It seems preposterous to argue that an obscure primary in a state with a million people could alter the debate inside the Democratic Party — much less to claim that the race could transform the broader national conversation about how to achieve progressive goals in an aging America. But that’s exactly what’s in store after Tuesday’s election in Rhode Island, when state treasurer Gina Raimondo won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over her union-backed foes.
Raimondo made her name in 2011 when, after taking office, she decided not to punt on the unfunded public pension woes that afflict virtually every state as well as the federal government. Instead, alarmed by the long-term projections, she barnstormed the state with graphs and charts to make a progressive case for reform.
Usually those out to trim future pension costs are cast as evil conservatives bent on decimating a dignified retirement (and sometimes they are). Raimondo reframed the debate from the left. She told Rhode Islanders that if they didn’t come together to tackle these unfunded promises, not only would public employees counting on secure pensions be left high and dry, but before long there also would be no public money available for schools, transportation, job training and other critical investments on which future prosperity depends.
Even when they privately grasp these trade-offs, most elected Democrats view the idea of a progressive case for pension trims as not just a paradox, but also a career-ender. The future doesn’t have a vote, after all, while the public unions that defend today’s unsustainable arrangements wield fearsome clout. It’s far safer, most Democrats reckon, to pretend that higher taxes on the rich can fix everything, even if the numbers don’t add up.
Raimondo has been that rare public servant who wants to use her office to actually solve major public problems — as opposed to just pretending to solve them, which is, sad to say, what most of American politics amounts to nowadays. She invested tremendous energy in changing public opinion by educating Rhode Islanders on the cost of doing nothing.
It’s hard to overstate how radical an agenda of real persuasion is in politics. Most elected officials see public opinion as setting boundaries on their range of action. They tend to view big changes in public opinion as exogenous developments to be seized opportunistically — witness the way the awful beheadings of U.S. journalists by the Islamic State has made bolder airstrikes popular (and feasible) overnight. But few politicians choose to devote their tenure, as Raimondo did, to improving the quality of public opinion — and therefore to raising the quality of collective decision-making that results.
I asked Raimondo a few years ago how she went about it. She said she went to all the interest groups and beneficiaries of public funding — think hospitals and colleges, for example — and showed them what their funding streams would look like five and 10 years down the road if runaway pensions proceeded on their current course. She did the same with the broader public on things such as bus service and tuition. It hardly seems like rocket science. But when enough leaders and everyday citizens internalized this picture, Raimondo was able to forge a consensus that the status quo wasn’t an option.
She built a coalition that tweaked benefits not only for future retirees, but for current workers and retirees as well. The retirement age has been lifted from 62 to 67. Cost-of-living adjustments for current pension recipients have been put on hold until the pension funds are judged 80 percent solvent. In the end, these measures passed with overwhelming support. Hundreds of millions of dollars are already being freed up for other public purposes. Polls on the eve of the election showed that, despite union court challenges, Raimondo’s fix retains broad support.
Of course, support in polls is no guarantee of victory at the ballot box. Tuesday’s primary became a test of whether a Democrat who challenged party orthodoxy could survive a well-funded union backlash. That Raimondo won — and will now almost certainly defeat her Republican opponent in November — marks a potentially transformative moment for progressive thinking.
Soft-spoken, whip smart and humble, the 43-year-old Raimondo — a Harvard, Yale and Oxford-educated former venture capitalist — offers a new model of problem-solving politics with national appeal. For her next act, once she takes the statehouse, here’s hoping Raimondo turns her sights on the medical-industrial complex, which is ripping off the country to the tune of $1 trillion a year and draining away funds desperately needed for other public and private-sector purposes. The typical Democratic response to such larceny is to cry, “don’t touch Medicare!” even when the program is paying double per senior what other countries spend, with worse results. If Raimondo can lead a small state to rethink liberal reflexes on pensions in order to sustain progressive goals, there’s no telling what she might yet do for the nation.
Matt Miller is host of the public radio week-in-review program “Left, Right & Center.”