Skip to:

A Democrat to Watch in 2015

Gina Raimondo's Approach to Income Inequality
The New York Times

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With the New Year comes a new slate of officeholders whose careers warrant close attention and whose fates could have broader political implications. Put Gina Raimondo near the top of that list.

She’s the first woman to be elected governor of Rhode Island, and when she’s inaugurated next week, she’ll become, at 43, one of just two Democratic women, alongside Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, at the helms of their states.

But it’s another prominent female Democrat from New England who provides a more interesting point of reference for Raimondo. I mean Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. As much as Warren has excited the left wing of her party, Raimondo has enraged them.

She just wrapped up four years as her state’s treasurer, during which she successfully pushed an unusually ambitious overhaul of the pension system for state employees. It suspended cost-of-living adjustments, raised the retirement age by five years and left unions boiling mad. They opposed her in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. She marched to the governor’s job in tension, not harmony, with a key element of the party’s base.

Some in the party cast her as a pawn of the finance industry and big corporations, partly because she once worked in venture capital. She started Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm.

She doesn’t talk about plutocrats with Warren’s angry fire, not because she thinks they’re above reproach but because she deems vilifying them less fruitful than reminding them that they, too, have a profound stake in a healthier America with a fairer distribution of wealth and more social mobility.

“I fall into the camp that income inequality is the biggest problem we face,” she said Monday night over eggplant parmigiana in a Providence restaurant. An Italian-American, she grew up just outside the city and lives here now with her husband and their two young children.

She said that she has told Wall Street titans point blank that they should be paying higher federal taxes and leveling the playing field, but with this message: “I need you to double down on America. We need you. We need your brains, we need your money, we need your engagement — not because it’s Wall Street versus Main Street, but because you’re some of the smartest, richest people in the world, and you need to be a part of fixing America, because you want to live in an America that’s the best country in the world.”

She said that Democrats must always prioritize the underdogs, the strivers. And she spoke admiringly of Warren: “She says things that make people uncomfortable but need to be said.”

But, she added, “My own rhetoric is not so ‘us versus them.’ I don’t like fighting.”

And she has highlighted additional concerns, such as the Democratic Party’s frequent fealty to organized labor and its reluctance at times to shake up the status quo in order to find the money needed for social spending.

Her pension-reform campaign was fascinating for its blunt talk of trade-offs, of sacrifices today for investments in tomorrow. She framed the cutbacks as progressive — as the only responsible liberalism — because without them, education, infrastructure, transportation and more would suffer.

She thus provided a template for how politicians in Washington could try to rein in Social Security and Medicare spending, if they wished. An article in National Journal framed her efforts and the pushback against them as “a battle for the Democratic Party’s future,” and Matt Miller later wrote in The Washington Post that she could transform the “national conversation about how to achieve progressive goals in an aging America.”

She sometimes speaks a language of metrics that makes her as stirring to some business-minded centrists as Warren is to many liberals. And if she manages to improve Rhode Island’s famously beleaguered economy, she’s teed up to be a national player, thanks to her youth and back story: a working-class upbringing followed by Harvard, then a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, then Yale Law.

She’s small — just under 5-foot-3 — and intense. When she mentions that she played rugby in school, it fits. When she describes her advantage on the field, it sounds as if she’s talking about more than sport. “It’s good to be little and fast,” she said.

In focus groups, some Rhode Islanders called her “too harsh,” she said, a judgment seemingly connected to her wardrobe of suits. “Then you show them pictures of me in casual clothes and they’re like, ‘Oh, she seems nice.’ It’s, like, if you’re a strong woman, you can’t also be nice. It’s really that simple.”

Will she be a strong governor? She starts out dogged by a sweeping court challenge to those pension reforms.

But this much is clear: She takes risks, colors outside the lines and seeks a tone all her own. That’s worthy of note.

x