was okay to be nervous, but that I had to look within myself and summon the courage to lead. So, to all the young women out there, I want to leave you with their words. Look within yourself, and summon the courage to lead. There will be plenty of times when you’re unsure. In those moments, we need you to push aside your doubt and fear, and to say yes. Know that you can be anything you want to be. You are strong and smart and capable. And I’m looking forward to the day when one of you is our governor.”
The Republican response, delivered by Senate minority whip (the second-ranking Republican) Jessica de la Cruz, in a quick eight minutes identified five key points. She said “the legislature’s refusal to reconvene or conduct basic oversight of the governor allowed continual, unilateral and unchecked power by the executive branch, which is tasked with enforcing the law, not making it.” She proposed a new law that will give family members the right to visit their relatives in nursing homes with appropriate medical protections, instead of the blanket visitation bans imposed a few months ago.
De la Cruz condemned restrictions or moratoriums on charter schools, an issue on which McKee, a strong advocate for charter schools, is likely to be sympathetic. “Whether it’s through school choice, educational freedom or an educational savings account, Republicans have repeatedly affirmed that access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. We can no longer allow a child’s ZIP code or a family’s wealth to determine the quality of their education,” she said.
Explicitly accusing Raimondo of misallocating federal pandemic relief funds, de la Cruz said, “The heart of Rhode Island’s economy has been shattered, with as many as 40% of Rhode Island small businesses closing last year. This represents lost wages, lost health insurance and broken dreams. Our state diverted federal monies to shore up the state budget instead of prioritizing these small businesses; Republicans will fight to make sure that any future federal relief monies are distributed to where they belong in our neighborhood small businesses.”
The state’s “ballooning budget is unsustainable,” de la Cruz said. “As businesses and nonprofits suffered great losses last year, Rhode Island’s outlandish budget grew to $13 billion. That’s $13,000 for every man, woman and child in our state. And while there are talks of new taxes, you can’t squeeze water from a rock. And you can’t squeeze more money out of Rhode Islanders and businesses beleaguered by taxes, fees and cumbersome regulations. Republicans call for state budget reform, we must end unsustainable spending practices, while still protecting core government services.”