Twenty new COVID-19 deaths were reported in Rhode Island on Thursday, January 7, the day that Governor Gina Raimondo announced her decision to accept the Biden administration’s nomination for Commerce Secretary. It was a bracing reminder that, for everything else happening in the country, and for all of the chatter and praise that Raimondo’s appointment sparked, Rhode Island is still experiencing a slow-rolling, once-in-a-lifetime disaster. And, in the midst of this emergency, our top elected official is leaving for a job in Washington. This is the cold, uncomfortable fact that I keep returning to.
Now, to be sure: this is an enormous honor and tremendous opportunity for Raimondo. And she is as bright, qualified, experienced as any candidate for the job, and has a background in business that makes her a natural fit. In all my years in Rhode Island, I don’t remember a local politician being tapped for a national post this significant. That’s exciting.
But unlike so many of Biden’s other high-level appointees — with the exception of Boston Mayor Marty Malsh, who was nominated for Labor Secretary the same day as Raimondo — Raimondo was actively serving in an executive role at the time of her appointment. And she was doing so during a crisis that has brought unfathomable losses of life, with no end in sight. The medical professionals on the front lines in our state surely know this. As do the members of nearly 2,000 families who have lost loved ones, and others who have lost jobs and businesses. And so this appointment brings with it important questions about what it means to leave a leadership position in such a moment. While the appointment is certainly good for Raimondo, it’s hard to see it as anything other than bad for us. (Dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, Ashish Jha, called it a “HUGE loss.”) This is worth saying out loud, especially when the consensus in Rhode Island’s Democrat-dominated echo chamber seems to be near-unanimous praise.
Let’s consider where Rhode Island is right now, at the moment that Raimondo is leaving. As of this writing, 1,910 people have died in the Ocean State from COVID-19, though that number will almost certainly be out of date by the time you read this. Two days before Raimondo announced she was leaving, NBC News reported that “Arizona, California and Rhode Island are among the hardest-hit places in the world [emphasis mine] at this stage of the pandemic, with the highest rates of Covid-19 infections per capita.” Less than two weeks before her announcement about the new job, two national news outlets, NPR and the Washington Post told stories about Rhode Island field hospitals. And a few weeks before that, local residents received an alert on our phones that the state’s hospitals were at capacity. This was just a short time after the Rhode Island Food Bank reported that approximately one in four Rhode Island households lack adequate food.
Although the recent arrival of COVID vaccines offers a glimmer of hope, we’re still very much in the middle of this disaster. And it’s important not to lose sight of that context when assessing Raimondo’s decision. Imagine if Don Carcieri had left for D.C. while the Station Nightclub was still smoldering, or if Bruce Sundlun walked off the job during the banking crisis, or if Governor Joseph Garrahy resigned, while still wearing his trademark red flannel shirt, during the Blizzard of 1978. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about here. Raimondo didn’t cause COVID, and it’s certainly unfair to blame her for all of its local wreckage, but an overwhelming tragedy took place on her watch, and now she’s stepping down.
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And, furthermore, there are disturbing indications that, due to the testy relationship between her and her successor, Lieutenant Governor (and former Cumberland Mayor) Dan McKee — with whom she did not share the ticket; in Rhode Island, lieutenant governors run for office separately from the governor with whom they’ll serve — the handoff of power will be far from a seamless. As Dan McGowan reports in the Boston Globe, due to their testy relationship, “Raimondo has largely excluded McKee from every facet of her administration’s response to the pandemic.” And according to the Providence Journal’s Kathy Gregg, the two officials didn’t even meet during 2020. This is terrifying. A new governor learning the job on the fly would be scary during the best of times; in a pandemic, that can be literally deadly.
And so as she proceeds through the nomination process, I encourage members of the local national press to ask Raimondo hard questions about what will happen now in Rhode Island, the state that she led for six years and that, as recently as a few days ago, she said she felt a “massive obligation” to serve. To do so isn’t an unfair swipe; it’s a way of taking her, the offices she is both leaving and approaching, and our entire system of government, seriously.
One of the things that the Trump years and COVID has all-too-vividly illustrated is that government is serious business. Elected officials are entrusted with enormous power over resources, personnel, and policy. Lives depend on the decisions they make. Even if Raimondo feels like a neighbor in the ever-so-cozy world of Rhode Island politics, our job as citizens isn’t to contort ourselves to see things from her, or any other elected official’s, perspective. It’s our job to return, again and again, to the concerns of the citizens. And right now, those concerns are urgent: people are dying in Rhode Island every single day.
There will be time in the coming weeks and months to sift through the details of her legacy: the high points (the job announcements, the glowing national press coverage), the low points (the “UHIP debacle,” the “Cooler and Warmer” fiasco), the fate and outcomes of key initiatives like her free college program. But, today, as I sit in my apartment in Providence, as scared about the health implications of even the briefest journey outside, I’m struck by two conflicting feelings. I wish Raimondo the best of luck in her new job. And I worry about what the future holds for all of us back home.