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John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Who Wants to be Governor of RI?

Monday, December 30, 2013


You have to wonder why anyone would want to be the governor of Rhode Island. After all, as governorships go it’s not a very powerful position. The governor’s proposed budget is routinely sliced and diced by the legislative leadership and sometimes pretty much dead on arrival. The governor does not possess a line item veto power when it comes to the eleventh hour budget presented by the legislature. There’s no governor’s mansion or plane. And being the chief executive of the smallest state in the union with one of the most stubbornly anemic economies certainly doesn’t provide much in the way of bragging rights.

But that hardly stops a new field of candidates every four years from springing forward in pursuit of the top elected office. One thing the state’s governorship does have going for it, however, is the fact that Rhode Island voters see the position as something of an antidote to the critical mass of Democrats owning just about every other elected position.


By way of illustration, when was the last time Rhode Islanders elected a Democrat governor? Still thinking? It was in 1992 and the winning Democrat candidate was an incumbent named Bruce Sundlun. Our present governor, Lincoln Chafee, won the governorship as an Independent and will leave office in January 2015 as a Democrat, possibly on his way to Washington with a job lined up in the Obama Administration’s final two years.

Democrats really would like to field a winning candidate for the job and they have two excellent candidates to consider for next year’s election: Angel Taveras, the Mayor of Providence, and Gina Raimondo, the General Treasurer. Angel Taveras is in a strong position: recognized for his executive leadership in straightening out the capital city’s financial woes (a work in progress he will leave to his successor) and a deft politician who has demonstrated he can work successfully with powerful city unions. His announced policy initiative on strengthening early education is a sound stratagem. He’s also Latino in a state with a growing Latino population.

Gina Raimondo will also make a strong candidate, and if she prevails in the primary against Mayor Taveras she will be tough to beat come November. She could be the next Ella Grasso or Jane Swift as the Ocean State’s first female governor, something that a lot of folks would like to see happen.

But she does have the pension overhaul and the ongoing court ordered remediation to deal with first. So tied as she is to this divisive issue, voters either love her or would like to see her political career terminated at the first opportunity. Actually, polling has shown that union voters hold a more nuanced stand when it comes to Gina (men like her, as do Republicans). Despite the focus on the state’s economy in the upcoming election season, Raimondo will remain defined as a candidate by the pension reform law, for good or bad. But yesterday’s op-ed in the Providence Journal by House Speaker Gordon Fox left little doubt that the pension overhaul is not going to be a legislative priority next year, so he and the General Treasurer remain on the same page that the law should stand as passed. And it may be hard for her opponents, starting with Mayor Taveras, to attack her on the pension issue, as it is saving taxpayer dollars at both the state and municipal levels.


On the Republican side, favored by voters in the last five elections, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Moderate-turned-Republican Ken Block will also face off in a tough primary battle. Fung has done a good job running Cranston and he has also had success working with his unions. Republican Cranston mayors can win state elections: look at Ed DiPrete back in the 1980s.

Ken Block may actually have more statewide name recognition than Allan Fung because of his knack for getting attention, and if there’s one thing that Ken Block will offer up in spades during a primary contest will be specific policy ideas about improving Rhode Island state government, which will force Mayor Fung to get specific about just how he will create 20,000 new jobs as he claims (reminiscent of Don Carcieri) he will do.

Note: For the record, let me insert here that I do not publicly endorse candidates despite what some see as my backing of Mayor Fung because I hosted his announcement event at my company, Taco, Inc. Allan has been a good friend to Taco and understands our importance to the city’s economy and so hosting his announcement was simply a way of being gracious to Cranston’s top official for his important occasion. Also, my public policy concerns far outweigh individual political personalities who come and go.

Leaving the novice Clay Pell on the sideline for now, the gubernatorial candidates list for next November is pretty impressive. The primaries will of course be expensive and probably nasty, reducing everyone in the process, but that’s politics. Rhode Islanders should look upon these ambitious candidates with a measure of pride. After all, each of them has an impressive resume, complete with executive experience. Among the four we have two ethnic, second generation candidates, a software engineer, and a Rhodes Scholar woman.

Despite what I said about the limits on the executive powers of the governor, being the chief executive of Rhode Island is an important and influential position nonetheless, especially in the hands of an activist governor, and it’s a position that could be strengthened through changes advanced in a constitutional convention should voters decide to authorize one in the November election.

It’s going to be an interesting race for governor. And then there’s the potential return of Buddy Cianci to the Providence mayorship. Stay tuned.

Related Slideshow:
10 Questions Gina Raimondo Has to Answer When Running for Governor

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10. Money

Can she explain the amount of out of state money?

Most of the candidates for Governor need to answer the question, can they raise enough to be competitive? That is not a problem for Raimondo. She has proven to be the most skilled fundraiser, but her issue is justifying that the vast majority of the money is coming from out-of-state.

Raimondo will face a number of questions regarding who is really behind her campaign - the amount of out-of-state dollars is just one of the questions.

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9. Pension Reform

Did she only reform certain pensions?

Raimondo rose to celebrity status because of her leadership on pension reform. Her efforts helped to stabilize the pension system, but the reform was hardly democratic.

Teachers took the vast majority of the hit, while major groups of pensioners escaped reform including the judges, state police and disability pensioners. Raimondo has some explaining to do.

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8. Lack of Transparency

If she lacks transparency as Treasurer, what will it be like as Governor?

From her deepest critics to the media and even members of the retirement board, many have questioned her and her office's willingness to share information and provide the public insights into her management of the investment commission and the performance of the fund under her leadership.

Data which historically was easily accessed by the public and media is now locked behind the Raimondo wall. Often this raises serious questions and forces the media to seek the simplest information via FOIA requests.

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7. Wall Street

Why is Wall Street spending so much money supporting Raimondo?

Raimondo is the queen of fundraising and so much of it derives from the major players on Wall Street.

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6. Performance

Has Raimondo managed the pension fund competently?

The most important job of the General Treasurer might be the management of the state's retirement fund. The blockbuster investigative piece by Stephen Beale unveiled that the pension system under Raimondo lost $200 million

While she may be able to blitz the airwaves with positive messages about her bio and her leadership in pension reform, her Democratic primary competitors and/or her GOP opponent in the General Election may be able to destroy her credibility by playing up her "mismanagement of the pension system."

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5. Hedge Funds

Will Raimondo pay the price for shifting so much of the assets into Hedge Funds?

For the past six months, Raimondo has been under constant critique for shifting more than 20% of the State's retirement dollars into unregulated Hedge Funds. The critics has included forensic auditor/Forbes contributor Ted Siedle, Rolling Stones magazine's star reporter Matt Taibbi, former General Treasurer and candidate again, Frank Caprio, as well as many of the public unions. The combination of where she gets her campaign dollars, coupled with the shift in investment strategy and the under performance of the fund may all build into a snowball effect.

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4. Connect to RIers

Educated at Yale and Harvard, a Rhode Scholar and a millionaire, can she connect to the average RIer?

Raimondo is a born and bred Rhode Islander, but for her adult life she has been educated at the best colleges in the world and living a professional life aligned with many of America's super rich associated with Wall Street. In her announcement she mentioned a number of times she was a mother, but did not mention that her husband is a partner at Mckinsey - and according to Forbes magazine probably takes home $2 million or so per year.

Raimondo talks a lot about her father losing his job when she was a child, but she has come a long way since then. She could come across as the ultimate RI success story or be perceived as an out of touch venture capitalist.

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3. Siedle and Taibbi

Neither Ted Siedle or Matt Taibbi are going away - can she deflect their questions and charges?

In the past two months, both forensic auditor/Forbes columnist Ted Siedle and Rolling Stone's star reporter Matt Taibbi have raised serious issues about Raimondo's motivation and judgment.

As Taibbi wrote, "The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast."

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/looting-the-pension-funds-20130926#ixzz2o2bLhqKW

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2. Is she a Democrat?

Will Taveras and Pell paint her to be too conservative?

Raimondo is simply hated by the teachers unions and others - big blocks of voters in the Democratic primary. Both Clay Pell and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will tack to the left and may compete for the same voters allowing her to sneak through to the general. However, progressives and unions may decide to pick Pell over Taveras (who is struggling to raise money and whose track record in Providence may come under fire) and then Pell can take the left leaning primary.

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1. SEC Investigation

Can Raimondo survive an SEC investigation?

Both Siedle and a state senator have written to the SEC calling for an investigation into the investment practices of Raimondo. A federal investigation would be at a minimum a black eye to the General Treasurer and an enforcement action might end a credible campaign. Timing may prove to be everything.


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Jonathan Bainsworth

Yes, vote for Gina Raimondo and be prepared to send your social security checks to her Wall Street friends so they can take what's left of the battered middle class. My hats off to her though...she pulled off the biggest scam in RI history, playing the Governor and the General Assembly like a vintage Stradivarius. She'll probably even be the next Governor. RI voters have become that gullible.

Jim D

Vote for Taveras and watch every illegal get a drivers license.

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