The Little State That Could

Straight-shooting Gina Raimondo overhauled Rhode Island's pension system in less than a year. Washington should sit up and take notes

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Christopher Morris for TIME

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Doctorate in hand, she followed the Clinton path to Yale Law School, where she learned that she didn't want to be a lawyer. By then her stack of sterling diplomas had left her with a mountain of student-loan debt. So she went to work as a venture capitalist specializing in health care start-ups and eventually returned to Rhode Island to launch her own firm, Point Judith Capital, and to raise two children with husband Andrew Moffit, a consultant on education reform. So what does all this have to do with public-employee pensions? Let her explain it. "I was reading a story about budget cuts in the Providence Journal," Raimondo recounts. "The story talked about libraries closing and bus service being cut" because of budget gaps widened by pension expenses. "I had an image of a kid like me trying to get into the library and it's closed. The public bus is how I got to school every day. The public library is where I studied. It's where my grandfather taught himself English." You didn't have to have an Oxford degree to see the connection: unless the pension hole was filled, those services and others would face even deeper cuts. That's when Raimondo made up her mind to run for state treasurer in 2010.

Her parents were horrified. "Oh, Gina," moaned her father, "why would you do this?" "It's so dirty," her mother said. "So dirty," echoed her parish priest. Raimondo's reaction must have sounded naive. "I still believe in the power of government to make lives better, and I believe that if someone is willing to take a stand, other people will follow," she says. "Those diplomas on my wall would not be there without the GI Bill that educated my father, without the public library, without the RIPTA bus."

In other words, the progressive case for tackling bankrupt public-sector pensions rests on the idea that government has obligations to the future as well as to the past. That may sound obvious, but it is a theory that crosses a major Democratic fault line. The stewards of past obligations--namely the unions representing public-school teachers and other government employees--have been the backbone and sinew of the party for a generation. The unions are among the biggest donors, and their members pound the pavement at election time. They have no interest in giving up the fruits of their loyalty.

Candidate Raimondo promised to take on the pension mess during her campaign, but she carefully avoided the colorful rhetoric that made Governor Christie a YouTube sensation. On the other hand, she stubbornly guarded her independence from the Democratic leviathans. She refused to fill out the National Education Association's lengthy candidate questionnaire, and when the teachers' union conducted a follow-up interview to weigh a possible endorsement, Raimondo says she declined to toe the party line. Predictably, she didn't receive the endorsement. What she won instead was the widest victory margin of any statewide candidate last year.

Truth or Dare

Even so, no one around the state capitol expected the newbie to deliver on her promises. "This is a state where things are slow to change. We're not known for bold moves," says veteran Rhode Island newsman Jim Taricani. Reformers in Providence come and go--with an emphasis on go--yet when the legislature adjourns each year and the wins and losses are tallied, somehow the status quo has come out on top.

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