PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo was reported Wednesday to be one of President-elect Joe Biden’s top two choices to become health and human services secretary, even as she and her aides remain tight-lipped about the possibility.
Citing sources, NBC News reported that Biden’s “leading choices” for the critical cabinet position are now former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the governor. It is the latest in a series of national reports that Raimondo is in the running for health secretary, though the first to suggest it has come down to a field of two that includes her. Politico also reported Raimondo’s rising odds Wednesday.
The governor’s office declined to comment on the NBC report; she also cancelled her regular weekly interview Wednesday on 12 News Now at 4, citing a scheduling conflict.
But key advisers and others close to the governor confirmed to 12 News on Wednesday that they now view Raimondo as a serious contender for the health post. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process.
The cabinet selection process is always a murky one, and Raimondo has generally downplayed her interest in an appointment without ever ruling it out. Floating Raimondo’s name could also be a “trial balloon” by the Biden transition team to see how her appointment would be received.
But Raimondo, 49, is said to be held in high esteem among the president-elect’s inner circle after making a strong impression when she was interviewed for the vice-presidency. As a relative moderate in the Democratic Party, she could also be palatable to Republicans if the GOP retains control of the Senate and thus has a veto over Biden’s appointments.
The health secretary position, multiple Raimondo advisers said, is an intriguing one since the job will be high profile in the early months of a Biden administration as efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic continue. It would also require significant federal-state coordination, a challenge that the governor has seen firsthand after spending months coordinating with her counterparts on COVID-19.
It remains unclear how likely Raimondo is to be selected and when Biden will decide, or if she might be considered for an alternative position should Biden make a different pick for health secretary.
Personal considerations about leaving Rhode Island could weigh on Raimondo’s thinking, as well, since she has two school-aged children and an elderly mother who is increasingly frail, according to people close to her.
Raimondo, a Democrat, is halfway through her second term as governor and cannot seek re-election in 2022 due to term limits.
If Biden did select Raimondo, it’s unlikely she would immediately leave office, since confirmation votes for Biden’s nominees would not begin until after his inauguration on Jan. 20. Under that scenario, Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would take over at whatever she points she formally leaves office.
“That’s been the top job constitutionally of our office, is to be prepared in that unusual event where a governor moves out of that office and the lieutenant governor moves in,” McKee told 12 News last month. “It could happen, but it would be unusual,” he added.
Based on past precedent, McKee would then pick his own replacement as lieutenant governor.
A Raimondo nomination could face resistance on the left due to lingering resentment over her spearheading of Rhode Island’s 2011 pension overhaul and her earlier career as a venture capitalist, as well as some of her policies as governor. Her management of the pandemic was initially hailed but has lately drawn more criticism as COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed more than in neighboring states.
Her nomination would also refocus attention on the biggest debacle of her first term: the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, a complex new computer system for social services that suffered catastrophic failures after it launched in 2016. The project’s cost had soared to $681 million as of July — much of it paid for by federal agencies that the secretary of health and human services oversees.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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