Almost four years ago, I endorsed Gina Raimondo to be Rhode Island’s General Treasurer. Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge, and now a new election campaign is before us. Gina, the fundraising juggernaut that she is, is now facing better-than-decent odds in a quest for the Governor’s office.
Four years ago, when Raimondo first ran for office, she had no record at all to judge. Anyone who voted for her was voting for a promise, or maybe an image. Though lots of voters will always go for the image regardless of the reality, it is no longer necessary. We have three years of record with which to judge her. So what do we learn?
When I first sat down with Gina in 2010, she said that the issue that concerned her most was income inequality. She said it without hesitation, almost the first thing after “Hello, how are you?” (and in front of a witness, too). Well, fine; creating an economy that is good for everyone is one of the central economic issues of our time. But when did she speak out on the subject in public? Was it before it became popular to do so this year?
One component of doing something about inequality in the economy is to address the declining value of the minimum wage. As part of her campaign platform, Raimondo has come out in favor of increasing the minimum wage. This is all to the good, but our legislature saw efforts to increase the minimum wage in 2012 and 2013, too. Do you remember her speaking out on the issue when it mattered then?
A strong stand on the minimum wage will be important for her in a contested Democratic primary. But it would have been important for the rest of us for her to mention that support some time ago.
The minimum wage, however, is only a small part of what needs to be done to address the inequality that plagues us. For example, tax cuts for rich people — at the state and federal level — have been a key part of making inequality worse. During Raimondo’s term as Treasurer, the legislature made permanent the income tax cuts for the rich awarded a few years before, making them much more difficult to repeal. Gina, a wealthy individual whose background in finance and degree in economics gives her plenty of clout on economic issues inside the state house, was silent on the issue.
There are a host of other issues, of course, such as predatory financial services. To her credit, Raimondo has spoken out against payday lenders who charge 290% interest for loans to the poor and desperate. However, it was not very long ago that interest rates a lot lower than that were considered loan-sharking, exclusively the province of heavy-set guys with baseball bats. It’s hard to see speaking out against 290% as brave, even if there exist profiles in courage at the General Assembly that still refuse to do so.
Of course all these issues are minor compared to the big one she embraced: pension reform. In 2011, the threat to the state and all the school departments was that employer payments made into the pension system were scheduled to rise by more than 50% in 2012. And yet payments from the pension system — the actual pensions — were only expected to rise by a few percent, a rate that was actually declining each year, largely due to three previous rounds of pension reform in the preceding six years.
By refusing to question the accounting rules that created such a huge disparity, Raimondo guaranteed the outcome: that the state’s employees would take the brunt of the cuts, and that they would be very painful to them, without relieving our cities and towns of much burden at all. That, of course, is precisely what happened. (Or what might still happen, depending on the still-pending court cases.)
She saw the situation as a dilemma: a choice between two bad options, but it was a false dilemma. There were other choices, but they would have required her to stand up to the accountants and financiers who insisted there was no choice. Instead, she followed their rules.
To her credit, I believe Raimondo has acted in a moral and thoughtful way within those rules. Our state can do much worse than that, and we often have. However, the sad fact is that these rules — the ones we all play by — are stacked against ordinary citizens, and I’ve seen little acknowledgement of that from her. From taxes that weigh most heavily on the poorest while exempting the wealthiest, to laws that punish criminals for stealing cars but don’t punish banks for stealing houses, to accounting rules that are unnecessarily destroying public pension systems and squeezing municipal budgets across the country, our nation is beset with rules and laws made to benefit the powerful and wealthy, at the expense of the rest of us. Our state is no different.
Sadly, a great deal of harm has been done to our nation and our state by well-meaning and morally upright people who refuse to question the rules of the game. To date, Gina Raimondo has been a proud part of that sad tradition. Hard work and determination are virtues, but so is judgment.
A leader must be much more than a resume. No one needs a leader who only follows direction well, who simply keeps her crayon inside the lines of the coloring book better than her classmates. Leading means rejecting the coloring book and drawing a picture or finding a path no one else saw. History’s great leaders, from Moses to King, rejected the consensus and led a new path. If you don’t do that, you’re not leading, you’ve only maneuvered yourself to the front of the pack. There is a difference, and it’s a big one.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that the Raimondo campaign is relying on the same strategy that won her the Treasurer’s office in 2010: minimal information and lots of money. Where there is policy information it’s like her minimum wage stance: late or non-controversial. There is vague stuff about funding school construction and roads, but little to say how she would ultimately pay for it. There are, however, lots of warm fuzzies: pictures of family, stories about dinners with her parents, meatloaf recipes, and so on. We know from 2010 that this is a working strategy. Perhaps you’re pleased with how this worked out last time. In that case, you have nothing to worry about.