Election 2022: Gorbea wants to make life easier for businesses as governor

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of stories speaking with this year’s gubernatorial candidates about their economic vision for Rhode Island. You can read the first installment here, second profile here and third in the series here.)

PROVIDENCE – After making history in 2014 as the first Hispanic elected to a statewide office in New England, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said she’s reduced the amount of red tape businesses have to go through to establish themselves and grow in Rhode Island.

Now Gorbea said she’s planning to bring that same approach to the highest office in Rhode Island, with a goal of making life easier for businesses if she becomes the state’s next governor.

Gorbea, a Democrat who resides in North Kingstown, and a native of Puerto Rico, said she’s the first Latina in New England to run a gubernatorial race. As part of her platform, Gorbea said she’s going to empower small-business owners and entrepreneurs from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds.

- Advertisement -

Before being sworn in as secretary of state in 2015, and getting reelected in 2018, Gorbea was the executive director of nonprofit affordable housing advocacy group HousingWorks RI for five and a half years. Prior to that, Gorbea was a program officer for the Rhode Island Foundation, the founding president of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, an employee of Fleet Securities and deputy secretary of state from 2002 through 2006.

Gorbea, 54, is running against a field of fellow Democrats including incumbent Gov. Daniel J. McKee, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, and former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, along with Republicans Ashley Kalus and Rey Herrera.

  • What is your economic vision for the state – meaning what would be your plans as governor to grow the state’s economy?

For me, the opportunities for Rhode Island are great because of the small businesses that are here in our state. As governor, I hope to really focus on our local businesses. I will do that because I really believe we have businesses that are fantastic and can be regional, could be national, or even international in scope. But they need a governor who pays attention to them and focuses on them. I’m going to make sure the economy grows in a way that’s more equitable and just. That’s a real value for me, focusing on existing small businesses in our state.

I have three areas of focus that, if we make an impact in those areas, we absolutely grow the economy. The first is housing. The second is education. And there’s also climate change. 

Housing is a great example. It’s foundational to people being able to have good health and education. Our housing has a direct impact on our environment, as well. If we tackle the affordability of housing by making sure we build more housing, you have a ripple effect in these other areas that help us, in the end, have better prepared Rhode Islanders for the economy we have and hope to grow. But housing is not just about the people who live in it, it’s an economic sector in of itself. I’m really excited by the possibility of growing the affordability of housing here in the state by growing more sustainable housing, and having us be the leaders in New England for the kind of housing we need to build for varying levels of affordability.

Education is incredibly important. We should have a constitutional amendment to ensure that children have a right to a quality education. To me, that’s the mission of our education program. … It’s been proven that investments in early childhood education reap great dividends in the lifetime of that (child). They become much better at school … and consequently they’re better in the marketplace. You have employers right now desperate for employees. We need to make sure parents can go into the workplace in a way that’s affordable to them. That’s key. … That’s an important area. We happen to have federal money available for the expansion of universal pre-K. We should do that as a state.

Climate change is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge because we’re the Ocean State and we’re facing receding coastline issues. And we need to think about how we’re building our infrastructure to take care of that. It provides a whole new series of jobs and opportunities for business creation. I want to make sure, down the line 30 or 50 years from now, we’re not wringing our hands saying we created this whole new economic sector, but there are no women in charge. We have a chance to build a whole economic sector from scratch that includes a wide variety of folks. … That’s just as important to me as building alternative sources of energy.

  • Does the state need a better business climate? If yes, what actions will you take to help create it?

The answer to that question is yes. Having said that, I’m very proud of the fact I’ve started to chip away at that already. One of my joys in being secretary of state is to run into small business owners, their attorneys or CPAs, who will all tell me how much they love my office. They love the Department of State. They love how easy it is to conduct business, with employees who are friendly, and how quickly they are able to get what they need done and move on with business. I’ve proven that can be done here in Rhode Island at the Department of State. …  We’ve done that with 15- and 20- to 30-year employees, who are all members of a labor union. It’s proof Rhode Island can have good government and can transform its government to better serve the needs of businesses. … We improved the business services division. A lot had to do with investing in our workforces. … We tackled simplifying the amount of forms. We looked at how we could consolidate those forms and how we could design those forms and draft them in plain English. … You should feel excited and encouraged that you’re doing business in the state of Rhode Island. That’s what our website conveys. We did it with our own employees and we did user groups to get a sense of it from businesses on the street. The result of that was we released the latest version of the website literally three days before the shut down of the pandemic.

If you look at the results, in terms of business incorporations in 2020, we broke records for business incorporations in 2020, despite being closed to the public in-person. That record from 2020 was broken again in 2021. That doesn’t just happen because we’re in a pandemic. That happened because of seven years of investing in the way that the office works, and ensuring that our employees knew that their number one job was that we encourage small businesses in the state.

We built a series of remote workshops and seminars online. The website is the front door for businesses looking to open right now. If your website is not appealing, you’re basically saying you don’t care. We built a website that says, ‘It’s great you’re starting your business. It’s great you’re starting a business in Rhode Island. How can we help you? Oh, you have automated assistance.’ But if you get stuck somewhere, call this number and you’ll talk with a person. I think if we did that with the rest of government, you’d see an instant growth, in terms of what our businesses can do. They’d be spending a lot less time on government and spending a lot more time on what they’d like to do, which is to grow the business.

We need to recognize the economy is changing, and be responsive to that. We’ve made it easier for cooperatives to be formed as an alternative to corporate setups. Until I was secretary of state, those entities that wanted to set up as cooperatives had to go somewhere else. We’ve really highlighted on the website how businesses can reach out, including for social ventures. … There’s a lot of small ways that are not the silver (bullet), ‘Wow this is the one policy that’s going to get it done.’ If I had to summarize, it’s about modernizing government, so we can work with businesses at the speed of business. … 

I love the fact that … people don’t call me because they need something at the Department of State. They go to the office directly, and they get it done quickly and with a smile.

  • What’s your vision on tax policies impacting businesses throughout Rhode Island? Will you be trying to make any changes or adjustments to Rhode Island’s corporate income tax?

I think that right now we’re at a moment where we have to evaluate everything, for sure. Let me just start by saying that taxes are the way in which we fund government. I think what’s been lost in Rhode Island is that sense among the public that their taxes are being well-used because there’s a lack of transparency and accountability. I think particularly right now, with the budget surpluses coming into play, we need to really understand why we’re getting these budget surpluses, before we make any rash decisions, start cutting and down the line we have to increase taxes, because this is a momentary surplus.

Some people are talking about cutting taxes. Because there’s a budget surplus. I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction. We need to better understand why those surpluses are happening, so we don’t find ourselves in a bind two or three years down the line, if we cut so badly and can’t sustain it. There are some savings in government that happened, I read, because we weren’t utilizing SNAP benefits. Well, the Department of Services offices were closed. People were in quarantine. There may have been a difficulty accessing the benefits. That doesn’t mean we cut SNAP benefits for the foreseeable future. 

I’m cautious of the person running for office who is going to parade drastic changes right now, as we’re coming out of a difficult time period. What we really need is an efficient, accountable government, that Rhode Islanders and Rhode Island businesses think are doing well by that. That’s what I know I can deliver as governor.

  • Do you support the beverage tax that’s been proposed in the General Assembly that would create a 1.5 cent per ounce tax in Rhode Island?

I know it’s been floated around for a while. I think right now we’re at a time when we need to analyze what we’re doing with our current moneys. When you have specific taxes on sectors, you have to think about why you’re taxing that particular business, whether it’s a negative impact on society. Those moneys need to be targeted at addressing those problems. In the past, it’s been talked about as far as health issues, in regard to the drinks. But you have to make sure you’re building a system that’s accountable, in terms of the use of the moneys. 

  • What strategy or plans would you have for working on the state’s economic development with the R.I. Commerce Corp.?

First and foremost, I want to shift our focus on local businesses. I think there are a number of programs at Commerce, and we need to make sure we’re doing a lot more for our local businesses. We’re a great state, We have great people and we have great sectors that deserve greater investments, like the maritime or blue economy, and the green economy, bringing sustainable energy down the pipe. We have a hospitality and tourism sector that’s second to none. I have friends from outside the state who want to come here when they want a good time and good food. We have a manufacturing sector that, given the problems with the global supply chain, should be a focus for growth for us, for the state, because we’re able to (assistant with the) reshoring of manufacturing. That’s where I hope R.I. Commerce shifts its focus to. We also have amazing businesses within our immigrant communities and communities of color. Those historically have not been paid attention to. We need treat them like the economic assets that they are. I recently went to a cabinet manufacturer here in Rhode Island. It’s an immigrant couple. I think they had purchased one of the old G.E. plants. … They didn’t realize there were resources in their own community, from civic associations and the Rhode Island Builders Association. There is an ecosystem that can help support them as they grow. They were having some difficulties at Commerce. By providing the support we already have in our community, we can really grow in a way that produces good jobs and makes Rhode Island the kind of community we know it can be.

  • Is Rhode Island doing enough to help attract businesses to relocate to the state?

I think that it’s not so much about efforts to get businesses to relocate here. I think the opportunities really lie in growing what we have here and now. To do that, you have to modernize government. You have to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible. You have to have affordable housing in our state. And you have to take advantage of alternative energy. If we focus on that, they will come, for sure.

  • Are you satisfied with how the state is spending federal COVID-19 relief dollars?

No. I’m not satisfied, 10% of (American Rescue Plan Act funds spent so far) is dismal. Just north of us, and I hate comparisons with Massachusetts because I think we’re better, but I believe in this case they’ve already spent 50%. It’s not like we don’t know what needs to happen. There are plenty of good ideas. What’s missing is leadership and execution. If you want to see how I spent federal dollars, during my time as secretary of state, we had $9 million that’s been awarded by the federal government, which dwarfs what’s coming under ARPA. But it will give you a sense of how I use federal funding. We’ve used it to invest in modernization and the infrastructure of elections. We made sure our own office was secure, in terms of cyber and training for staff. We purchased new equipment for Boards of Elections, so they can process ballots more securely with signature verification systems. Then we turned to cities and towns and said, ‘What do you need to process elections well?’ We’re in the process of distributing $500,000 to 39 cities and towns to better manage the cyber security needs of elections. We’re going through that money in a very thoughtful investment in the infrastructure of elections. That’s what allowed us in 2020 to pivot quickly and provide a safe and secure election to a record number of voters. Take something like the ARPA dollars. I would have been on it already. to distribute a much larger number of dollars. And do it in ways that are not just one-shot giveaways, but rather really address the infrastructure needs of our state. We’ll never have in our lifetime this kind of federal support to change the ways we do things, to invest in the future of our state.

  • Now that the hospital merger between Lifespan and Care New England was shot down, how would you like the state to guide its hospital systems forward in order to make sure they’re as successful as possible while best serving patients from the state?

Clearly, we’re at a point in the state we’re there’s going to be a re-examination of the hospital system. I think the next governor needs to take a look at that. I think making sure we’re investing in primary care is the right role for government. Primary care is what helps avoid the costly interventions later in hospitals. We have a great community health care system and community mental health care system that needs to be supported and grown. Health care should be a right … We need to do a better job of providing services in a way that’s affordable and doesn’t pit seniors to choose between prescriptions and food, or a family to have to decide between sticking it out at their house and getting sick and having to go to hospital because they’re afraid of that. To me, primary care is essential. We have to look at how we’re reimbursing our doctors and nurses, and how we’re paying our front line workers, all the way down to CNAs. That might involve working with federal government on Medicaid and Medicare rates. I’m going to look at that and make sure we’re getting our fair share. Those are issues that are more important. Mental health is a big issue, not just for our state, but across the country. It’s a big issue for young people. We need to rethink how we’re providing mental health services across the board in our state. Rhode Island can lead in these ways, and as a result have a more vibrant population that’s ready to grow that economy.

  • What’s your view on Rhode Island’s manufacturing economy, which lost jobs in January, and what could you do to support it?

We need to put all hands on deck to support our manufacturing sector, particularly as the entire country is facing the challenges of the global supply chain. There should be a way to take advantage of that. The other piece is we should address the fact that many of our manufacturing leadership is soon to retire. The baby boomers who are running all these businesses and looking for what to do next. They don’t always have a second generation or family member to take over the plant. I’m looking to have programs in place to provide opportunities where it makes sense for employees with additional training and access to capital, who might be able to keep that asset active in our economy. If we do that, we will be ahead of the curve.

  • There’s been a lot of talk about Rhode Island’s “blue economy” being crucial to its future. How do you propose supporting maritime industries in Rhode Island?

Fortunately we already have a fantastic plan being developed at the University of Rhode Island, with ancillary organizations, to really rethink our bay, to look at the Narragansett Bay as the economic engine that it should be. I know they’re in the process of applying for a federal grant at Commerce. Fingers crossed, we’ll be able to work with that. If we get the grant or not, it’s very clear to me it’s one of our assets that, for some reason, doesn’t get the attention it should. I’m going to be governor and we’re going to focus on those assets we have. We have the people, the geography, and the natural resources. All of those are fantastic. What they really require is leadership in place that values it and uses it to grow our economy.

  • How can Rhode Island advance its life science industries and what would you do about this?

I think that what we should be doing is look at the complimentary businesses that can exist, thanks to some of the already big anchors, like the Amgens of our sector here, of our state. We need to have an educated workforce that can step into opportunities in the life sciences. We have to make sure we take advantage of our educational institutions. We have great nursing programs. We have the pharmacy school at URI. We have an Ivy League university with a medical school. How many states can claim that? Not many. We should be maximizing those assets of higher education into a complimentary bio and life sciences economy.

  • What would you do to support out-of-state travel to Rhode Island?

I think we need to really hone in on our marketing, with regards to tourism. The Ocean State is fantastic. The thing that’s going to help us with that is for Rhode Islanders to feel proud of the state they’re in, and to have a government they know is on their side. Whether it’s growing more businesses in hospitality or tourism, or getting the word out that we as the Ocean State are a fantastic place to come visit, that we have a historic tourism economy that is just waiting to be explored. We’re the birthplace of the American Revolution. Rhode Island sparked the revolution with the burning of the Gaspee. We need to be putting the historical resources in our archives to support teachers, and the Gaspee organization in Warwick, that tell the story of how Rhode Island is unique, as the birthplace of the separation of church and state. We have a lot to entice visitors to come visit and spend their money and hang out with us for a while. (We need to build) a proper Rhode Island history museum and archive facility, that’ll include the state archives. That’s something as secretary of state that I was not able to convince the former governor about. … There are two ways we can build tourism: Building on historic tourism. The other piece is the film industry. We could be doing a lot more to facilitate the development of a film industry in Rhode Island, not so much the one-time (movie). When you hear of the film tax credit programs, you think of some of the movies made in Rhode Island. When people hear about the film tax credit, they think of movies that were shot and go away. What’s happening in the film industry that makes it a much more interesting opportunity (are productions in) places like New Mexico and Atlanta, with the building of sound stages and facilities that allow for (a series). That new Netflix series needs a place to be filming for multiple years. There’s actually an economic need in Rhode Island for places to film a series, which are being made by Netflix, Amazon and all these media companies, to be able to film series over several years. Given Rhode Island’s versatility, and easy access to types of locations, we should be able to build up on our existing film industry. We need to think more strategically. I’m just right now beginning to develop that. But it’s something that captures my interest because it’s something that promotes location and provides good union jobs and good economic opportunity.

What I’d like you to convey is that I really believe in the possibilities that are within our borders, of growing our economy. With my candidacy, you see someone who has already proven she can get things done that support businesses in our state. What I’m asking for Rhode Islanders now is to give me a shot to do it from the governor’s chair.

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.


  1. And she promised to pare down the voter rolls in RI when she first ran for Secretary of State. She didn’t make a dent. And she pushed for auto registration at an inept dmv, that duplicates voters because of their typos. Brilliant.

  2. What a crock! Nellie’s been SoS for almost 8 years and I haven’t seen her make any efforts to implement any of the real changes she outlines in this long winded dissertation. She’s all talk and no action. All sizzle, no steak. Almost makes me wish Seth was running for Guv, almost, but not quite.
    Nellie doesn’t mention her stance on concrete issues facing taxpaying voters like the $500M PVD POB fiasco which will eventually become the State Taxpayers’ burden when PVD inevitably files for bankruptcy. Apparently, Nellie either doesn’t understand (like the vast majority of the current batch of our elected officials) the potential negative impact of the POB on the State Taxpayers or, for self centered political reasons, just doesn’t care.