Raimondo eyeing new Trump White House warily

Dem gov faces radically different landscape in DC than she expected one week ago

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-Rhode Island) addresses issues with the new UHIP online benefits system.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo is already taking action to deal with President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning victory.

In the form of hugs.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week hugging people and reassuring people, from my own staff, to my kids, to people at church, people on the train,” Raimondo told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “I had to go to New York last week; people came up to me in the train station wanting a hug, wanting to know, ‘Governor, is this going to be OK?'”

“I give them a hug and I say, ‘Yes, it is going to be OK,'” she continued. “And I believe that. And the people of Rhode Island, we will protect them. Our values aren’t changing. And we’re going to make sure people are safe in Rhode Island. So it’s been very emotional, I guess, for a lot of people.”

“And then what I say to certain people – mostly my team, and myself actually – is, OK, so, what are you going to do about it?” she added. “For me, I have a whole new renewed sense of energy about my job.”

Yet Raimondo, a first-term Democrat up for re-election in 2018, now faces a radically different landscape than she expected one week ago, when it appeared likely Hillary Clinton would win the White House and Democrats would take the U.S. Senate, giving the governor powerful allies on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Look, I think that obviously when you’re a governor and the president and the Congress are of your party, you have more influence and contacts – there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “I doubt I’m going to have great, longstanding personal friendships with a lot of people he puts in his cabinet,” she added, chuckling.

“So, you know, sure, that’s a problem,” she continued. “But I’ll figure out a way to get their ear and get Rhode Island on their map. … To say it’s not going to be harder would be dishonest. We just have to work more creatively and aggressively.”

Instead, Raimondo and her staff are coming to grips with Rhode Island’s new position as a Democratic-led island in a Republican-led country, as well as the many unanswered questions that still surround how Trump will handle the presidency.

“It remains to be seen,” she said. “I’m, like everyone, seeing if he governs the same way he campaigned. I’m hopeful he’ll govern in a more collaborative, constructive way than how he campaigned. We’ll see.”

“We’ve seen President-elect Trump change his positions pretty regularly in the campaign,” she added.

Among Raimondo’s top concerns is the GOP commitment to quickly repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Unlike many states, Rhode Island went all in on Obamacare, expanding Medicaid to cover roughly 77,000 more people and building the HealthSource RI marketplace to sell commercial insurance policies, often heavily subsidized.

“For the most part, the Affordable Care Act is working in Rhode Island,” she said.

Raimondo also said she’s worried that the Republicans’ plans for large-scale tax cuts, particularly those targeted at high-earners, will eliminate federal support for schools, highways and other priorities. And she said she hopes Trump won’t slash federal funding for job training, which Rhode Island has tapped to fund the Real Jobs RI program.

“President Trump claims to care about people who’ve been displaced through losing manufacturing jobs, and if he does, the best way to deal with that is to help people get new skills so they can get new jobs in this economy,” she argued. “So I’m worried about it, but I think there’s some glimmer of hope he won’t cut those programs.”

On immigration, Raimondo declined to take a position on Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s announcement Monday that he won’t change his current policy on illegal immigration even if it costs the cash-strapped city federal funding.

“That’s his call,” she said. “That’s his decision. He’s running the city. He’s got to do what he thinks is right. My approach on immigration is, let’s just wait and see what he does.”

Raimondo is facing cross-pressures on immigration. Activists remain frustrated she has refused to carry out a promise to issue an executive order granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, mainly due to the opposition of Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. From the right, Republican Rep. Robert Nardolillo on Tuesday called on the governor to rescind an executive order dating back to Lincoln Chafee’s governorship that he argued “makes Rhode Island a sanctuary state for illegals.”

“The values are uncompromising,” Raimondo said at the news conference. “There’s no place for racism. There’s no place for hate. There’s no place to roll back civil rights. And that’s a non-negotiable. So I’m not saying we compromise on that, and I think we need to be very strong about that. There’s no place to hurt working people. When all he talks about is cutting the estate tax and cutting taxes on the very wealthiest – well, who do you think’s going to bear that cost? The average working person in Rhode Island.”

So far, the Raimondo team’s biggest hopes for a Trump administration surround his promise for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, possibly financed through a tax credit for public-private partnerships. The governor noted various ways Rhode Island could use that money, including on airports and train service.

As for Clinton’s loss, Raimondo chalked it up to many Americans’ worries about the future and their economic prospects. “I think, for whatever reason, she wasn’t able to get a message across around what was she going to do. She wasn’t, I guess, convincing to people that she was going to be the president to get them back to work,” Raimondo said.

Noting that some traditionally Democratic communities in Rhode Island such as Johnston went for Trump, Raimondo said her message to those voters is, “I’m listening to you. I hear you. I was actually just in Johnston a week ago, and we have new momentum in this economy.”

Raimondo cited one conversation she had in recent days that gave her new hope for the future.

“I did have one woman say to me she’s going to run for office – she’s just decided,” Raimondo said. “And she said, ‘How do I do it? What should I run for? Town council? School board?’ And I love that, actually – to say, OK, I’ve got to do my part.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram