Scott MacKay Commentary: The Raimondo Paradox

Apr 20, 2018

Governor Gina Raimondo
Credit RIPR

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo faces headwinds in her reelection campaign. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses why the governor is so well-regarded outside the state but not so well-liked at home. 

Democrat Gina Raimondo has gathered glowing media coverage from national journalists. Time Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly , Fortune, and the New York Times have all lauded Rhode Island’s Rhodes Scholar . This began with her tenure as state treasurer, when she led an overhaul of a state pension system and battled public employee unions. She was seen as courageous and focused in how she pushed her plan that cut pension benefits for teachers and state employees in a political culture where organized labor had long held sway.

She is esteemed still by national pundits and reporters. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently named her as one of a “brainy cluster” of Democrats under 50 who should be given consideration in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.

Raimondo has governed as a disrupter, flying in the face of the way things were done in our parochial part of New England.

An Italian-American, she was elected governor in 2014, taking over from Lincoln Chafee, a pedigreed Yankee.  Now, Raimondo is running for reelection. A fervid fund-raiser, she has more than $4 million in her campaign kitty. Unemployment is down and no broad based taxes are up. She is pushing  investments in school repair and road fixes. But Rhode Island’s cranky electorate isn’t feeling the love.

The latest polls show her job approval ratings as mediocre. A WPRI survey showed her locked in a tight reelection rematch with the Republican she vanquished in 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. What’s worse, skeptical voters  think the state is on the wrong track.

A trite, yet true analysis is that it is more difficult for women politicians in CEO-type positions such as mayor or governor than as legislators. Jennifer Duffy is a Rhode Island native who studies governors for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. A Raimondo admirer, Duffy believes that the governor is judged more harshly than male counterparts.

The WPRI poll showed a big gender gap. While 44 percent of women said Raimondo was doing a good or excellent job, just 30 percent of men fall into that category.

One element in Raimondo’s lagging favorability is the hangover from her pension overhaul. Many state and teacher retirees and their families are still angry. She has never made peace with the teacher unions,  part of the Democratic base.

Another is the view that our first women governor is more Ivy Leaguer than Rhode Islander, that she comes across as condescending. Is she Gina from Greenville, where she grew up, or Gina from Harvard and Yale, where she was educated?

Some of this has to do with her lack of a ground-level presence. She is more often seen at photo-ops or talking from behind a microphone than meeting and greeting Rhode Islanders in small groups or at ethnic celebrations. Yet, when she does get out, she connects well with ordinary citizens.

Raimondo has raised expectations, perhaps too high. There was no way she was going to transform the state’s sluggish economy in one term. And the contrast with a robust Boston-area job market isn’t helping here, even if it provides jobs to thousands of Ocean State residents. Then there is the challenge of economic inequality, which fueled the rise of Trump and isn’t going away.

There are the management failures, particularly the failing social service and medical benefits computer system known as UHIP, which is spit as an expletive at the Statehouse.

Her campaign seems worried about the damage former secretary of state Matt Brown, who is exploring a run for governor, could cause in a primary or as an independent in a general election.

When it comes to approach, if not personality, Raimondo reminds some of Rhode Island’s last Democratic governor, Bruce Sundlun. Like Raimondo, he broke things and told voters what they didn’t want to hear.  History gives him high marks for dealing with the credit union crisis and pushing to upgrade Green Airport.

But after four years as governor in 1994, Sundlun was so unpopular he lost a primary to a little-known state senator. Raimondo is still the favorite this year, but she’s no lock.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis at our ‘On Politics” blog at RIPR.org