Politico reported last month that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has become a favorite among Biden aides for negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure deal on Capitol Hill. Senators Susan Collins and Jeanne Shaheen — with whom Raimondo negotiated broadband expansion — praised her as a “hidden player” who “brings a very practical governor’s approach to the issues.” Some within the administration have even floated Raimondo as a successor to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen if the latter resigns after the 2022 midterms.
Make no mistake: this would be a disaster.
Among Biden’s Cabinet members, Raimondo is the most unabashedly pro-corporate. From her disastrous tenure as Governor of Rhode Island to her more recent work doing Big Pharma and Big Telecom’s bidding at the Commerce Department, Raimondo has consistently prioritized the interests of big business and wealthy campaign donors over the public good.
On Broadband, The Commerce Secretary Is Big Telecom’s Ally
Take, for example, the bipartisan infrastructure deal (BID), where Raimondo has barely fought for Biden’s sweeping initial pledges to lower broadband prices and expand coverage. In late-summer negotiations with Collins, the Wall Street Journal reported that Raimondo — acting as Biden’s representative for broadband policy — acceded to Collins’ objections to price caps on plans offered by private broadband providers. Speaking to the Journal, Collins declared victory over the Biden administration, stating that “what it boiled down to was a fundamental difference of opinion of whether or not this industry should be treated as a public utility complete with rate setting and ongoing regulation by the federal government.”
Forgive my bluntness, but Susan Collins is totally disconnected from reality. A public utility is exactly what broadband — which has been dominated by price-gouging corporate monopolies for years — should be treated as! That Raimondo was so willing to throw in the towel on Biden’s bold vision and give a political hack like Collins a key “win” is an alarming sign.
Also troubling are reports that Raimondo “was a key player” in routing much of the bill’s broadband funding towards the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which she has been slow to staff with public interest advocates. The agency is currently led by a Trump holdover, advised by a former Nokia lobbyist, and lacks a Deputy Assistant Secretary altogether. The NTIA’s staffing backlog is also compounding quickly: the agency last month touted the creation of a new Minority Broadband Initiative Office to administer the BID’s billions in broadband grant funding while failing to announce a single staff contact for the office (in the same press release, NTIA also touted its creation of the BID-focused Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth, which has just a single listed staff member who already leads another NTIA office).
For black, brown, and indigenous communities that have long struggled to gain broadband access, Raimondo’s failure to staff up NTIA with public interest advocates quickly will undermine Biden’s promise to close the digital divide.
Meanwhile, $42 billion of the BID’s NTIA-administered broadband funds are slated to be in the form of state-level block grants, a funding model long favored by austerity hawks like Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan for allowing Republican-led states to “flexibly spend” on social welfare programs (read: deny aid to the poor and people of color). In other words, forthcoming broadband block grants overseen by Raimondo’s NTIA could permit Big Telecom-friendly governors to give the grant money to corporate monopolies without robust affordability or service quality assurances.
While the bill’s block grants do require recipients to meet minimum internet speed standards and offer a “low-cost option” to users, fears that Big Telecom will siphon most of the BID’s grant money and fail to deliver equitable, high-quality broadband service are well-founded. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen noted, the final Senate bill omits much of Biden’s language on increasing minimum speed standards, promoting co-op or municipal competitors in state telecom markets, and expanding coverage to underserved areas — the result of a whopping $66 million lobbying push by Big Telecom. Here, Raimondo’s move to centralize broadband policy under her watch takes on an alarming additional layer: telecom monopoly AT&T, which has long participated in “digital redlining” coverage discrimation against low-income areas, has hired one of her top former aides to lobby government officials on the infrastructure bill. With this direct through-line to Raimondo, AT&T could be granted alarming influence over the contracting of NTIA broadband grants once the infrastructure deal is signed into law. The company is already dry-running this strategy in California, where it is aggressively lobbying Governor Gavin Newsom to shovel $7 billion from a state broadband investment project into AT&T’s hands.
Raimondo Continues To Drag Biden To The Right
The infrastructure episode is just the latest example of Raimondo advancing a radical corporatist agenda at odds with both the public and Biden himself.
Back in April, as the Covid-19 delta variant claimed the lives of thousands in India (including my great-uncle), Raimondo refused to support lifting intellectual property restrictions on the global production of Covid-19 vaccines. The Revolving Door Project and 15 other watchdog groups sent the administration a letter on the Commerce Department’s IP powers, but Raimondo never once spoke out in favor of policies like march-in rights, Section 1498 powers, and the World Trade Organization waiver on vaccine-development intellectual property (the “TRIPS waiver”). When the Biden administration belatedly endorsed a version of the TRIPS waiver in May, Raimondo reportedly remained opposed to the policy; she was not included in a White House meeting finalizing the decision. Raimondo’s stance put her at odds with not only progressives, but also with Biden advisors (and noted corporate revolvers) Bruce Reed, Jake Sullivan, and Jeff Zients.
Raimondo leveraging her power to protect Big Pharma’s interests is hardly shocking. During her time as Rhode Island’s Governor, she showered over $1 million in state subsidies on Pharma giant Johnson & Johnson for a Providence-based project that created only 12 new jobs and lasted only 2 years. She also took over $12,000 in campaign donations from the late Jonathan Sackler, a co-owner of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma who was directly involved in causing the opioid crisis.
A Long And Disturbing Record Of Doing Corporate America’s Bidding
Of course, Raimondo’s work for corporate America did not begin at the Commerce Department. And a longer review of her record only shows more disturbing examples of her siding with the C-Suite over average people.
While serving as Rhode Island’s State Treasurer, Raimondo championed a plan for the state’s public pension fund that slashed retirees’ benefits and heavily invested public money in risky Wall Street hedge funds, including one that Raimondo herself co-founded in 2001. Raimondo’s pension plan was enthusiastically cheered on by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which went on to tout Raimondo’s pension reform plan as a model for other states. After being elected Governor, Raimondo launched an aggressive effort to slash and privatize Medicaid against the overwhelming advice of public health advocates and workers. In 2016, she was ensnared in a major scandal after allowing corporate consultancy Deloitte to develop a dysfunctional online portal for state welfare programs that cut off nearly 24,000 Rhode Islanders from their benefits. Despite the scandal leading to several high-profile resignations in her administration, Raimondo agreed not to sue the company and bafflingly renewed the contract two years later.
Nowhere was Raimondo’s disdain for the social safety net more evident than in her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In her final year as Governor, she responded to the state’s catastrophic coronavirus outbreak by approving steep increases to private health insurance premiums, slashing financial aid to poor communities ravaged by the virus, and forcing school re-openings against the advice of teachers’ unions (leading to the Covid-related death of at least one school employee). Raimondo also used the pandemic to issue an executive order shielding hospitals and nursing home companies from liability lawsuits if their residents were injured or died from Covid-19. She issued this immunity provision — virtually identical to one passed by disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — immediately after receiving a letter from the industry’s top lobbyists, despite nearly 75 percent of early-outbreak Covid deaths occurring in nursing homes and warnings that the order would disincentivize care providers from investing in staff and PPE.
The Bottom-Line: Do Not Promote Raimondo
Raimondo’s political career has been a tremendous boon for corporate oligarchs and an unmitigated disaster for the public sector. Her presence in the administration is already a problem, but a promotion to Treasury Secretary would grant her a dangerous amount of power over economic and regulatory policy. That Raimondo or those close to her have the gall to wish-cast yet another unearned promotion is cynical, especially as the pandemic has widened the divide between the haves and have-nots.
Over a decade in public office, Raimondo has made clear which side of the wealth divide she is willing to fight for, and it is completely at odds with President Biden’s election-night promise to “marshal the forces of decency and fairness [to create] an America that’s freer and more just.” From housing to climate, the Yellen-led Treasury Department is already struggling to fulfill this promise.
A Raimondo-led Treasury would break it completely.