On the day she was first sworn into office in 2015, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order declaring “the citizens of Rhode Island deserve a government which maintains the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct” and pledged her administration to deliver just that.
Today, Gov. Raimondo is embroiled in controversy over a secret, no-bid, billion-dollar gaming contract; the Rhode Island GOP has filed a formal complaint against her with the state’s Ethics Commission; and polls show she has the highest disapproval rating of any Democratic governor in America.
Raimondo’s first term as governor was dogged by questions over a lack of transparency regarding questionable fundraising and allegations of “pay-to-play” scandals, but she rode the 2018 anti-Trump “blue wave” to re-election. That’s not necessarily a surprise to people familiar with Rhode Island’s tradition of embracing ethically-elastic politicians.
What is surprising is the decision of her fellow state executives to make Raimondo chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) and, as a result, bring her controversies from Rhode Island to Washington.
Raimondo took over the top spot at the DGA last December after serving as vice-chair under Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. According to their website, the DGA “is dedicated to electing Democratic governors and candidates [and] participates at all levels of campaigns, from providing resources to fund operations to helping articulate and deliver their messages.”
However, Raimondo acknowledged what the organization is really about when she took over the reins: campaign cash.
“It’s primarily fundraising,” Raimondo said in an interview last December. “A lot of phone calls. It is not glamorous, but it is necessary.”
Her first act as DGA chair was to name local political ally Donald Sweitzer her treasurer and top fundraiser at the organization.
Sweitzer is no stranger to either national Democratic politics or fundraising. Early in his career, he was a partner at the firm of notorious DC lobbyist Paul Manafort, who is currently serving more than seven years in federal prison on illegal lobbying charges. Sweitzer was also political director for the Democratic National Committee during Bill Clinton’s first term, when what came to be known as the Clinton fundraising scandal first began to flower.
For example, the DNC was eventually forced to return more than $140,000 in illegal donations from Buddhist monks at the Hsi Lai Temple in California, a relationship that began during Sweitzer’s tenure in 1993. “In that year,” the Washington Post reports, “$50,000 was laundered to the DNC from the Hsi Lai Temple… in connection with a meeting between Vice President Gore’s chief of staff and the chairman of China Resources, a company linked in press reports to Chinese intelligence.”
In the world of politics, that’s ancient history. More relevant for the DGA and Democrats counting on its support in 2020 are the 20 years Sweitzer spent lobbying for–and eventually serving as chairman of– the gaming company IGT (formerly GTech). That’s the same gaming company Raimondo secretly negotiated her no-big contract with to run electronic gaming for the state of Rhode Island.
On the one hand, the fundraising aspect is working. The DGA just set a six-month fundraising record, fueled in part by a $150,000 donation from IGT and another $100,000 from the gaming company’s competitors at Twin River Worldwide Holdings. The DGA’s fundraising success reflects a broader surge in donations to Democrats in the Donald Trump era. Still, good news for Democrats, right?
“It’s great, until GOP oppo researchers in Kentucky and Louisiana start putting together DGA donations to Democrats in those states and the ethics scrap back in Rhode Island,” one national Democratic strategist told InsideSources. The strategist requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Democratic campaigns.
The strategist noted that IGT has contracts in many states, not just Rhode Island, including swing states like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin, which brings the ethics issue closer to home. “Will the DGA be handing out money to Democratic candidates in these states because they’re the best candidates for the party? Or based on their support for local IGT contracts?”
Veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley doesn’t agree that it’s a problem. “Sure, the GOP will try to make an issue out of it, but in the grand scheme of things, the 2020 election is going to come down to Donald Trump,” he told InsideSources.
And having one of the nation’s most unpopular governors as the public face of the DGA?
“Now that’s a good question,” Manley concedes.
Raimondo continues to insist that, despite appearances, there are no ethical issues raised by her secretly negotiating a 20-year contract with a company that was until recently led by her top fundraiser, and she’s pushing the Democratic-controlled legislature to approve the no-bid deal — as is — this fall.
She has also hinted at an interest in national politics after the 2020 cycle, a common trait among those who chair the DGA.
For an ambitious politician with minimal support at home, a national platform like the DGA is a benefit. But are Raimondo and her problematic record good for Democrats and the DGA?
Time will tell.