PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday night named Gov. Gina Raimondo as his pick for commerce secretary, setting in motion her imminent departure from Rhode Island for a cabinet job in Washington.
Sources confirmed to 12 News shortly before 7 p.m. that Biden would be naming the second-term governor as his choice, and an official statement from the president-elect’s transition team arrived about 45 minutes later. He also announced Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his labor secretary.
“This team will help us emerge from the most inequitable economic and jobs crisis in modern history by building an economy where every American is in on the deal,” Biden said.
“The outstanding team of public servants we are announcing today will protect and expand workers’ rights, provide access to capital for small business owners, and invest in American innovation and competitiveness,” added Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.
Raimondo will join Biden, Harris and others in the incoming administration’s economic team at a news conference on Friday at 1:30 p.m. in Wilmington, Delaware. (With Raimondo out of town, R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott will instead lead the scheduled Rhode Island coronavirus briefing, which has been moved to 3 p.m. and will be held via Zoom.)
“Rhode Island may be small, but our economy is mighty on the strength of our small businesses and innovative technologies,” Raimondo wrote on Twitter. “As Secretary of Commerce, I will harness that same American ingenuity to create good-paying union jobs and build our economy back better than ever before.”
Reaction poured in from Rhode Island’s federal and state leaders as soon as the Biden team officially announced Raimondo’s nomination. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed — who along with U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will be expected to shepherd the governor through her confirmation process on Capitol Hill — said he “strongly” supported the pick.
“I have known Gina Raimondo since she was a baby, so of course I’m a little biased here,” Reed said in a statement. “But I can unequivocally attest that she is a talented, thoughtful, hard-charging, and effective leader.”
Raimondo is expected to stay in place as governor for a short period of time as she waits for the U.S. Senate to vote on her confirmation. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, a fellow Democrat, will take over the top job when she officially departs and serve out the remaining two years of her term.
A spokesperson for McKee declined to comment Thursday night.
The news that Biden is naming Raimondo came hours after The New York Times and other national news outlets reported she was his pick, though sources close to the governor initially declined to say whether she had accepted the job.
A native Rhode Islander, Raimondo was elected as the state’s first female governor in 2014 and won re-election in 2018. The 49-year-old previously served one term as general treasurer, earning notoriety — and the enmity of some unions — for overhauling the state’s pension system.
Raimondo has had a national profile practically since she first took office a decade ago, and has cultivated an image as a pragmatic moderate even as her party moved to the left. She is often described as a “rising star” in the party, particularly after her successful stint as Democratic Governors Association chair.
Biden is offering Raimondo a cabinet appointment despite the fact that she endorsed his Democratic primary rival Michael Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of hers, rather than the former vice-president when the latter’s campaign was at a low ebb.
Commerce, currently headed by Wilbur Ross, is responsible for promoting economic development for businesses and Americans both domestically and abroad. Raimondo would be responsible for overseeing international trade agreements, along with providing both government and the private sector with trade insight that could help improve the overall economy.
Raimondo would enter the position during a tumultuous time, as the Trump administration in recent years has entered into trade-wars with China, which has complicated business relationships between two of the world’s biggest economies.
The department also oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, which is currently working on the latest decennial census results that ultimately determine how much federal money goes to states and territories across the country. Its other agencies include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its subdivision the National Weather Service.
As of 2018, Commerce employed more than 46,500 employees located in all 50 states, U.S. territories and more than 86 countries, according to its website.
In recent interviews with WPRI 12, Raimondo bristled at questions about growing speculation that she would be nominated for the position at Commerce.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I truly have nothing more to say on the topic,” Raimondo told 12 News reporter Tim White during a year-end interview on Dec. 18. “My intention is to be the governor. I am the governor now. I am working constantly and I have nothing else to add.”
During a taping of Newsmakers last week, Lieutenant Governor McKee told 12 News he would be ready to assume the role if it became necessary.
“My job is to always be prepared in that unlikely scenario,” he said. “I am prepared, and I’ve been working for the last six years to make sure that I am prepared.”
He added, “I do think it’s certainly a source of pride that a governor of Rhode Island could be considered for a cabinet position for the president of the United States.”
Behind the scenes, McKee has already taken steps to prepare if he takes over. Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena told 12 News the lieutenant governor recently reached out and asked him to serve on his transition team if Raimondo went to Washington.
McKee would also appoint his own successor as lieutenant governor. James Diossa, who just left office as Central Falls mayor, is one name that has been floated, but others are also known to be interested in the position.
State Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown, told 12 News he has told McKee he would be interested in serving as lieutenant governor if the position opens up. “I believe I could hit the ground running in the role,” DiPalma said.
Donna Nesselbush, the Pawtucket municipal court judge and a former state senator, also said she has told McKee she is “very interested” in the job.
North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi said he would “think about it” if McKee asked him, but added, “I would probably lean toward not doing that.”
But, Lombardi said, “I will do whatever I can to help him succeed as the governor should he be there. … Dan would make a tremendous governor.”
Raimondo would be the first Rhode Islander to serve in a presidential cabinet since the Carter administration, when former Textron executive G. William Miller served as treasury secretary. The last politician from Rhode Island to serve in the cabinet was J. Howard McGrath, whose time as President Truman’s attorney general ended in scandal. (The late John Chafee also served as President Nixon’s navy secretary, a sub-cabinet position by that point.)
Steve Frias, one of Rhode Island’s Republican National Committee members and an amateur historian, said he sees Raimondo as “perhaps the most ambitious Rhode Island politician since J. Howard McGrath,” adding, “McGrath’s appointment turned out to be a disastrous. I hope for her sake and the country things turn out differently.”
Yet Frias said there were also reasons to be surprised by the appointment.
“First, just a month ago, Governor Raimondo stated she was not joining President-elect Biden’s cabinet because she felt ‘a massive obligation to the people of Rhode Island,'” he said. “Second, Biden is choosing Raimondo as commerce secretary although she is the governor of a state that was ranked by CNBC as being the worst in the nation for business.”
Still, Frias was in the minority, as most Rhode Island leaders offered praise on Thursday. Democratic Congressman David Cicilline argued Raimondo will “leave Rhode Island in much better shape than she found it.”
“Few governors have been as consequential for our state,” he said. “None have matched her effectiveness, or the calm, steady hand with which she has guided us through this pandemic.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook