Chicago Tribune meets ‘rock star’ Raimondo, praises EngageRI

Treasurer Raimondo met with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board recently, and it seems they came away impressed – so much so they want President Obama’s former chief of staff to create an “Engage Illinois” group modeled on Engage Rhode Island.

“Governor Quinn, Mayor Emanuel: Engage Illinois,” the Trib wrote in an editorial Friday. (That would be recently elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s right-hand man.) “For our part, we will keep trying to help.”

Illinois’ pension system is the worst-funded in the country and a big source of angst in the Land of Lincoln. At a Tribune forum on Wednesday, “Emanuel raised, and Quinn discussed, the best idea of the night: that Illinois consider pension changes that the similarly Democratic state of Rhode Island adopted in November,” the editorialists said.

Here’s the lesson the Trib took from Raimondo’s work last year:

To achieve anything, they will have to be crusaders as forthright and resolute as Rhode Island’s Democratic treasurer, Gina Raimondo. Sit down with her — we had the opportunity a few weeks back — and she’ll soon offer the no-blame, no-histrionics mantra she voiced in hundreds of often hostile public meetings across her state: “This is about math, not politics.” She based her campaign, “Engage Rhode Island,” on educating citizens, and only then negotiating a legislative fix. Her foundational document, “Truth in Numbers,” runs a mere 16 pages, unemotionally laying out the disaster facing retirees and taxpayers.

Raimondo’s success makes her a rock star in, of all things, public finance. Her dictum is that no political deal is possible unless government leaders first explain the crisis in terms taxpayers can understand. …

Eventually, though, the massive effort to educate all citizens — union workers included — gave Rhode Island public employees the sense of security that, for many Illinois public employees, risks being mere fiction.

The Tribune’s editors seem to have mistaken Raimondo’s “Secure Path RI” campaign for Engage Rhode Island, the deep-pocketed 501(c)4 nonprofit whose anonymous donors spent more than $600,000 pushing the pension bill last fall. Leaving the real EngageRI out of the Rhode Island story is a big oversight.

Newspaper editorialists and activists in Illinois, California and other states are all citing Raimondo as the example they want their leaders to follow in scaling back pension benefits. Those exhortations will probably grow after the State Legislative Leaders Foundation brings lawmakers from across the country to Brown University for a conference next month where Rhode Island’s pension story will be discussed at length.

The question is, will another state implement a pension overhaul and call Rhode Island the inspiration?

• Related: Raimondomania spreads to Europe: FT calls her ‘extraordinary’ (April 4)

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