Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Commerce, began her confirmation hearings before a Senate committee Tuesday. In them, she laid out her priorities for the role, including addressing inequality, investing in manufacturing and tackling climate change.
Commerce is a wide-ranging position. Its key focus is business development and economic growth, but it also oversees trade, technology, the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Weather Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Raimondo, a moderate Democrat who became Rhode Island’s first woman governor in 2015, has outlined an approach to the role that would leverage her background in venture capital to help create jobs, while marrying that with policies that may help address inequality, like raising the minimum wage.
She comes from a working-class background — her father worked in jewelry manufacturing in Rhode Island — something she said has informed her view on a made-in-America approach to economic growth. It’s in line with Biden’s proposed “Buy America” manufacturing plan to purchase more U.S.-made goods.
“My dad always used to say there was something special about a job in manufacturing — the dignity of a job when you spend your day making things,” Raimondo said in her opening statement. Her father lost his position in the 1980s when factory jobs were shipped overseas. “I know the pain that losing a job can cause a family. And as governor, I’ve seen that pain in communities all across Rhode Island, where people have lost their jobs to offshoring or outsourcing, and more recently in the pandemic.”
Raimondo, 49, said she views the Commerce Department as a vehicle for opportunity — for workers, and for businesses.
She started her career as senior vice president at venture capital firm Village Ventures before co-founding Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm, Point Judith Capital, in 2000. She later served as treasurer of Rhode Island before becoming governor.
Her work reforming the state’s pension program was one of the landmarks of her career, ultimately earning her the support of labor unions that initially opposed her plan. In her remarks Tuesday, she highlighted her support of a federal minimum wage increase, a movement that has been led by labor unions and that would help the women who hold nearly two-thirds of the country’s 40 lowest-paying jobs.
In terms of business regulation and trade, Raimondo said she also favors reviewing the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, as well as combatting “unfair trade practices from China and other nations that undercut American manufacturing.” Several senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee questioned her outlook on specifically blocking Chinese telecommunication companies like Huawei and ZTE, which have been deemed national security threats by the Federal Communications Commission.
Raimondo did not directly commit to pursuing further action with Huawei and ZTE, saying instead that she will “use the full toolkit at my disposal, to the fullest extent possible, to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of backdoor influence into our network. And that’s Huawei, ZTE, or any other company.”
Closer to home, Raimondo hopes to tap into her experience leading Rhode Island to assist businesses run by minorities. As governor, she launched a small-business loan program that largely benefited women and people of color. As commerce secretary, Raimondo said, she would hope to expand on that work, noting Tuesday her commitment to involving the Minority Business Development Agency, which Commerce oversees, in addressing the disparities highlighted by the pandemic for minority-owned businesses. Women and people of color were shut out of much of the aid to businesses provided through the CARES Act because they lacked commercial banking relationships.
With broad oversight into technology, as well, Raimondo said she also supports expanding broadband access to hard-hit communities, particularly children trying to keep track of virtual school and people trying to access telehealth or sign up for a vaccine appointment.
Several senators challenged Raimondo on her approach to the Census, which has been mired in controversy. The pandemic made accurate data reporting more difficult, and a push from the Trump administration to include a citizenship question in the Census that could have discouraged some immigrants from participating was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court. The fall-out led to the resignation of the bureau’s director last week.
“We first have to take the politics out [of the Census],” Raimondo said. “And secondly, we have to listen to the experts. So I look forward to being confirmed and getting in the seat and really rolling up my sleeves and listening to the experts and relying … on their assessment and evaluation as to how accurate the data is. And if they need more time, then certainly open to that.”
Similarly, Raimondo said she will be relying heavily on the experts at NOAA to help carve a sustainable path for using ocean resources, known as the blue economy.
The department’s involvement in climate issues will require Raimondo to walk a careful line with business development.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, pressed Raimondo on that point, asking her what she would say to the construction workers involved in the Keystone Pipeline XL project “whose jobs have been destroyed by the stroke of a pen.” Biden signed an executive order last week that blocked the completion of the controversial pipeline, which climate activists have opposed for its potential for harmful leaks and expansion of the use of fossil fuels.
“I would say, ‘We’re gonna get you to work.’ I would say that, ‘Climate change is a threat to all of us. And that we will make sure that you have jobs, that you have the skills you need to have a job,’” Raimondo said. “And by the way, as we meet the needs of climate change — there will be many more jobs created, good paying jobs, union jobs, and should I be the Commerce secretary, I will fight every single day for every American to have a decent paying job and a chance to compete.”
Senators will vote in the committee as to whether they recommend Raimondo’s nomination to the position before the full Senate votes on her confirmation.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of the committee, told Raimondo that he does not believe she “will be serving as governor of the state of Rhode Island for very much longer.”