As the ProJo profile showed on Sunday, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is in an interesting spot. As a Democrat, she has the support of the various groups that stand underneath that party’s umbrella, particularly the progressive wing. Yet, she is viewed with caution by the biggest portion of that group, labor. They are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt–to a point–but they are very wary of what she has in store for their pension future.
Raimondo says she wants to help craft a pension solution that labor can live with, even if it involves sacrifice –– a solution that would avert legal challenges. She is aware that the state’s largest public employee union, Council 94 of AFSCME, is suing the state over pension reductions in 2009 and 2010. And she has said that the issue of pensions as a guaranteed property right is “an unsettled area of the law.”
She didn’t win the endorsement of the NEA teachers union during the campaign because she would not promise she wouldn’t touch their pensions. And while the NEA’s Walsh says her comments about “haircuts” have been alarming, he says that her values and the union’s “overlap.”
“Her heart starts in the right place,” adds Walsh. “We’ll have to see where her head is at.”
That is where she has been successful so far: not coming across as the boogey man to the union. A Republican would have automatically fit that role. Raimondo–due to her roots, contacts and word-of-mouth–has disarmed those who would, in any other time, considered her a fellow-traveler (and probably still do run into her and her friends at the right sort of parties–though to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Raimondo has spent a lot of time relaxing lately). It appears that the characteristic that makes up a great part of her appeal and popularity–her honesty–is problematic for them as they try to protect their bailiwick. Dammit, they like her but not what she’s saying. How to “personalize” and demonize?!!
J. Michael Downey, president of Council 94, said his union endorsed Raimondo, despite not liking her answers on the possibility of cutting pension benefits, because “she was honest.” Downey doesn’t believe the retirement system is as bad off as Raimondo does, arguing that strong stock-market returns following the 2008-09 recession have boosted the fund.
Raimondo disagrees. Addressing a meeting of retired state workers in West Warwick on Wednesday, she was asked if the crisis would have been averted if pension investments had earned 8.25 percent over the past decade, as assumed. Raimondo answers no, not entirely.
“Well, that’s something that’s never mentioned,” the man replied. “All that gets mentioned is ‘the greedy public workers’ and politics.”
To a large degree, Raimondo’s success thus far has been in her style and her forthright approach to the pension problem. Like most liberals/progressives, she is skeptical of 401(k) type retirement plans (like the Federal Government offers) and still thinks a more responsible defined-benefit plan can be worked out. I’m not so sure about that. Yet, so far, her willingness to be upfront about the problem, even proposing that current pensioners may have to see a reduction, has been refreshing. When it came to the General Treasure election in 2010, I was a single-issue voter. I voted for Raimondo (with some trepidation and fingers crossed), even though I knew I would disagree with her on some issues, because she struck me as the right person at the right time to deal with the current pension problem. So far, she hasn’t disappointed me. But talk is easy. I’m still holding my breath to see what she actually does.