After a marathon campaign season and a hectic transition period, Gina Raimondo officially became Rhode Island’s first female governor this week. In a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report just before taking office, she outlines her priorities for the first term. And, she tells Jim Hummel, there are some major challenges that her team has been working on already.
Gina Raimondo had been waiting for this day a long time…some might say for years.
And when she finally took the oath as governor Tuesday afternoon, Raimondo became the first woman in Rhode Island to do so.
This week’s inauguration came after a hectic transition period, and little time to celebrate her November victory.
Raimondo: ``You know the hardest thing about the transition is just the magnitude of the effort.’’
In a wide-ranging interview at her transition office last week Raimondo told us the eight weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day have been a governmental baptism-by-fire.
Raimondo: ``The budget’s a mess. It’s at least a $200 million shortfall this year - probably more than that. And it’s going to double in the next two years as we lose Twin River revenue. For too long we’ve been avoiding the difficult decisions.’’
Hummel: ``In the back of your mind did you think it might be worse than I think? ‘’
Raimondo: ``Yes, yes because that actually happened to me when I was treasurer. You know, when I was campaigning for treasurer I knew the pension was a mess, but then when you finally get in there and you start to unpack the problem, it was a much bigger, more difficult problem than I thought.’’
The governor has until next to propose next year’s budget, but her team has already been working on it for weeks. And while Raimondo continues her mantra that only by creating jobs can the state balance its books, she acknowledges some short-term decisions will have be made to get out from under the looming red ink.
Hummel: ``In the short term to bridge that gap, and you’ve said you can’t cut your way out of it don’t’ you at least have to look at some cuts? To bridge that gap?’’
Raimondo: `` You do, you absolutely do. I mean like in a couple of months I have to present a balance budget and I have to find $200 million right away. So here’s how I think about it: It’s time to make government more effective and so it’s not just cutting, it’s restructuring. Getting rid of programs that don’t work.’’
A month into the transition Raimondo announced her chief of staff would be Steve Neuman, a top aide to the governor of Maryland. Several weeks ago she tapped the former head of Connecticut’s Education Department to head Rhode Island’s Commerce Corporation.
Hummel: ``You’re bringing in some people from the outside and that’s raised some eyebrows, particularly chief of staff. And some people have argued it may take him six months to find the bathroom. So what would you say to the people who say maybe for chief of staff it might have been better to go inside. Why did you pick Steve?’’
Raimondo: ``Because we need talent. I need the very best talent I can find. And also it’s time to do things differently. We can’t keep saying: `We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it.’ Look at where we are. The way we’ve always done it is not working. Third highest unemployment rate in the country. If we don’t innovate, we’re going to perish.’’
Hummel: ``How do you attract people to come to Rhode Island, what’s the sell?’’
Raimondo: ``Well, you know, everyone wants to live here. Everyone says it’s a great place to live. I attract people by saying we’re going to do something special. There are a lot of problems that have been hurting Rhode Islanders for a long time. Things we’ve talked about doing forever, like the pension. Talked about it forever. This is the administration that’s going to do it. We’re not going to be afraid to take on those tough issues. Be part of it, be on the team.’’
Hummel: ``So jump on my back and come along for the ride?’’
Raimondo: `` Yeah, yeah, be part of the team, be part of the team that’s going to ignite Rhode Island’s comeback. Twenty years from now people are going to be saying: `at that moment, 2015, they started to turn the corner. And I was part of that.’”
Raimondo has had frequent contact with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed since her election, although each goes into this General Assembly session with different legislative agendas
Hummel: ``How would you describe your relationship with the leadership of the General Assembly?’’
Raimondo: ``Good, positive. I had lunch with the speaker today. Seeing the Senate president tomorrow. We have regular communication, which is the key, we’re not always going to agree, but it’s important to communicate. I’m the first Democrat elected in 20 plus years, so I’m looking forward to real collaboration.’’
One key difference: Matiello says he’s is not convinced Rhode Island should pour millions into Healthsource RI, the state’s version of Obama care.
Raimondo: ``I think we ought to keep it in Rhode Island. I think every Rhode Islander deserves a right to high quality, affordable health care, but we need to reduce the cost.’’
Hummel: ``Is it worth $15 million to $18 million a year? Or are you saying keep it and reduce that amount that taxpayers have to help with?’’
Raimondo: ``That’s exactly what I’m saying.’’
Hummel: ``Can you do that?’’
Raimondo: `` Yes we’re doing to do that. We’re going to try and do that, that’s the goal.’’
Raimondo says she has realistic expectations about how much her administration can get done in the first 100 days and the first year. But she realizes people want to see changes quickly.
Raimondo: ``You know a lot of people in Rhode Island are this close to giving up. You probably see it. They’re down, they feel like they’ve been let down over and over again by their leaders; the only way we’re going to convince people to believe that we can get something done is to start to do it. And if they see the Department of Transportation is working, their kids schools are getting rebuilt, DCYF has good services, then they’re going to trust that hey maybe we can actually get something done. It’s making Rhode Island a place that businesses want to be. Streamlined regulations, customer-friendly government, reasonable taxes, budgets that balance, honest and ethical place to do business, workforce that’s trained. And a very aggressive governor that is constantly reaching out to businesses saying I need you to put my people to work, what’s it going to take?’’
Raimondo says she is proud to be Rhode Island’s first female government.
Hummel: ``And as you put your hand up on Inauguration Day, what are you thinking?’’
Raimondo: ``It’s a big deal - it tells every girl you can be whatever you want to be. Work hard, opportunity is there.’’
The new governor begins with the optimism that baseball players have at spring training, tempered with the realization that the season - in this case her first term - will be a marathon and not a sprint.
Raimondo: ``Wish me luck, it’s a big, big job.’’
Hummel: ``Will you need it?’’
Raimondo: ``I will need it. I need luck and prayers and good wishes and faith. Here’s the message to Rhode Island: We are in a mess, there’s no way to sugarcoat that. We’re up to the challenge. It’s a big challenge we’re going to meet that challenge. Don’t give up, let’s go at it.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.