PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday secured U.S. Senate confirmation as the nation’s next commerce secretary, becoming the first Rhode Island politician elevated to the president’s cabinet in more than 70 years.
An overwhelming majority of senators voted to confirm Raimondo during a floor session Tuesday afternoon. The final vote was 84-15, with two-thirds of Senate Republicans — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — joining the entire Democratic caucus in support of her appointment.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed had predicted a bipartisan landslide for Raimondo, telling 12 News on Monday night that it “was not heavy lifting” to round up support for the governor among his colleagues.
Raimondo’s resignation as governor was announced just after 6 p.m., and Dan McKee was sworn in as Rhode Island’s 76th governor shortly afterwards. McKee, who had been in his second term as lieutenant governor, will serve out the remaining 22 months of Raimondo’s current four-year term.
“Serving as governor these past six years has been the honor of my lifetime,” Raimondo wrote in her resignation letter, adding, “Our state is small but mighty.”
Her office also released a glossy 66-page report — “RIse Together: Building a Stronger & More Equitable Rhode Island” — making the case for her accomplishments as governor.
The White House said Raimondo will be ceremonially sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday at 6 p.m. She had left Rhode Island for Washington on Tuesday morning, flying out of T.F. Green Airport.
On Capitol Hill, one of the few voices of dissent about Raimondo was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has been criticizing her since she was nominated. Cruz placed a “hold” on her nomination after she refused to commit to keeping the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei on a federal blacklist.
Speaking on the Senate floor ahead of Tuesday’s confirmation vote, Cruz said, “The fact of the matter is that there has been a rush to embrace the worst elements of the Chinese Communist Party in the Biden administration, and that includes Governor Raimondo.”
Cruz also criticized Raimondo for what he argued were evasive answers to senators’ questions during the confirmation process.
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Earlier in the day, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington — who chairs the Senate committee that vetted Raimondo for the job — made her own floor speech praising the governor as “the right choice” to lead the U.S. Commerce Department.
“I’m glad that Governor Raimondo is governor of a coastal state,” Cantwell said, noting how the fishing industry has been hit hard by the pandemic on both coasts.
“We need Governor Raimondo’s leadership,” she added.
Raimondo, a 49-year-old Democrat, was first elected governor in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. She is the first Rhode Island governor to leave office before the end of her term since 1950, when then-Gov. John Pastore stepped down a month after being elected to the U.S. Senate.
McKee, a 69-year-old Democrat, is a former mayor of Cumberland. He is known for his strong advocacy of municipal-level government as well as his support of charter schools, though his relationship with the state’s teachers’ unions has warmed up in recent weeks as he urged that their members be prioritized for vaccinations.
McKee has scheduled a formal inauguration ceremony to be held at the State House on Sunday at noon, though it will be scaled-down due to the coronavirus pandemic. He plans to run for a full term as governor in his own right in 2022.
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Biden nominated Raimondo in January to head the Commerce Department. She is the first Rhode Island politician plucked for the president’s cabinet since Harry Truman named then-U.S. Sen. J. Howard McGrath as his attorney general in 1949.
As commerce secretary, Raimondo will oversee a federal department with an $8.9 billion annual budget and roughly 47,000 employees. It oversees agencies such as the National Weather Service and the Census Bureau.
The Biden administration announced last week that three of Raimondo’s most trusted State House advisers during her time as governor — policy director Nell Abernathy, former director of the governor’s office Matt Bucci, and senior deputy chief of staff Kevin Gallagher — will be joining her in senior roles at the Commerce Department.
Abernathy will be deputy director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, Bucci will be counselor to the secretary, and Gallagher will be a senior adviser for upskilling and broadband. Abernathy and Gallagher left the governor’s office just last month.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.