Democrat Gina Raimondo becomes Rhode Island's first female governor

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
Michelle Obama gestures to Democratic candidate for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo at a campaign rally in Providence,October 30, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

PROVIDENCE R.I. (Reuters) - Democrat Gina Raimondo, who gained national attention for overhauling Rhode Island's ailing pension system, won a close race to become the state's first woman governor.

Raimondo, 43, a businesswoman who has been the state’s general treasurer since 2010, won 40 percent of the vote, defeating Allan Fung, 44, the mayor of Cranston, the state's third largest city, who got 37 percent. Moderate party candidate Bob Healey won 22 percent of the vote.

Raimondo will replace Governor Lincoln Chafee, who was elected in 2010 as an independent but became a Democrat last year and chose not to run for a second term. The heavily Democratic state had not elected a Democratic governor since 1992.

Raimondo and Fung had been locked in a neck-and-neck race, battling to win voters with promises to reignite a sputtering economy and bringing in political heavyweights to stump on their behalf.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie visited the state three times for Fung, while Raimondo welcomed first lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. President Barack Obama swung through Providence on Friday, posing for pictures with Raimondo at a local eatery.

Raimondo centered her campaign on rebuilding the middle class and creating jobs in a state that has the third highest unemployment rate in the country.

Fung promised corporate tax cuts to spark growth.

"Rhode Island is ready for a governor who is going to turn this state around," Raimondo told her supporters at a Providence hotel. "It is time to get Rhode Island back to work."

Raimondo's signature accomplishment, overhauling the state's pension system by raising the retirement age and cutting cost-of-living adjustments, earned her both plaudits and criticism, especially with union members.

During a primary race, some unions supported her rivals, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, the grandson of former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.

Seen as weak with women at the outset, Raimondo, a trained lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Yale, softened her image by featuring her family in television ads and taking them to events all over the state.

"I was just speaking on the phone with my 86-year-old mother who lives in Warwick and she said this woman has moxie and the backbone to get it done and I couldn't agree more," Ellen Kasle, a real estate agent in Providence, said after voting.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Providence, R.I.; Susan Cornwell, Amanda Becker and Julia Edwards in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)