James P. Freeman: R.I.'s moderate Democrat Gina Raimondo a very consequential governor

  The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, in  the old Blackstone River Valley industrial zone.

The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, in  the old Blackstone River Valley industrial zone.

 

For more than 200 years water has flowed underneath a bridge in North Smithfield, in the Blackstone Valley corridor of the smallest state in the Union, which helped usher in  the American Industrial Revolution. The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, the oldest masonry bridge in Rhode Island -- built in 1855 to replace the original wooden structure and subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was for decades neglected and structurally deficient. Now it’s undergoing a complete rehabilitation at a $13.5 million cost. The bridge is symbolic of the state’s rise and fall. And now its revival.

Much of that effort is being spearheaded by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Amidst the partisan tempest -- The Great Political Uncentering -- Raimondo, 46, the state’s first female executive, stands in defiance of political trends. And recent history. She’s seeking re-election this year, after a record of public service that has been a series of calculated experiments. She is arguably the nation’s most consequential reform-minded, results-oriented politician. She is resuscitating a nearly extinct species -- Truman Democrats. She is a pro-growth moderate and has handled heavy turbulence.

For an insular and provincial state -- where coffee milk is the official drink, Catholic Mass is still televised on Sunday mornings and, unbelievably, New England Cable News is not offered for viewing by the largest telecommunications provider -- the last decade was particularly cruel. Nothing went as planned and many plans went for nothing.

In the wake of The Great Recession of 2008-2009, Rhode Island’s already corroded economy saw unemployment spike close to 12 percent while housing prices plunged 27 percent. In 2010, after luring it away from Massachusetts, the state financed Curt Schilling’s scandal-plagued video-game start-up, 38 Studios, with $75 million in bonds before the company went bankrupt, two years later. And in 2011, sparking national headlines, Central Falls, a city with a population of 19,376, covering an area a little over a square mile (more densely populated than Boston), filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns that other heavily encumbered municipalities (including the capital, Providence) might follow suit.  

Residents probably needed a professional psychologist to lead them out of their depressed state.

Instead, they chose a thoughtful capitalist. Raimondo -- a Rhode Island native with degrees in economics (Harvard), sociology (Oxford) and law (Yale), and co-founder of the state’s first venture-capital firm, Point Judith Capital -- was elected state treasurer in 2010. So began the secular resurrection.

Raimondo immediately understood a law of modern politics that most public officials refuse to acknowledge or act upon: Demographics is destiny.

Overly generous and ambitious, yet massively underfunded, pension assurances to Rhode Island’s aging population coupled with a rapidly hemorrhaging fiscal condition (exacerbated by the recession) were certain to wreak financial havoc. A series of cascading municipal failures would likely render the state itself technically insolvent. And that would be unchartered territory (a state declaring bankruptcy is not a contingency properly addressed under current bankruptcy laws). Raimondo foresaw that imminent horror.

So, the treasurer did something astounding. She conducted town-hall-style meetings exposing the severity of the crisis. And she told the unions and pensioners something that  few Democrats ever say to those loyal constituents: “No!”

She engineered an overhaul by suspending cost-of-living increases and raising the retirement age for retirees, pointing the system towards solvency. Raimondo also understood state law. While many state pension systems are determined by contract (making modifications more difficult under constitutional law), Rhode Island’s, by statute, lets the government, if so inclined, make changes via swift legislative maneuvering, not protracted judicial wrangling.

It worked.

Predictably, though, public-sector unions fulminated and sued. A September 2014 Washington Post editorial noted, “In the face of ferocious opposition from labor, she explained the plain budgetary impossibility of maintaining pensions at the levels promised by politicians in Providence.”

Still, she was able to win the governorship that year with 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Later, in 2015, she negotiated legal settlements that preserved the reforms in the face of continued legal opposition. Her efforts are proof that pension reforms can be administered and may prove to be a model for other states suffocating under mountains of indebtedness.  

Just after Raimondo was elected governor (the first Democrat in over 20 years to win the office despite Rhode Island being heavily Democratic) and after the national Republican congressional victory in 2014, The Daily Beast’s Joel Kotkin demanded that Democrats go back-to-the-future: “Time to Bring Back the Truman Democrats.”

“To regain their relevancy,” he hypothesized, “Democrats need to go back to their evolutionary roots. Their clear priorities: faster economic growth and promoting upward mobility for the middle and working classes. All other issues -- racial, feminine, even environmental -- need to fit around this central objective.”

Raimondo, perhaps instinctively, has embraced much of this sensible framework. Most of it via a back-to-basics moderate agenda. Actually, future-to-the-basics.

In February 2016, she launched Rhode Works, a comprehensive 10-year transportation improvement program to repair crumbling roads and bridges. Rhode Island ranked dead last (50 out of 50 states) in overall bridge condition and is one of the only states that did not charge user fees to large commercial trucks on its roadways, which do most of the damage to roads and bridges. Tolling on certain roads begins this winter. Unsurprisingly, she is facing more opposition. This time from trucking associations, leery of the legislation; claiming that they’re being  unfairly discriminated against, they are threatening lengthy lawsuits. But her infrastructure initiative might be a template for the anticipated trillion-dollar federal program.

Raimondo has also looked north for much of her inspiration. It’s home to another moderate.

In her fourth State of the State address she made this startling admission: “For decades, we just sat back and watched as Massachusetts rebuilt and thrived. Boston and its suburbs flourished, while the mill buildings along {Route} 95 and the Blackstone River stood vacant and crumbling. The resurgence in Massachusetts didn't just happen. It wasn't an accident. They had a strategy and a plan to create jobs and put cranes in the sky. They used job-training investments and incentives to create thousands of jobs in and around Boston.”

Why not study a success story?

Unlike many parochial powerbrokers of the past who were content to resist change, at the state’s peril, Raimondo recognizes that Rhode Island’s is  part of a regional economy. Indeed, in many ways it is dependent on Massachusetts’s economy. Two-thirds of Rhode Island’s population is within a 20-minute drive to any Massachusetts border. (Incidentally, she made the trip at least twice last year by appearing on WGBH’s Greater Boston program, marketing her ideas and progress.)

Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker is the most popular governor in the country, with a 69 percent approval rating. He too is a moderate (a Rockefeller Republican), a technocrat, and also up for re-election this year. While Raimondo’s most recent approval rating stands at only 41 percent, that figure may be distorted and artificially low. Baker’s reforms have centered on the inner workings of government, largely lost on everyday residents. Raimondo’s reforms, meanwhile, have been about the very public machinations and expressions of government. Her controversial actions have directly affected,  and been clear to, the entire electorate.

Today, the unemployment rate is 4.3 percent. Last March, The New York Times wrote, “Ms. Raimondo’s frenzy of economic and job development is striking because Rhode Island has long been in a slump. It was the last state to emerge from the recession that began in 2007. As recently as 2014, it bore the nation’s highest unemployment rate for seven months in a row.” At the same time, private-sector employment has reached its highest level ever.

Even with forward momentum, the governor may be more popular outside the state than within. Two years ago, Raimondo and then-Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a Republican who is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., were cited by Fortune Magazine as two female governors being among the world’s 50 greatest leaders. And last month, she was named as new vice chair of the Democratic Governors Association.

Big challenges, however, still loom large locally. The Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s minor-league affiliate, are threatening to leave the state. (Will the public finance a nine-figure stadium for a rich, privately owned team?) Nearly a third, or $3.1 billion,  of the state budget is funded by the federal government. And opioids continue to consume lives.    

But due to Raimondo’s centrist leadership -- despite the occasional progressive flourish (tuition-free community college) -- she has largely validated Kotkin’s hypothesis by focusing primarily on economic matters. Rhode Island might finally be poised for a 21st Century renaissance.

As the Slatersville bridge undergoes its third iteration in its third century, Rhode Island voters are reminded of this possibility in 2018 -- the Year of the Woman.  Should Raimondo be re-elected and serve a full second four-year term, she would be just the third woman (all Democrats) in American history to do so (after Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm and Washington’s Christine Gregoire).

And with the Clintons out of the running,  serious Democrats must consider her fortitude and record of accomplishment  when they’re looking for vice-presidential timber for 2020.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.