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Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo vows to "take politics out" of census

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, nominated by President Biden to be commerce secretary, appeared remotely before the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday to talk about what her priorities would be in the job and was asked about how she'd handle some of the controversial issues under her purview. 

Early in the hearing, Raimondo fielded a question about the 2020 Census, which President Trump has tried to use to affect the way congressional seats are divided among states. Raimondo told senators that she would treat the census differently.

Gov. Gina Raimondo and Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee
Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo  David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

"I, like you, believe we need to take the politics out of the census, and we need to rely on the experts," she said. "The experts and statisticians at the Census Bureau are top notch, so I, once confirmed, intend to rely on them. And if they advise that more time is necessary, then I'm going to follow the lead of their expertise."

Mr. Trump tried to exclude undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. from being counted last year, which would likely have affected the apportionment of congressional seats, but the move was met with legal challenges, and, in part because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau missed its year-end deadline to submit the numbers that that would be used to divide the seats. 

Raimondo's confirmation hearing comes as the U.S. struggles to control COVID-19 and amid an economic crisis that has forced millions out of work. While she is focused on American manufacturing and climate change, she said the country must first "immediately address the economic damage" caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

"COVID has touched every community — urban, rural, suburban, tribal — and exacerbated the longstanding inequities facing low income families," she said.  

Raimondo discussed the Commerce Department's role in tackling the economic crisis, reinvesting in American workers, how she would focus on trade policy and manufacturing, as well as how tackling the threat of climate change can be coupled with the creation of good-paying jobs. 

"I believe that climate change is probably the greatest threat we face, and also there's an opportunity to create jobs as we combat climate change," Raimondo said, in response to questioning.   

Raimondo faced the most contentious questioning of the hearing from GOP Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who expressed concern that President Biden would be soft on China and asked her about whether Chinese telecom giant Huawei would remain on the Commerce Department's Entity List — its trade blacklist. Raimondo said she would commit to review the matter and would consult with allies.

He also asked her about the Keystone XL pipeline, for which Mr. Biden revoked the permit, and what she'd say to workers who lost jobs because of the administration's decision to stop the pipeline.

"I would say we're going to get you to work," she replied. "I would say climate change is a threat to all of us, and I will make sure we have jobs for all of us. Good paying jobs, union jobs. And as commerce secretary, I would fight every day."

Throughout her testimony, she committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on efforts to help hospitality and restaurant industries, both hit hard by the coronavirus. She also promised to work on expanding broadband access in rural and tribal areas. 

Raimondo met a largely positive reception from the committee, and at the end, Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican, predicted a speedy confirmation, telling her, "I do not believe you will be serving as governor of the state of Rhode Island for very much longer."

As the governor of Rhode Island, Raimondo has also touted her administration's expansion of clean energy jobs — she oversaw the construction of the country's first offshore wind farm. If confirmed, Raimondo would lead the agency that houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the Commerce Department tasked with monitoring the climate and weather.  

She has been aggressive about addressing the coronavirus pandemic in her state. According to Johns Hopkins data, Rhode Island has conducted the most COVID-19 tests per capita of any state in the country. Raimondo was first elected governor in 2014, at a time when the state had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, exceeding 11%. Before the pandemic, unemployment had fallen to a 30-year low of 3.4%. 

"We did it by investing in our people through workforce training programs, bringing dozens of new businesses to the state, and empowering small business owners," Raimondo's statement said.

Before she was elected governor, Raimondo was also elected to be the state's treasurer in 2010. She is a graduate of Harvard, Yale Law School, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

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