Lesson learned for Raimondo: Government has to execute

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday one of the most crucial lessons she's learned since taking office is the importance of successful execution in government, though she did not specifically mention the botched UHIP computer system rollout.

"It really matters," Raimondo said during an on-stage Q&A at Harvard's Kennedy School. "It matters not only because it's how you make programs work and make people's lives better. But at the end of the day, if everything we do is poorly executed, people lose faith in government."

She continued, "And when people lose faith in government, then they just say, 'It doesn't matter who's in office. Why should I vote? Let's just cut taxes and make government small. Government is the problem.' It makes it very hard for those of us who actually believe in effective government to make the case. Because all these implementation mistakes actually erode people's confidence and trust."

"I think politicians sometimes discount that, because we focus on policy, not operations," she added.

Raimondo's remarks came during an hour-plus discussion between the Democratic governor and Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf as she delivered the school's Godkin Lecture, an annual talk that dates back to 1903. (Elmendorf recalled Raimondo as an "outstanding" student when he taught her during her days at Harvard; she said she only passed her first economics class because of his office hours.)

"I often joke — when I was here I played on the Radcliffe rugby team, and I say playing rugby, especially with my stature, was great training for Rhode Island politics because you have to take a beating and get back up," Raimondo quipped at one point.

Raimondo was in a reflective mood during the visit to her alma mater, discussing what drew her into politics, the 2011 pension overhaul, her approach to campaigning, her policies, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and even the departure of the PawSox. (That last question came from a student in the audience from Woonsocket.)

"I am more idealistic now than when I started," she said, "because it turns out you can get things done and change people's lives if you're committed to doing that."

Elmendorf expressed surprise that Raimondo had gone into politics, saying he viewed her as a fairly quiet and serious person. The governor described herself as not being "a publicity seeker," and recalled that her mother cried when she first informed her she wanted to run for office. But she also said she takes joy in her work.

"My favorite part of my job is talking to, listening to, my constituents," she said. "I love it. I do love that. You learn from people. It makes you a better governor."

Raimondo embellished her own electoral history a bit for the audience, at one point claiming about her 2014 run for governor, "Every political pundit counted me out." In reality, WPRI 12 polling that year never showed her more than 4 points behind primary rival Angel Taveras. (And in a sign of how friendly she has become with Taveras since, she smiled as she mentioned him and added, "He's actually a wonderful guy.")

Retelling the story of why she pushed through the controversial overhaul of the state pension system in 2011, Raimondo said she was driven by a realization that the numbers would not add up to ensure current workers would get their full promised benefits in 30 years.

"I just didn't have it in me to continue the lie," she said.

Asked about her recent comments to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni questioning whether "lefties" can win next year's presidential race for the Democrats, she shied away from accepting Bruni's labeling of her as a "moderate," though she went on to define the term as meaning politicians who compromise.

Before her visit to Harvard, Raimondo visited the studios of WGBH to tape an interview for Wednesday evening's edition of "Greater Boston" with Jim Braude. Their topics included her leadership of the Democratic Governors Association, her proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island and next year's presidential election.

"We've got to get rid of Trump in 2020. Period. Full stop," she told Braude, arguing that her work electing more Democrats to governorships will help the party.

Raimondo also appeared to back away somewhat from her "lefties" comment to Bruni.

"The point I was trying to make was, if we get further afield off of jobs, job security, I don't know if — our chances aren't as good," she said, adding, "If Democrats are afraid to be the party of working with business to create jobs, or partnering, I do think that is a problem."

"Where I think I disagree is around things like guaranteed minimum income," she said. "I'm not for that. But I am for making sure people get paid a decent wage, which means raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned-income tax credit, providing decent health care."

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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