WASHINGTON – Secretary of Commerce nominee Gina Raimondo addressed several issues integral to the Inland Northwest in her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, including improving broadband access to tribal areas and better managing salmon populations, while pushing forward the Biden administration’s broader agenda to jump-start the struggling economy and tackle climate change.
“In this time of overlapping crises, the Commerce Department must be a partner to businesses and their workers to help them innovate and grow,” Raimondo said in her opening statement to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “We need to recognize that tackling climate change goes hand-in-hand with creating good-paying jobs.”
Raimondo has been the Democratic governor of Rhode Island since 2015 and is the first woman to be governor of the state. She gained national recognition last year for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and her business-friendly policies as governor. If confirmed, she will head an expansive agency with a variety of responsibilities, including technology regulation, fisheries management and conducting the Census.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, among other lawmakers, pressed Raimondo during the hearing on improving broadband access to rural and tribal communities at a time when virtual schooling and health care are imperative due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local tribes, especially those in the Colville and Spokane reservations, have long suffered from poor access to internet and cellphone service. Those problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Raimondo said she would push for the implementation of existing legislation to improve broadband access, like a bill Cantwell co-sponsored that would provide funding and improve coordination among government agencies to boost broadband availability on tribal land.
“Broadband can save lives, and everybody deserves to have it,” Raimondo said.
The Rhode Island governor said she would focus on using the capabilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the jurisdiction of the secretary of commerce, to fight climate change and successfully manage fish stocks vital to fisheries. Raimondo also committed to not censoring scientific information and data coming out of NOAA.
Cantwell went on to ask Raimondo about her stance on environmental issues affecting Washington, such as recovery of salmon populations and protection of their habitat.
“Salmon is particularly important to the Pacific Northwest,” Cantwell said. “Keeping salmon habitat and restoration in a robust state is very critical.”
Raimondo said she would look forward to working with the senator on protecting marine and freshwater habitat if confirmed.
Raimondo also addressed how she would deal with the growing economic threat of China. During the Trump administration, the department of commerce was aggressive with implementing tariffs on Chinese goods and putting some Chinese companies, such as Huawei and ZTE, on export blacklists.
Raimondo did not rule out similar financial punishments on China, saying that the country has used anti-competitive strategies such as selling unreasonably cheap steel and aluminum to hurt American manufacturers, and that the superpower is at fault for atrocious human rights abuses, referencing China’s treatment of the Uighur ethnic group.
“I intend to use all tools available to level the playing field for the American worker,” Raimondo said. “I believe in free trade, but fair trade.”
For the most part, the senators expressed their desire to work with the secretary of commerce nominee in the future, but Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lobbed criticisms on Raimondo for the administration’s climate platform that he sees as job-killing. Raimondo, who led the completion of the first offshore wind project in the United States as governor, maintained that she would protect and create jobs while addressing the threat of climate change.
A former venture capitalist, Raimondo became known for slashing regulations on businesses and cutting taxes during her tenure as governor, and often getting into clashes with major labor unions, all of which could turn off more progressive Democrats. She also has ties with large technology firms, and at one point collaborated closely with Salesforce and its CEO, Marc Benioff, on contact tracing technology while addressing the COVID-19 pandemic during her time as governor.
Still, she is seen as a rising star in the Democratic party who has shown economic acumen by maintaining a good relationship with business leaders and significantly improving the unemployment rate in Rhode Island before the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will meet next for an executive session on Wednesday to consider the nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation. A vote from the committee on Raimondo’s confirmation hasn’t been scheduled.