With Senate Republicans likely to give their blessing to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to become the next Commerce secretary, her confirmation hearing Tuesday could become an examination of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus recovery plan.
Formerly the head of a venture capital firm, Raimondo and the administration’s $1.9 trillion plan puts a heavy emphasis on the Economic Development Administration and Minority Business Development Administration — Commerce agencies that former President Donald Trump sought to eliminate or reduce. The plan would funnel $3 billion through EDA for grants to local governments, nonprofits and higher education institutions.
In a recent news briefing on the recovery plan, Raimondo emphasized creating new jobs in a modernizing economy. She said she wanted to use the tools of the Commerce Department to help soften the disproportionate blow the pandemic has had on minority communities and women.
“It’s crystal clear the economy is changing,” Raimondo said. “The world is undergoing a digital revolution, a data revolution. … People want to work hard, and we need to make sure they have the skills to get jobs.”
In addition to promoting U.S. economic growth, the Commerce secretary has a broad portfolio of issues, ranging from climate change research to international trade enforcement and the decennial census.
Raimondo will testify Tuesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. She is likely to be met with resistance from some Republicans on the panel who have balked at the prospect of another aid plan.
“I grew up in public housing, I know the importance of a job. I watched my dad, his car repossessed and that’s a horrible time,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “And so, I look at the Biden policies — he’s going to kill jobs, he’s going to kill this economy.”
Outgoing Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he expects Raimondo will likely be confirmed, with the committee advancing her nomination “relatively soon.”
Outside observers, such as Hudson Institute senior fellow Thomas Duesterberg, regard Raimondo as a pick who could keep the Commerce Department focused on growing the economy. Duesterberg, who served in the department under President George H.W. Bush, pointed out that she had the most private sector experience of Biden’s picks for top economic posts.
“As the nation’s chief spokesperson for the nonagricultural part of the economy, it’s refreshing to see someone who actually has business experience put into that position,” Duesterberg said.
Raimondo was elected the first female governor of Rhode Island in 2014, and she won a second term in 2018. State law limits the governor to two consecutive terms.
Prior to her gubernatorial run, Raimondo became the second woman to serve as the state’s general treasurer, a position she held from 2011 to 2015. She also served as chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2019.
Raimondo sharpened her bipartisan chops working with Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on issues like vehicle pollution. She also participated in the Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership Network in 2011, shortly after her election as Rhode Island treasurer.
Campaign consultant Kate Coyne-McCoy, who initially convinced Raimondo to run for public office while working at EMILY’s List, described her as “absolutely driven” in her approach to campaigns and the job.
“I think especially on the heels of the kind of government we have had, this is just going to be a day and night difference,” Coyne-McCoy said.
According to Raimondo’s most recent state ethics disclosure, she and her husband own one home and have a blind trust as well as several bank accounts. According to her Office of Government Ethics paperwork, she’s resigned from several board positions and has a minimum of $6 million in assets.
Concerns by progressives
During her service in state government, Raimondo ruffled some feathers among the Democratic base. Her move to restructure Rhode Island’s public pensions while state treasurer alienated many teachers. The changes cut benefits for existing employees as well as future ones.
Raimondo has also irked the trucking industry through a series of I-95 tolls in the state meant to help finance infrastructure projects.
Progressive groups, such as the Revolving Door Project, have criticized her ties to Wall Street. Jeff Hauser, the group’s executive director, said Raimondo’s decisions bent more toward helping the bottom line than workers.
“There’s a perception that whoever gets this Cabinet spot should be the liaison between the administration and rich people, as though otherwise rich people would have no voice in American politics. She is well situated to be a liaison to corporate America, and this is exactly what concerns us,” Hauser said.
However, Hauser and other critics don’t think that’s enough to sink Raimondo’s nomination.
Emily Samsel, national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters, said Raimondo’s work on environmental issues has won her plaudits from conservation groups. Samsel, who worked on Raimondo’s 2018 reelection campaign, noted how the governor helped establish the state’s first offshore wind farm.
“She’ll be a welcome and needed change to the Commerce Department. She knows when to lead and when to let the experts take over,” Samsel said, referring to blowback within the Commerce Department when National Weather Service staff contradicted Trump’s incorrect insistence that 2019’s Hurricane Dorian was heading for Alabama.
After Raimondo’s hearing, it may take a while for her nomination to reach the Senate floor. Rhode Island’s senior senator, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, told a local TV station earlier this month that he does not expect Raimondo’s confirmation to proceed until April. The pace of the Senate calendar could keep her from advancing for months.
“Commerce, important though it is, is not as urgent as attorney general, secretary of Defense, secretary of the Treasury, and so forth,” Whitehouse told WPRI 12.
Raimondo has still scheduled a “state of the state” address in Rhode Island in February. In an address earlier this month, Raimondo told reporters that Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would take over after she leaves.
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.