PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In what will likely be her last public speech as governor, Gina Raimondo on Wednesday night looked back at her six years in office, touted policies she counts as successes and promised a brighter future for Rhode Islanders in a post-pandemic world.
Raimondo, who is poised to leave her job midterm to become the next U.S. commerce secretary, delivered her last State of the State address at the State House to a mostly empty House chamber. While the annual speech typically offers governors an opportunity to preview their upcoming legislative agenda and budget, Raimondo’s 2021 address served more as a goodbye.
“I’m forever grateful for the trust you placed in me these last ten years,” Raimondo said, referencing her six years as governor and the four years prior when she served as general treasurer. “Rhode Island is – and always will be – my home.”
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved Raimondo’s nomination, meaning she now only needs 51 votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet. The full vote could happen within days, or weeks, depending on how quickly the Senate – which is also facing the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump – moves on Biden’s appointments.
That has left uncertainty about when exactly Raimondo will step aside and allow Lt. Gov. Dan McKee to ascend to become governor, in accordance with the state’s Constitution. In her speech, Raimondo called McKee “passionate,” “experienced,” and “committed,” adding “I think he’s going to be great” — notably warm comments about a fellow politician who has never been in her inner circle.
“I know that Lt. Gov. McKee is going to be ready for this job on day one,” Raimondo said, claiming there will be no disruption to the state’s COVID-19 response, as McKee has committed to maintaining the “entire statewide response team.”
A large portion of the 49-year-old Democrat’s speech was spent reflecting on her policy priorities over the last six years. But before touching on those, she paid tribute to the “heartbreak and struggle” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it’s been a year Rhode Islanders will never forget.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Rhode Island roughly 11 months ago, nearly 2,200 residents have died after contracting the virus, and 11% of the state’s population has tested positive at least once. At least 340 people Rhode Islanders with the virus in January, making it the fourth deadliest month during the pandemic.
“Together, we faced challenges and tragedy like never before,” Raimondo said, declaring that 2021 will be “our year of rebuilding.” She insisted that the state is currently “in a good, stable place” in terms of virus trends.
The second-term governor then listed off what she sees as legislative accomplishments during her six years at the helm, pointing first to her economic development efforts in the wake of the Great Recession.
Raimondo said her economic incentive programs – proposed during her first year as governor in 2015 – spurred widespread commercial real estate investment, namely the heavily subsidized Wexford Innovation Center project constructed on the former Interstate 195 land in downtown Providence. The nearly $100 million building was the largest completed project under the Raimondo administration.
“The year that I took office, Rhode Island saw just $84 million in commercial real estate investment,” Raimondo said. “But by the end of our first term, we saw a record billion dollars of investment in our state.”
She also pointed to her multibillion-dollar effort to improve the state’s crumbling infrastructure, along with her support of clean-energy programs, such as the advancement of offshore wind. During her tenure, Deepwater Wind – a Rhode Island-based startup that’s since been purchased by a Danish outfit – completed the nation’s first-ever offshore wind farm near Block Island. And Raimondo has called for the state to be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2030.
“Rhode Islanders can be proud that we’re the state leading the nation in the fight against climate change,” she said.
On socioeconomic issues, Raimondo highlighted her role in raising the minimum wage four times, guaranteeing paid sick and family leave and boosting pay for childcare and homecare workers, a trade she noted is predominately made up of women of color.
“Now, more than ever, hardworking people in Rhode Island deserve and need a raise,” she said.
On education, the governor underscored her effort to increase Pre-K classes and implement all-day kindergarten. She also noted her push to teach computer science in every public school. The governor’s most memorable education-related accomplishment, however, may become her Rhode Island Promise scholarship program, which offers all high school graduates two years of tuition-free college at the Community College of Rhode Island.
“At the time we did that a few years ago, Rhode Island was one of only a few states to do that,” she said, thanking House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio for introducing legislation last week that would make the program permanent.
“Since then many other states have followed our lead,” Raimondo said.
Notably absent from her address was any mention of the state’s takeover of Providence public schools, an intervention she supported and is now leaving largely undone. The turnaround effort continues to move along, but it’s become more complicated during a pandemic that’s disrupted schools everywhere.
Rounding off Raimondo’s list of accomplishments, the governor said she was proud “to appoint judges who look like the people they serve,” pointing to a recent tranche of judicial nominations that created the state’s most racially and ethnically diverse group of judges in history.
Despite serving less than two full terms, Raimondo got the unusual opportunity to pick two new justices for the state’s Supreme Court, which will likely have a lasting impact on legal decisions for many years because it’s a lifetime appointment. She chose Melissa Long and Erin Lynch Prata, who together made the state’s highest court multi-racial and majority female for the first time ever.
“We here in Rhode Island believe all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and should have the same opportunities for success – no matter your race, your religion, your gender, your ethnicity, who you love or where you come from,” Raimondo said.
Unsurprisingly, not everybody shared Raimondo’s upbeat assessment of her time in office. Rhode Island Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias offered an alternative way of looking at Raimondo’s legacy even before she delivered her remarks:
R.I. Senate Republican Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz offered a response to Raimondo’s speech from the state’s GOP, saying the pandemic has devastated Rhode Island and eroded governmental accountability. de la Cruz called for the state to prioritize greater legislative oversight during extended periods of emergencies, along with relaxing restrictions on certain in-person family visits to congregate living settings.
The Republican senator said Rhode Islanders should oppose any moratorium on charter schools, currently under consideration in the General Assembly, saying students and families should be given a choice when it comes to education.
“We can no longer allow a child’s zip code or a family’s wealth to determine the quality of their education,” de la Cruz said.
The GOP also called to reduce restrictions on small businesses and to consider tax policy reforms, while also pumping the brakes on spending. de la Cruz pointed to the state’s fiscal 2020-21 budget, which grew to nearly $13 million, saying the state “can’t squeeze more money out of Rhode Islanders and businesses beleaguered by taxes, fees and cumbersome regulations.”
“Our budget should be a reminder that every government has its limits” de la Cruz said. “We can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the road.”
Near the end of Raimondo’s speech, the governor thanked Rhode Islanders for their support, along with her members of administration for their work, promising she would continue advocate for the state’s residents – along with the rest of the country – in Washington.
“You have my commitment that I will continue to wake up every day focused on making life better for you, and for all our fellow Americans,” she said.
In closing, Raimondo addressed her final words to girls and young women, saying she wanted them to “summon the courage to lead.” While considering whether she would leave Rhode Island to join the Biden administration, Raimondo said it was the women in her life, such as her mother, sister and teenage daughter Ceci, “who gave me the push I needed.”
“There will be plenty of times in your when you’re going to be unsure,” Raimondo said. “I want you to push aside that doubt and I want you to push aside that fear, and say yes. Because know this: You are smart, you are capable, you are strong, you can be whatever you want to be, and the world needs your voice and your talent. And it will be a better place if you say yes. And I’m sure looking forward to the day that one of you is the governor of this great state.”