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Meet the Candidate - Gina Raimondo

After one term as general treasurer that brought both national acclaim and the ire of the public-sector unions, Democrat Gina Raimondo wants to move up a floor at the State House, into the governor’s office. This week Raimondo tells Jim Hummel how pension reform is related to many of the things she wants to do as governor and talks about how government could use someone with a private-sector skill set.

SCRIPT:

``Here’s your next governor!’’

``Hey everybody!!’’

It is an adoring crowd this late Saturday afternoon at a Providence high rise just off Cranston Street. And Gina Raimondo dives right in - with hugs and handshakes for everyone. The campaign has just fed this roomful of potential voters a hearty main course of chicken, pork, rice and beans. An appearance by the candidate serves as dessert.

Raimondo: ``How’s the food? I’ve been cooking all day…’’

Raimondo is running nearly 30 minutes behind schedule, but is relaxed and doesn’t rush. She delivers a short speech before working the room, posing for a handful of pictures and pausing to talk with anyone who engages her.

In politics it’s called shoring up the base and Raimondo is not taking anyone in this room for granted. In the one-on-one encounters she hears what Rhode Islanders have been telling her throughout this campaign for governor.

Raimond:  ``All you hear, every day, all day is people need more work.’’

In a state that has consistently had the highest unemployment rate in the country the topic of jobs has trumped virtually every other issue.

Raimond: ``It becomes overwhelming, actually. How do I get a job, I’ve been out of work for a year, I finally got a job making $12/hour less than what I used to make. I look for jobs every day, I call the Department of Labor and Training. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Every single day somebody says to me I don’t know what I’m going to do.’’

We sat down with Raimondo last weekend, the day after she got a high-profile endorsement visit from potential presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s a reminder of the rapid political ascension for someone who four years ago was a private citizen with a young family running to become general treasurer.

So why jump into public life?

Raimondo: ``It’s a good question, sometimes I ask myself that. In fact when I called my parents to tell them I was going to run for office, they thought I was crazy. But truthfully I got to a point where you look around and you see the economy the way it is, no real leadership to make things better, public schools falling apart, I said I got to do something. I can’t no try to do something.’’

Hummel: ``And so what did your husband say when you said that?’’

Raimondo: ``You’re crazy. He’s been behind me. What he said, is what I believe which is if people like us don’t serve then we’re in trouble.’’

In the 2010 race for treasurer, Raimondo campaigned on fixing the state’s pension problem, which had been ignored for decades, despite warning signs of a massively unfunded program. But Raimondo was looking at the larger picture as well - with issues she’s now talking about as a candidate for governor.

Raimondo: ``And there is a link between pensions and well-funded schools and libraries. If you’re spending 40 cents of every tax dollar on a broken pension system, you don’t have the money available to invest in rebuilding schools and hiring education and bridges and libraries.’’

The pension issue drew the ire of the public-sector unions, some of which picketed her fundraisers. But it also won her national acclaim and a flood of our-of-state campaign contributions.

Hummel: ``Did you know it was going to get as nasty as it did?’’

Raimondo: ``No, I don’t think I knew what I was getting into.’’

Hummel: ``I mean that night when you walked in and you had people shouting at you. And what went through your mind?’’

Raimondo: `It’s not fun, just the other night I had an event and the firefighters were banging on the car, yelling - it’s not fun, it’s hard, it is really hard, but I know I didn’t the right thing for the right reasons.’’

The concept of running for governor evolved into a reality when Governor Chafee decided last year not to seek re-election.

Raimondo: ``The real turning point was that as treasurer I focused a lot on keeping costs down, the pension, fixing the system and keeping the cost down. But the reality is what Rhode Island needs is growth. It’s not just keeping costs down, we actually need economic growth. And it became clear to me maybe three years into my term or halfway into my term you have to be the governor to focus on job creation.‘’

Raimondo’s children and husband often accompany her on the campaign trail. A book fair at the Lincoln school earlier this month gave a her chance to mix campaigning with some purchases of her own for son Tommy.  Daughter Ceci walked the three-mile parade route with her mom at the Autumnfest Parade in Woonsocket on Columbus Day.

And at last week’s Channel 12 debate there they were with a front row seat to watch mom. While some candidates don’t want their families in the public eye, Raimondo says it has been a no-brainer for her.

Raimondo: ``For me, it’s like this: I love them and I need them. Like we’re doing this as a family. I love having them  with me when we campaign. They’re part of it, I’m like the family project. C’mon mom let’s go. I just want to be with them.’’

Hummel: ``They look they’re having a good time.’’

Raimondo: ``Yeah, they enjoy it, I’d say on balance it’s been fun. They’ve done fun things. They’ve met interesting people.  They give me energy, they keep me going, they remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing. My daughter, who is 10 reads the newspaper every day. She never would have done that if I weren’t running for office. I take them to senior centers with me, that’s fanstastic. It’s good for my kids to see people who are struggling, who are sick, who are poor. It’s good for my kids to see that.’’

It may surprise some that Raimondo - a product of LaSalle Academy, Harvard, Oxford and Yale, sends her children to a public elementary school in Providence. While she says the teachers do a wonderful job, the building needs major work, like many others in the city.

Hummel: ``Does that provide a little more motivation for you as governor?’’

Raimondo: ``Absolutely it provides motivation. I see the teachers waiting in line for an hour to use one copy machine. I see my kids in the classroom, with the paint falling off the walls and the windows being broken.’’

Raimondo brings a private-sector mentality to government and offers an observation you might not have heard before.

Hummel: ``What was your biggest surprise going from the private to the public sector?’’

Raimondo: ``You know my biggest surprise is that in the private sector you ask the question, if I spend X, or invest  X, I expect to get something out of it, or what I’m going to get out of it. There’s a focus on the outcome. There’s not enough focus on outcomes in government. In government, everything is focused on how much does this cost? How much are we spending on, pick your thing, education, social services. There’s not nearly enough emphasis on…’’

Hummel: ``…return on investment?’’

Raimondo: ``Yeah, what are we getting for it? Like okay, DCYF, if we spend X dollars to take care of one child in the system, what are we getting for it? Are we helping the child, are we actually successfully helping that child.? The question isn’t even asked, the question is, the budget, it’s all about what are we spending on this? Very little focus on what are we going to get out of that?

They are questions she hopes to be asking from the second floor of the State House come January.

On the campaign trail, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.