In this Table for 12 series, I’m focusing on the 12 women and women of color in Biden’s cabinet, the most ever.
This Week: Gina Raimondo Wants to Get America Back to Work
Gina Raimondo was sworn in on March 3 as the nation’s new Commerce Secretary by Vice President Kamala Harris after a bipartisan vote of 84-15 in the Senate.
Raimondo, 49, was first elected to office in 2010 as the General Treasurer of Rhode Island. In 2014, she was elected the first woman governor of Rhode Island. She won a second term in 2018. She also served as chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association in 2019. In introducing her as his pick for Secretary of Commerce, President-elect Biden called her “one of the most effective and forward-thinking governors” in America.
In her new role, Raimondo will be in charge of the sprawling department, which works to stimulate economic growth and opportunity for American workers. She’ll oversee the department’s $8 billion budget and 43,000 employees working on trade policy, patents and the U.S. Census, as well as weather monitoring, American fisheries, telecommunications standards and economic data gathering, among other activities.
“We have become the party that is anti-business,” she told Frank Bruni earlier this year. “We need to be the party of work.”
She says she will be “focused on a simple but vital mission — to spur good-paying jobs, empower entrepreneurs to innovate and grow, and help American workers and businesses compete.” The New York Times notes that the department is “likely to play a crucial role in several of Mr. Biden’s policy efforts, including spurring the American economy, building out rural broadband and other infrastructure, and leading America’s technology competition with China.”
The Opportunity That ‘Shaped Her Life’
Raimondo grew up in Smithfield, Rhode Island, the youngest daughter of Joseph and Josephine Raimondo, in a working class Italian-American family. After fighting in World War II, her father worked at the Bulova Watch Factory for 26 years until it closed in the 1980s leaving him without a job at 56.
Gina says her mother held the family together during what was “a very difficult time.” When she applied to Harvard, she worried whether her family could afford tuition. “My mom told me that if I wanted to go [to Harvard], they would do whatever it takes to make it work,” Raimondo told the Harvard Crimson, reflecting on her time there. “Getting in—and realizing I could go—was a pivotal moment for me, and it was an opportunity that has shaped my life in so many ways since.”
While at Harvard, the 5′ 3″ Raimondo tried out for the Harvard-Radcliffe Rugby Team. “I…was one of the littlest and so became scrum-half,” she told the Providence Journal. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie.” (For those not in the know, the scrum half is “usually the smallest and scrappiest player on the team.”) She also played at Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship.
Politics Is Personal
Several years later, Raimondo read a story in the local paper about further budget cuts to public libraries in her state. Her grandfather, an Italian immigrant who came to America on his own at the age of 14, had taught himself English late at night at the Providence Public Library. He later lived with Gina’s family after he retired.
The smallest state in the union had a very big debt problem. A pension crisis was chipping away at public services like public libraries and public buses, services that she and her grandfather had depended on in their youth. She told her family she was going to do something about it and run for office.
“Oh, honey,” said her mother, Josephine, “don’t do that. It’s a dirty business.”
But Raimondo ran and she won. As Rhode Island’s treasurer, she tackled the state’s $7 billion unfunded pension liability making tough decisions about how to keep cities from going bankrupt. She led an “unprecedented reform, raising the retirement age (to 67), freezing cost-of-living increases, and adding a 401(k)-like plan to the traditional (shrunken) defined-benefits plan.”
“[Raimondo has] created a culture of urgency around fixing state agencies,” Jeffrey B. Liebman, professor of economics and director of the Government Performance Lab at Harvard University, told the Harvard Crimson, “When someone tells her it will take eight months to fix something, she asks why it can’t be done in three months.”
In 2014, she ran for governor, and won again. She has said that one of her proudest moments as governor was signing into law the 2017 Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, which provides tuition-free community college to all high school graduates in the state.
“It’s a game-changer,” Raimondo wrote. “In the first year alone, we saw a 43% increase in the number of full-time, recent high school graduates and a 500% increase in students of color who are on track to graduate in two years.”
When she entered office, the state had some of the worst unemployment numbers in the country. When she resigned earlier this month, she took credit for having “jump-started our economy, lifted up small businesses, made record investments in education, led the fight against climate change, made long-overdue repairs to crumbling roads, bridges, and schools, and provided skills and a pathway to a good job for thousands of Rhode Islanders.”
After being sworn in as Secretary of Commerce, she wrote, “I am committed to helping Americans and businesses, small and large, to combat this pandemic head-on, creating millions of good paying jobs and powering a more just, sustainable economy.”
A heartfelt welcome to the table, Secretary Raimondo.
In the ongoing series, Table for 12 by Pat Mitchell, we’re continuing to celebrate the unprecedented number of women nominated for Cabinet positions by President Biden. Cecilia Rouse was confirmed as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, the first Black woman in the post and last week, Deb Haaland was sworn in as the first Native American Interior Secretary.
Backstory to Raimondo’s signature image: The dog is her family rescue dog. The watch is a Bulova, representing where her father worked. The Italian flag represents her heritage. The Harvard and Radcliffe logos are there to represent her college and participation on the rugby team. She served as chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association in 2019. PJC is also featured, as it is the logo of her enterprise, Point Judith Capital. Lastly, the logo of the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship represents her signing into law the tuition-free community college bill in her state.