PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - During Gina Raimondo's early years in Rhode Island politics, she generally positioned herself as a nonpartisan problem-solver, applying her business background to thorny policy challenges without much regard for party.
During an interview this week in her State House office, Raimondo acknowledged as much. "And then," she said, "Trump was elected."
"That changed the world, and my view of the world, and my passion and sense of urgency around getting Democratic governors elected," she said. "I got a little more religion after that."
Raimondo's new devotion to her party culminated Saturday morning in her election as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, the national group explicitly charged with helping the Democratic Party win and hold governor's offices in all 50 states.
While she was bitterly disappointed when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, Raimondo said, "I don’t think I realized how bad it would be and exactly what it meant, and how important a governor’s role is. … It is a full-time job as a governor being vigilant to stand up against the bad things coming out of Washington. That’s not hyperbole. It’s just facts."
Raimondo, 47, took the helm during the DGA's winter meeting this weekend in New Orleans, succeeding Washington Gov. Jay Inslee after serving as his vice-chair. It comes less than a month after she secured an unexpectedly convincing re-election win - in no small part thanks to nearly $2 million in TV ads produced and funded by the DGA.
"As DGA Vice Chair, Gina has helped strengthen our party over the past year," Inslee said in a statement on election night. "I look forward to seeing her continue her record of accomplishment for Rhode Island and the nation in her next term."
Raimondo's was one of a string of state-level victories for the Democrats on Nov. 6. "Every incumbent got re-elected, and we picked up six seats," she said. "We had a great year, and I’m just really excited to build on that. It’s an exciting time to be chair of the DGA. There’s 23 of us; when I started there were 15 of us."
Raimondo said she was first approached about taking a leadership role in the DGA by Montana's then-governor, Steve Bullock, early in her governorship, but declined because she was still getting her sea legs. Now, though, she said she has both the bandwidth and the drive.
"I’m excited to do my part really to make sure we have a lot of governors who are Democrats that get elected and re-elected, and that they’re strong - that they’re well-funded, they have good ideas, they’re getting results," she said.
Raimondo has always had an unusually high national profile for a Rhode Island politician, beginning back when she was general treasurer after she shepherded through the sweeping 2011 pension overhaul. Last year, she hosted roughly 30 of her counterparts when she brought the nonpartisan National Governors Association (NGA) to Providence for its summer meeting.
Still, the DGA job is likely to take her to a new level of national prominence. She is the first Rhode Islander to lead the organization, and the first Rhode Island governor to lead any of the three current national governor groups - the DGA, the Republican Governors Association, and the NGA - since then-Gov. John Chafee led the RGA in 1967 and 1968. (However, Gov. Phil Noel chaired the Democratic Governors' Conference, a pre-DGA group, in the mid-1970s.)
Asked about her duties as chair, Raimondo was candid: "It's primarily fundraising."
"My job is to get governors elected, and that takes funds to help them have successful campaigns," she said. "So that is primarily the job. It is not glamorous, but it is necessary."
The DGA is coming off a banner year financially, having raised a record $122 million during the 2017-18 cycle, far surpassing its previous high of $88 million four years earlier. But the group still lagged behind the RGA, which set its own record by raising $156 million this cycle. (Both governors associations are legally allowed to accept unlimited amounts from companies, unions and individuals.)
As chair, Raimondo will be expected to tap her own huge national Rolodex of campaign contributors to help fill the DGA's coffers. (She has raised more than $15 million since entering politics in 2009, a massive sum in tiny Rhode Island that has repeatedly swamped her opponents financially.) That means "a lot of phone calls," she said.
Raimondo said Republicans have "cleaned our clock" when it comes to raising money for state-level races in recent years, helping the GOP dominate at the state level, while Democrats have generally focused more on federal elections.
"When you talk to donors around the country, they all sort of get why they should give to federal candidates that aren’t in their state," she said. "It still takes a little work to explain to them why they should give to governors that aren’t in their state. So I go to New York and I pitch somebody, ‘Could you please give to the DGA?’ And they’re like, 'I’ll give to [Governor] Cuomo, but why do I care who’s the governor of Mississippi or Louisiana?’ And so now we’re starting to change that."
Raimondo said she has become particularly focused on the importance of the redistricting process that will happen after the 2020 Census, when district lines will be redrawn for seats in Congress and state legislatures.
"The governor is the only one who can veto a rigged map," she said.
Raimondo cited redistricting as one reason she remains "heartbroken" that Stacey Abrams, a Yale Law School classmate of hers, lost a close race for Georgia governor last month. “If we could have gotten Florida - Georgia - Ohio,” she said, before trailing off. “But I’m happy we got Wisconsin.”
Fundraising will not be Raimondo's only focus at the DGA. She is dispatching Jon Romano, currently a senior adviser in the governor's office, to the group as her political consigliere. And she hopes to build out some sort of still-undefined policy arm to help her counterparts govern successfully.
"The only way we get a Democratic majority in State Houses, the White House and Congress is starting from the ground up, which is mayors and governors," she said. "And I think the only way we do that is if we produce results for people. … Ideas matter, and results matter even more. And good ideas well-executed lead to good results."
Another key focus for Raimondo will be recruiting top-tier candidates for the 2020 election cycle, a presidential year when Republicans will be defending seven of the 11 governor's offices on the ballot coast to coast. First, however, are three off-year 2019 gubernatorial contests that she acknowledges will be "hard ones" for Democrats - in Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi, all states Trump won by double-digits.
In those races, Raimondo will be going toe-to-toe with the new head of the RGA, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was installed at the Republicans' meeting this week. She said her "top priority" is re-electing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democrat to hold one of the three governorships up in 2019. "He's done an excellent job and we've got to get right behind him," she said.
As for the other two states, she said, "Time will tell who’s going to run in Mississippi and Kentucky - will they be strong candidates, what are our chances, what’s the polling look like? But I think we’ll be competitive, especially in Kentucky." (Kentucky's incumbent governor, Republican Matt Bevin, has a weak approval rating.)
Raimondo will serve as DGA chair for only one year before passing the baton to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who was made vice-chair and chair-elect at the meeting Saturday.
For Rhode Islanders, one of the main questions is how much serving as DGA chair could distract Raimondo from her day job as their governor. She insists that while there will be "more travel" involved, "it's not going to be a ton." She added, "My number-one job is here." (Her office said the cost of any travel will be paid for by the DGA, not taxpayers.)
Raimondo also argued her DGA-related travel could benefit the state.
"If I’m on the road, talking to philanthropists, wealthy individuals, CEOs of companies - obviously I’m going to take the opportunity to highlight Rhode Island and everything that’s going on here," she said. "I’m not going to meet with someone and pass up the opportunity to highlight all the great stuff about Rhode Island. So I think it will help raise awareness of what’s going on here, and just help raise awareness of Rhode Island."
And she insisted taking the job is not an effort to prepare for a future run for higher office, saying she expects to serve out her full four-year term in Rhode Island, which will run through 2022.
And, she added, there is one constant whisper in Rhode Island that she wants to put to rest. "I’m not running for the U.S. Senate," she said. "Never."
What if Jack Reed retired today?
"We’ll find a great candidate to run - it will not be me," Raimondo replied. "One-hundred percent."
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