No state’s chamber of commerce efforts got a bigger boost during last year’s Democratic National Convention than Rhode Island.
Its contribution to the state-by-state roll call went viral. It was covered by outlets from Washington, D.C., to the UK and featured not just the standard political speech but plenty of screen time for what was called the state’s “official appetizer”: calamari.
Rhode Island squid “is available in all 50 states,” the clip touted.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise then that one of the key people behind the video — Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo — is set to become one of President Joe Biden’s primary representatives to the business world as his nominee for Commerce Secretary.
Raimondo appeared Tuesday for her Senate confirmation hearing and laid out her vision, according to prepared remarks, for the Commerce Department to be "a partner to businesses and their workers to help them innovate and grow.”
The 2020 convention video devoted a significant chunk of its 30-second runtime to letting the country know about a program allowing fishermen in Rhode Island to sell their catch directly to the public.
Rhode Island’s State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph McNamara, who appeared in the video, told Yahoo Finance that the inclusion was emblematic of the governor’s style. Some of the seemingly smaller things Raimondo has done in office were “huge for a small-business owner,” he said.
“It really opened up an entirely new market,” McNamara said about the effort, aimed at allowing more Rhode Islanders to cook fish at home during the pandemic.
In a February 2020 interview with Yahoo Finance, Raimondo was also quick to tout the industry: “If you like calamari, we have a lot of it in Rhode Island,” she said.
‘She’s very high touch’
According to interviews with people in Rhode Island’s business community, it’s just one example of the style she’ll likely bring to Washington.
Infosys (INFY), a global business consulting and IT company headquartered in India with revenue of over $3.5 billion last quarter, recently picked Rhode Island as one of its six U.S. hubs. The company is set to bring 1,000 jobs to the state over the coming years, and Ravi Kumar, president of Infosys, noted in an interview that the governor’s efforts were instrumental.
“Gov. Raimondo is one of my favorite public policy leaders I have interacted with in the United States,” Kumar told Yahoo Finance.
“She is very high-touch,” he said, noting that, in contrast to some other public officials, “she comes with a business background and then she likes talking to businesses.”
Multiple executives Yahoo Finance spoke with characterized Raimondo, who co-founded a venture capital firm before getting into politics, as highly engaged with local businesses. Kathrin Belliveau, Chief Purpose Officer at Hasbro (HAS), the toy company founded in Providence in 1923, said there were times when Raimondo’s team “would reach out and say to us and other business leaders there's going to be a call with the administration... then lo and behold, the governor herself is on the line.”
“As a businesswoman herself, I think she came into the governor's role and realized, ‘I need to really obviously listen to the business leaders,’” said Belliveau.
The question, if she is confirmed, is whether Raimondo can translate that personal touch to the sprawling Commerce Department, which has 46,608 employees at last count and a range of missions beyond business outreach, including the Decennial Census, the National Weather Service, and a role in ocean and coastal navigation, as well as trade policy.
A ‘pro-business Democrat’
In a recent op-ed, Michael Bloomberg touted Raimondo as a “pro-business Democrat,” noting that her selection was a sign that Biden was "refusing to bow to pressure from those who are more hostile to the private sector." Raimondo had endorsed the former New York mayor during his run for the presidency last year before both pivoted to Biden when Bloomberg dropped out of the race.
McNamara listed a range of Raimondo’s pro-business initiatives implemented from her time as governor — including lowering the corporate tax rate and eliminating the tax on electricity for businesses. One effort in particular — reforming the state’s pension program — earned Raimondo praise but also some criticism.
“That was a big initiative that she approached as a math problem,” McNamara said of the move, which trimmed some benefits but got the program on a more stable financial footing. Raimondo’s efforts — both as governor and the state’s Treasurer before that — led to some hard feelings that persist to today.
Diane Bucci is a retired teacher, a board member on the Rhode Island Retired Teachers Association, and one of the governor’s critics. Here’s how she responded to a local outlet when Raimondo recently asked retired teachers to consider coming back as substitutes as part of the pandemic response.
“The way we’ve been treated by the governor,” she said, ”I’m not sure how much interest there is in doing this favor.” Bucci didn’t respond to a request from Yahoo Finance to comment further.
“I still have people today that don't speak to me,” McNamara said of the fallout from the pension effort, which he was involved in. “The governor does as well.”
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Infosys had a revenue of $3.5 billion last year, it was actually $3.5 billion last quarter. The total revenue for 2020 was nearly $12.8B USD.