Focusing on the hard choices state and local officials face, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo emphasized the importance of pragmatic and effective leadership as she delivered the Harvard Kennedy School’s annual Godkin Lecture. Raimondo, a Democrat, discussed public leadership, state governance, and American politics with Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf.
Throughout her remarks, Raimondo emphasized that being a moderate in the current polarized political environment is important and that compromise in state and local politics can be an essential leadership tool in delivering public services and meeting citizens’ needs.
Raimondo detailed her efforts to grow Rhode Island’s economy after decades of economic downturn and job losses. She also discussed what drove her decision to move from a lucrative private sector job to a life of public service.
The lecture, named after Edwin Godkin, the founder of The Nation, is dedicated to public service. Past speakers have included former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
On her controversial decision to reduce pensions for state employees
“It was a very difficult political choice, and all my political advisors advised me against it. I knew the politics and the political ramifications would be challenging, but in good conscience I did not see any other alternative.”
On her focus on investment and economic development
“I knew we had to restart the state’s economic engine which as totally out of gas when I took office. When I ran for office, for the entire year I ran, we had the highest unemployment rate in the country. Not a distinction you want. So, we turned things around and all I’ve done since becoming governor is invest—invest in infrastructure, invest in job training, invest in higher education, invest in K-12, invest in recruiting companies to Rhode Island, and invest in what we are good at. The sum total of all that work is that our unemployment rate is now right at the national average … and the next time you come to Rhode Island, you will see cranes in the sky and roadwork happening.”
On being a political moderate
“When I think of a moderate, I think of someone who is willing to compromise to get things done. … [You have to focus on] what you are going to do for your constituents. That means you have to sometimes compromise and meet people in the middle to produce results.”
On her decision to pursue a career in public service and leadership
“It would have been much easier to stay on that finance career path, but on a very personal level I felt the need to do more, to serve. One day, I was sitting reading the newspaper, and I remember there was an article that on account of state budget shortfalls, there were going to be cuts to the public bus service, cuts to after school activities in schools, and cuts to public libraries. … I remember very clearly that I put the newspaper down and said to my husband, ‘I am going to do something about this. Enough is enough.’ There’s plenty of time to go make money, but there’s not always a great time to change the world for the better.”
On the impact of the political division in Washington
“If everything we do is poorly executed, people will lose faith in our government. And when people lose faith in government … it makes it very hard for those of us who actually believe in effective government to make the case.”