On Politics

Analysis: To get things done, Raimondo embraces the bully pulpit

The relatively weak executive power of the governor’s office in Rhode Island remains a favorite sore spot for some observers in explaining the state’s frequent inertia. (Even a skilled communicator like Don Carcieri seemed largely unable to utilize the levers of power until he started making deals toward the end of his second term in the governor’s office.) Well, don’t tell it to state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has exploited the power of the bully pulpit like no other local public official in recent years.

Raimondo drove the pension issue to the center of public discussion in Rhode Island. She played a considerable part in creating a new dynamic in which supporting pension overhaul legislation makes more political sense than opposing it. So much for the overstated gripes about how labor runs the General Assembly.

But the treasurer isn’t resting after legislative finance committees last night passed the pension bill with large majorities (13-2 in the House, and 10-1 in the Senate). Raimondo remains on the offensive, warning against floor amendments that could water down the legislation when it moves to final approval on Thursday.

“We are so close now,” Raimondo said this morning during a taping of WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers, that pension overhaul supporters must remain vigilant. (It’s worth nothing that Raimondo requested her appearance on the show, and you can bet she’ll maintain a high profile in the run-up to the floor vote and afterwards, if there are significant changes).

A photographer from Time magazine was reportedly trailing Raimondo, the latest in a cascade of national publicity for the holder of a formerly obscure office. She’s a champion fundraiser and pledges to help lawmakers who support the pension bill. “I will be there for them [in 2012],” Raimondo says.

She’s even got a not wholly laughable talking point for how Engage RI, the private nonprofit supporting her cause, shouldn’t face a public-interest obligation to disclose its contributors; Raimondo says potential conflicts are a non-issue since pension overhaul will help the entire state.

Thousands of union members turned out for a boisterous Statehouse protest earlier this week. It was an impressive show of force, but it didn’t change the momentum toward pension overhaul.

When Raimondo rolled out her “Truth in Numbers” report earlier this year, Governor Lincoln Chafee pointed to the workers’ compensation insurance reform of the early 1990s for an example of how the state can effectively tackle a major policy issue. That Chafee had to reach back about two decades, however, seemed to underscore the state’s serial struggles with economic development and other pressing needs.

As Scott writes, Chafee has faced trouble in offering a unified message. He criticized the first revision to the pension overhaul bill for overlooking the concerns of cities with troubled local pensions, like Providence and Cranston. But Chafee’s initial approach on that issue was rapped by the mayors of those cities as punitive and not sufficiently helpful. In the public light of Newsmakers, Raimondo had only kind things to say about the governor and his support for pension overhaul. Yet there’s no doubt the treasurer has led the public campaign for the reform.

A lot can happen on the way to a final vote in the House and Senate.

And Rhode Island still has plenty of other thorny problems, from the 36 sorely underfunded local pensions and municipal fiscal woes, to the ticking time bomb of unfunded retiree health care costs.

But if Rhode Island moves ahead next week with its significant overhaul of the state pension system, it will be a case study in how the focusing of public attention by a public official on a big problem helped to address it.