Raimondo says R.I. gubernatorial experience helps her as U.S. commerce secretary

BROWN UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT Christina H. Paxson, left, speaks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo at the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lecture on International Affairs at Brown University on Tuesday. / SCREENSHOT

PROVIDENCE – Gina M. Raimondo is no stranger to making big decisions.

But the leap from Rhode Island governor to heading federal economic strategy as U.S. commerce secretary has been a big, and challenging, one.

Raimondo shared a glimpse into her day-to-day life since being tapped for President Joe Biden’s cabinet on her home turf at Brown University at the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lecture on International Affairs on Tuesday. From jet-setting to Dubai last weekend to talk export controls against Russia to developing a plan to get affordable broadband access across the nation and serving as the “designated survivor” during Biden’s recent State of the Union address, her duties are vast and complex.

Recalling when she was sent out of Washington, D.C., with a security team during the State of the Union as designated survivor, the appointed to-be president if catastrophe in D.C. left the president and his more immediate successors unable to serve in that role, she said it was mostly uneventful, save for a brief moment of shock.

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All of a sudden it washes over you and you’re like, ‘Oh God, please don’t let anything happen,’ ” she said with a laugh.

In other cases, though, her record in the Ocean State and time as governor have prepared her for the national role, perhaps more than she thought.

“The topics are different but the basic skills of working with a legislative body, working across the aisle, investing in relationships, taking time to really understand and respect other people’s points of view, especially those that don’t agree with you … all of that is really familiar to me. I learned a lot of those skills and did those skills as governor.”

With her purview now extended well beyond Rhode Island’s borders, the stakes for her economic plan are much higher. And Raimondo is taking her responsibility seriously.

She outlined a strategy aimed at reviving and bolstering economic development with four main areas: growth, innovation, equity and international diplomacy. 

While separate, each of these areas works in tandem to advance the overarching goal of progressing and protecting the country’s position as an economic leader, which Raimondo acknowledged has faced substantial setbacks in recent years amid failure to prioritize funding for crucial areas such as job training and manufacturing.

She called manufacturing the most important industry for national economic development, highlighting the importance of reshoring manufacturing activities to combat inflation and supply chain woes that have taken hold.

The brutal reality is you cannot have vibrant, long-term economic growth without a vibrant manufacturing sector,” Raimondo said. “Manufacturing leads to a cycle of innovation, research and development, growth and job creation more than any other industry.”

Federal government, of course, plays a key role in committing the dollars and programs to revitalize a declining manufacturing sector, but so too do state and local governments, community organizations and institutions such as Brown University, according to Raimondo.

She touted Brown’s innovative research into Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and scientific discoveries as examples of how universities and institutions are needed to help with pressing problems such as disease and climate change.

Another crisis at the forefront of Raimondo’s mind is the racial, socioeconomic and gender inequality that continues to undermine economic development. She noted that the date of her address, March 15, is Equal Pay Day, which recognizes when the median women’s salary catches up to that of men. This year, it took 75 more days for a woman to earn what a man did in 2021. And for women of color, that day comes much later.

“Closing the wage gap is not just the right thing to do for women, it is good for the economy,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo named job training programs and broadband access for all communities as ways to help reconcile these disparities. 

Although much of Raimondo’s speech highlighted the U.S. as a world leader, she also spoke to the importance of fostering and maintaining alliances, something she criticized the prior presidential administration for failing to do. As war between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, the economic sanctions, including export regulations that her office controls, are made more powerful when other countries join them. 

So far, Raimondo said, the entire European Union, the United Kingdom and South Korea, among others, have embraced halting the export of critical military and technology supplies to Russia.

Asked by Brown President Christina H. Paxson whether she wavered in these seemingly harsh sanctions, Raimondo backed the decision to respond “in the strongest possible terms.”

“The way to show the world that autocratic governments aren’t the solution is to make our democracy work and to show the people of our country and the people of our world that our democracy can deliver for the people of America and provide opportunity that’s equally shared,” she said.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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