PROVIDENCE — At first, Gina Raimondo thought solving Rhode Island’s pension problem was just a matter of math: Billions of dollars of unfunded benefits were owed to the state’s teachers, police officers, firefighters and others.
But the newly elected general treasurer quickly learned back in 2011 that the fix was as much about politics as it was pure numbers.
The overhaul Raimondo devised and helped push through the General Assembly is a key part of her pitch for why she deserves the Democratic nomination for governor. She faces Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and political newcomer Clay Pell in the Sept. 9 primary. The winner will face one of two Republicans: Cranston Mayor Allan Fung or businessman Ken Block.
Raimondo, 43, highlights her work tackling what some said was an intractable problem as proof that she’s the type of leader needed to help turn around the sunken economy in Rhode Island, which has for years had one of the highest U.S. jobless rates.
“As treasurer, I got something big done,” she told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I had to move the system and get the General Assembly to do a difficult thing.”
The pension reform, which froze annual cost-of-living increases, raised retirement ages and shifted benefits to a hybrid-style plan, made national headlines and has been held up as a model for other states. But it has also earned her the political wrath of public-sector unions and retirees, who sued.
Pell, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, is backed by the state’s largest teachers union. He has called the pension overhaul mishandled, and Taveras has said he wouldn’t have supported it. A settlement agreement fell apart, leaving the overhaul tangled up in court.
Raimondo grew up in Smithfield, the youngest of three. Her father worked at the Bulova watch factory in Providence for 26 years before it closed, a story she tells on the campaign trail as she pushes her plan to make Rhode Island a manufacturing hub again.
Raimondo’s resume bespeaks her ambition: She was valedictorian at La Salle Academy, then attended Harvard. She won a Rhodes scholarship and got a Yale law degree. She later co-founded a venture capital firm in Providence.
Taveras and other critics have accused Raimondo of being aligned with Wall Street. She has worked hard to portray herself as the everywoman: a mother of two — just “Gina” — who takes her kids to soccer practice and the beach. In one of her commercials, she and her family bicycle through Providence, with 10-year-old Ceci narrating.
Unsurprisingly, with Raimondo’s Italian heritage, food is what she calls a “big deal” in the family. Sunday night family dinners are sacrosanct. Her spaghetti and meatballs is a favorite, but Raimondo says the best place for Italian food in Rhode Island is her mother’s house.
Anne Nolan, president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, a homeless shelter and social service provider, said Raimondo’s drive has served her organization well. Raimondo has sat on the board for more than a decade and was instrumental in helping raise funding for a new women’s facility.
“She’s just ferocious. She just goes after things like, I can’t even describe the tenacity and her commitment,” said Nolan. “She has a very big heart ... and for all of her pedigree, she doesn’t flaunt that in any way.”
Raimondo sought the Providence firefighters’ union endorsement but lost it to Taveras, who had negotiated directly with unions and retirees in overhauling the city’s pension system.
Union president Paul Doughty said Raimondo was a commanding presence in the room as she made her pitch. But he challenged her on the process.
Realizing the problem wasn’t just about math, Raimondo had formed a special advisory group that she maintains hammered out a solution collaboratively. The group included labor, but Doughty said the panel was effectively working toward a foregone conclusion the unions didn’t support.
“I think that’s a little disingenuous to say that that truly represents collaboration,” he said.
Doughty gave her credit for trying to reach a settlement, given the cost of continued litigation and the financial uncertainty to the state if the law is struck down. She says she’d be open to trying again to settle but won’t endorse a watered-down reform.
“It has to be basically the settlement that we had, but they need to get the votes this time,” she said. “We did our part.”