Last Sunday, Marie Franco stood at the rear of a Rhode Island state prison building, cradling the portrait of her son Jose, who died needlessly while incarcerated due to contracting COVID-19. As we consider the well-manicured, PR-friendly profile of the subject at hand, keep in mind that Franco’s death was caused by this politician’s decisions, all of which were formulated through a lens that constantly queried “Will this help me get closer to a DC job?”
President Joe Biden selected RI Gov. Gina Raimondo as Commerce Secretary on January 7, 2021 and she was approved by Congress, after some theatrical and positively-demented anti-Chinese red-baiting from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cancun), on March 2. This came after being previously mentioned for several other Cabinet positions in the immediate aftermath of the November election.
Thus closes a certain chapter of my journalism career. I’ve been reporting on Raimondo for several years  now and predicted almost four years ago exactly in a CounterPunch column  her career was far from over.
Despite its reputation as a kind of mutant idiot cousin of Massachusetts, in fact Rhode Island has been a small neoliberal political alcove-cum-policy incubator for decades. Ira Magaziner, the Clinton confidante responsible for the Hillary-Care boondoggle of the early 1990s who later became the Clinton Foundation’s point man for HIV/AIDS, has an estate in the southern part of the state. The late Mark Weiner, a major Democratic fundraiser who cornered the market on presidential campaign merchandise and made a small fortune, lived in East Greenwich. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s VP pick Sen. Tim Kaine was in Newport when he was tapped for the spot on the ticket, perhaps at the posh (and racially-segregated) WASP beach resort Bailey’s that RI Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse belongs to. Last summer, a childhood friend living in the flight path of the state airport texted me and said that a large number of federal aircraft were landing that evening. On the one hand, it might have been troops being called in to potentially curtail the protests in Providence  responding to the George Floyd murder. On the other, it very well could have been the national Democratic sausage-making assembly line headed to the shoreline.
I think the Rhode Island Democratic Party leadership just let out a massive sigh of collective relief. Raimondo was always an interloper.
When she launched her political career by running for State Treasurer in 2010 (with secret dark money flowing from the coffers of Enron alum John Arnold and hedge funder Paul Tudor Jones), her PR campaign was predicated upon being a young, fresh-faced woman with solid experience in the private sector, a neoliberal feminist wunderkind of the Clinton breed that broke with old school Ocean State politics. Unlike machine Democrats, who pay their dues in municipal offices like School Committee or City Council members, she pole-vaulted over the line using a sparkling media image.
She was a Rhodes scholar, a lawyer, a mom, and came out of the venture capitalist sector that had revived the Commonwealth next door with the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle.” What’s more, she was the kind of Italian that didn’t look, sound, and act like she could have been a bumbling goomba extra in a Coppola or Scorsese gangster film, a hallmark of almost every paisan in the Democratic Party! (Full disclosure: My grandfather was an Italian from Long Island, worth noting because most Americans conflate the smallest state with that suburban strait anyways.)
What’s not to love?
Her first major act in office boils down to a combination of late capitalist neoliberal strip-mining of the welfare state combined with shameless old-fashioned political blackmail. The Rhode Island legislature had run the state pension as a bail-out fund for their long-running, infamously corrupt, and utterly inept political schemes that would probably, under normal circumstances, have put a few former Treasurers and Governors (not to mention still-sitting legislators) in the dock for gross financial impropriety. The John and Laura Arnold Foundation (restructured as Arnold Ventures LLC in January 2019) hates public pension funds and conned the voters, in the aftermath of the 2007-09 crash, into believing there was a nationwide, systemic “pension crisis.” Paul Tudor Jones in turn loathes public education and is a big charter school funder. (Raimondo’s husband Andrew Moffit likewise is deeply enmeshed in the charter school project, working for the vile McKinsey & Co, the wretched hive of scum and villainy that blemished the record of Pete Buttigieg during the 2019-20 primary race and where Raimondo worked as a Summer Associate in 1995.)
So Raimondo used a lot of highfalutin mathy-math talk to trick the voters into endorsing her investment of the pension into hedge funds that back charter schools. Now every week public school teachers see a payroll deduction that finances the busting of their own union, a Kafka-level contradiction.
What’s worse, Raimondo’s claim that the investment would follow a dog-leg curve, with losses for the first few years followed by upwards tick and high returns, never happened, resulting in her “reform” being the largest loss of capital in state history! As a result of no uptick, pensioners have spent almost a decade without an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) thanks to a legislative maneuver that barred any future COLAs until the pension reaches a forever-unreachable threshold caused by the advantageous “service fees” imposed on it regularly by the hedge fund managers. This equals dire economic consequences because, since the Rhode Island economy is heavily reliant upon retail and service industries, it reduces crucial levels of demand in the economy that retirees are reliably known for having as a result of their monthly pension checks. In essence, Raimondo has played a major role in keeping the economy depressed for over a decade so to bail out Wall Street. She also did herself one better by investing part of the pension in her own (actually not very) blind trust of assets that was created when she entered Treasury, showing that her instinctive Italian roots still know when and how to take a cut.
Rather ironically, in 2014, third party candidate Robert J. Healey, a longtime Libertarian-inclined local political celebrity, scored 21.4% of the vote as a result of a political campaign including a gubernatorial debate where he expressed the most left-leaning rhetoric in challenging Raimondo over her education privatization agenda!  “I’d really like to know [if] Treasurer Raimondo’s husband, Andy Moffit, is engaged in the business of privatizing public education, and I just wonder what deal was probably talked about or cut with the NEA [National Education Association of Rhode Island] when they supported her position on education in her campaign… She tries to portray him as a schoolteacher, but he is involved in the movement to privatize the public schools… It’s more than pro-charter. He works for a company for the purposes of making money off [public schools],” he said.
Part of the Democratic Party leadership’s annoyance with her stemmed from her being a motivated woman in an old-boys club, composed of the second- and third-generation alpha males that exited the ethnic mob enclaves for the greener pastures of political office after suburbanizing following World War II with the GI Bill.
But part of it was because of how she broke with the old-fashioned corrupt patronage and nepotism networks that define Southern New England’s particularly weird (in a truly Lovecraftian sense) social democracy. Raimondo’s career microcosmically functions as one of the last battles between the old-line New Dealers of the postwar era and the Democratic Leadership Council brand of neoliberals hatched in the rubble of George McGovern’s Quixotic 1972 presidential campaign. This should be of particular note to Washington watchers who will be monitoring the efforts of social democrats like Bernie Sanders and the Squad during the Biden administration.
It has become very apparent that Biden is not behaving the same way Obama did in his first months. Obama was a far more dogmatic neoliberal and utterly cynical, steamrolling everyone by smiling in the camera and saying “This grin will hypnotize you into allowing me to get away with murder, now watch as I bail out Wall Street for eight years and do nothing for Main Street.” It took three years until Occupy when we saw a significant mass-mobilization (leaving aside the blatantly-reactionary Tea Party) reach levels that we saw under Dubya. Biden by contrast knows who butters his bread and is acting accordingly. He is clearly aware that his domestic agenda has to grant some leeway or things could boil over quickly. While still instinctively-conservative, there also much seems to be an inclination towards some style of coalition building within this administration. This could be a point of pressure for both DSA and third party activists if they target people like Raimondo.
From there onwards, Raimondo’s career has been nothing more than opportunism, austerity, privatization, and place-holding. Her quirky public-private partnership economic policy slogan was a perpetuation of “meds and eds,” expanding two nonprofit industries in Providence that subtract significant capital from city tax revenues annually by absorbing high-value properties. This aura of an expanding neoliberal humanitarianism therefore reduces funding for public schools, which in turn is a major engine feeding working class BIPOC students into the abominable school-to-prison pipeline.
She always had her eyes on Washington and treated the Governor’s office as a stepping stone upwards, the working class and poor of Global Southern nationalities be damned because they would never vote for the troglodyte Republicans that steadily converted from neoconservative to outright white nationalist politics simultaneous with her political career. A union official wrongfully predicted for me in early 2017 that her goose was cooked because she has failed to deliver a swinging victory for Clinton in both the primary and general elections.
I never doubted the opposite for a minute.
Her scandals and foibles have been numerous but pale in comparison with the genesis of her career, the pension heist, and the other pillar, seeking to privatize every element of the welfare state that she could. She has worked with Education Commissioners over the past six years to crush the Providence Teachers Union, one of the largest white-collar elements of organized labor in the state, and her recent appointees, groomed by Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, might actually make real headway, thanks in no small part to the disaster capitalism fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, she installed a president at the Community College of Rhode Island, a longtime educational entry point for first generation learners from lower income brackets, seeking to bust the professors union under the phony auspices of “free tuition.” The other two major pubic institutions of higher education, Rhode Island College and University of Rhode Island, have not escaped austerity, being slowly drowned by underfunding.
I can imagine that this appointment means she will position Washington to favor the major interests that funded her career. The hedge fund industry will breathe a sigh of relief. Silicon Valley might see a collaboration between Commerce and Education to further de-professionalize and de-legitimize public school teachers via the Trojan horse of “individualized education” delivered via laptops. Hell, she might be crazy enough to try claiming the federal pension system is in “crisis” after the COVID depression and pester Janet Yellen to put that money into hedge funds as well!
The other hub of labor politics to consider is the carceral state. Despite her pretensions to the contrary, COVID-19 policy towards the incarcerated has been Trumpian. For the past year, the Behind the Walls committee of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a group led by directly-impacted folx, has participated in a “Knock It Off Gina!” campaign as part of the Decarcerate Now coalition seeking implementation of humane policies that would alleviate dangerous circumstances. Here are demands being read outside the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) on January 31:
(Video credit: Steve Ahlquist of UpriseRI)
– Halt arrests and grant personal recognizance so that our loved ones are not being held indefinitely at Intake waiting for court hearings and trials.
– Reduce the prison population to control the spread of disease. Restore lost good time. Expedite parole hearings and release all eligible individuals. Utilize medical parole for all terminally ill, elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. Release all other eligible individuals into community confinement.
– Recognize the entire ACI as a priority community for the COVID-19 vaccination, with an informed consent or opt-out process for the population.
– Provide our loved ones with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (masks, soap, hand sanitizer) as recommended by the CDC.
– Regularly administer universal testing across the population, including asymptomatic people.
– Provide transparency and accountability to incarcerated people’s families. Publicly release a quarantine plan for staff and incarcerated people who test positive, as well as a formal process for family members to report noncompliance. Report daily COVID-19 numbers on the RIDOC website and social media.
– End 23+ hour lockdown. It has proven ineffective as a quarantine measure, especially as incarcerated people continue to report that prisoners testing positive are being housed with those who have tested negative. Safely restore time outside cells, including access to yard time outdoors.
A little over a week after that video was filmed, Jose Franco passed away from COVID-19 while incarcerated at the ACI. Here is his mother Marie speaking last weekend at a memorial service held during the weekly Decarcerate Now rally:
(Video credit: Steve Ahlquist of UpriseRI)
In the immediate aftermath of the Trump election, I attended a meeting where one woman described a rather instructive exchange with her neighbor. Querying about marking the ballot for the Donald, she asked:
“Do you hate gays?”
“Then why vote for him?”
“Because Gina Raimondo took away my COLA!”
If this should be an accurate forecast for the next for the next four years, I recall the words of Introduction to Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Other Poems authored by William Carlos Williams: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”