Gina Raimondo, Women in Politics, and 2014

Aug 29, 2013

One of Gina Raimondo's out-of-state supporters wants us to know that Raimondo "may be weighing a run for governor," and that it would be good for the cause of female political empowerment if she won.

Tell us more, Barbara Lee!

Writing this week in Huffington Post, the Cambridge political consultant notes the presence of the "glass cliff" -- "defined by two University of Exeter professors as companies tapping women leaders in times of crisis, when the odds are stacked against anyone's success."

Lee goes on to discuss the political implications of the glass cliff, adding: "Qualified, competent, confident women can take the lead in a race right out of the gate -- and they can win." Raimondo gets name-checked as someone who meets this description, along with Hillary Clinton and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz.

To state the obvious: Raimondo will become Rhode Island's first female governor if she wins the race next year. She hasn't yet announced, but her $2 million+ campaign account suggests plans beyond a second term as general treasurer.

Would it be noteworthy if Raimondo won? Of course it would, coming a mere 20 years after the Providence Phoenix caused a buzz by greeting Myrth York's 1994 run for governor with a deliberately provocative headline -- "A Girl Governor?" A victory would also spark continued speculation about Raimondo's further political plans.

Lee's political brief seems similar to another Raimondo supporter, Kate Coyne-McCoy, who worked to elect women candidates as a regional director for EMILY's List and who more recently founded a super PAC to elevate female candidates (and perhaps Raimondo).

Yet if Raimondo wins -- and at this point the winner of the gubernatorial race remains anyone's guess -- it won't be because she's a woman.

It seems likely her high approval ratings, like those of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, come from facing head-on some of Rhode Island's most pressing financial problems. Raimondo made impressive use of the bully pulpit to shape the pension debate (and faced some pushback), just as Taveras has won plaudits for cutting down the vast majority of an inherited $110 million deficit.

So the greatest perceptual distinction in the expected three-way Democratic primary between Raimondo, Taveras, and Governor Lincoln Chafee isn't one of gender. Rather, it's between two elected officials who are seen as action-oriented and another with a different management style. It doesn't seem coincidental that expected Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung used the subject line of an email Friday from his political organization to say, "Leadership Matters."

So voters are likely to focus next year on the person they consider best suited to improving Rhode Island's perpetually under-performing economy. Besides Taveras and Raimondo, Fung is a contender andChafee can't be ruled out, even though he appears to face a steep climb. Moderate Ken Block is also in the hunt.

Back to the gender issue: even though women remain way under-represented in Rhode Island politics, with just 30 of 113 General Assembly seats, they appear to have a pretty good rate of success when they do run. Consider these recent examples I've previously cited:

-- Sandra Cano was the leading vote-getter among 11 Pawtucket School Committee candidates, highlighting a local boomlet in Colombian politics.

-- Community activist Suzy Alba won a seat on the Smithfield Town Council.

-- Community activist Carolyn Mark landed a seat on the East Greenwich School Committee.

So in Rhode Island, the issue for women (and young people) in politics is more one of getting people to run in the first place, rather than candidates faced real or imaginary barriers once they jump in.

This post has been updated.