President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington on Jan. 8.

President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington on Jan. 8. Susan Walsh/AP

Biden Taps Women to Serve as Commerce Secretary and Lead the Small Business Administration

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has been nominated to be commerce secretary, while Isabel Guzman will lead the Small Business Administration.

President-elect Joe Biden announced his picks for some of the remaining economic positions in his administration Thursday evening, selecting women for two of the top spots. 

Biden nominated Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo as Commerce secretary and Isabel Guzman, the director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate, to head the Small Business Administration. 

With the new nominations, Biden has now chosen women to lead two of the three most influential, secretary-level economic cabinet positions. Janet Yellen is expected to make history as the nation’s first female Treasury secretary, and Raimondo will take the Commerce seat.

For the third spot, Labor, Biden has nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Don Graves, a longtime Biden adviser who held several economic roles during the Obama administration, including executive director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, was nominated to serve as deputy secretary of Commerce.

All four positions — Commerce secretary, deputy Commerce secretary, Labor secretary and SBA administrator — need to be confirmed by the Senate, which just this week passed into Democratic control with the projected victories of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Georgia run-off race. 

“This team will help us emerge from the most inequitable economic and jobs crisis in modern history by building an economy where every American is in on the deal,” Biden said in a statement. “They share my belief that the middle class built this country and that unions built the middle class.”

The Commerce role is a consequential one for the future of the business community, especially in a pandemic recession. It will be tasked with overseeing Biden’s domestic manufacturing plan, “Buy America,” and with navigating the ongoing trade disputes escalated during the Trump administration. 

Raimondo, who has served as governor of Rhode Island since 2015, will bring a background in finance to the role. The moderate Democrat has an economics degree from Harvard and first worked in venture capital. She was senior vice president at venture capital firm Village Ventures in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before co-founding Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm, Point Judith Capital, in 2000. 

Raimondo, 49, later served as general treasurer of Rhode Island before becoming the state’s first woman governor. 

In her time as treasurer, Raimondo’s landmark work was overhauling the state’s pension program to rein in what had become a system that was increasingly costly for the state without a robust funding mechanism to match it. Her pension reform program, one of the most ambitious in the nation, was finalized after she became governor, and survived a series of lawsuits from government unions. The state and the unions ultimately reached an agreement to preserve much of the original program, which created a hybrid plan with contributions from the state and employees, suspended cost-of-living adjustments and raised the retirement age. 

This year, Raimondo was praised for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic through the summer, using advanced contact tracing and robust testing to earn the state a “low” COVID risk-level assessment. That situation has since changed: In December, Rhode Island was one of the states with the highest number of cases per capita. Raimondo’s name had also been circulated for secretary of Health and Human Services, which ultimately went to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. 

“Governor Raimondo has done well in addressing the coronavirus through testing and she also leads a state with a paid family and medical leave program — an early adopter,” said Heidi Hartmann, the founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Her background in economics and finance and her advanced degrees make her an excellent choice for Commerce, which has several agencies where science is very important and whose needs are often overlooked when appointing a leader.” 

Raimondo will inherit the fallout of Trump’s increased steel and aluminium tariffs, which Biden has vowed to review, as well as the incoming president’s desire to move more aggressively to combat climate change — the Commerce Department, apart from overseeing labor and trade, also oversees the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Raimondo, a centrist Democrat with ties to Wall Street, is a foil to Biden’s more progressive choice to lead the Labor Department, Walsh. He served as president of the Laborers Local 223 union before becoming mayor of Boston and he has a good relationship with the president-elect, who presided over Walsh’s mayoral inauguration in 2018. 

The Labor position will be an important one in the coming economic recovery, particularly as it relates to implementing workplace safety standards in the wake of COVID-19. 

“As Boston mayor, Marty Walsh supported job creation, expanded healthcare and justice for communities of color,” tweeted Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union. “He brings a pro-worker vision for a stronger America to the Department of Labor when it is badly needed.” 

The choice of Walsh, which has the support of the nation’s largest federation of unions, the AFL-CIO, eliminates a path for an all-woman sweep of the top economic cabinet spots. California Labor Secretary Julie Su was thought to be a frontrunner for the position. Currently no Asian Americans nominated for secretary-level positions in the Biden administration, which hasn’t happened in more than two decades. 

Still, Walsh will be in a position to bolster labor, wage and workplace protections for women workers, particularly minimum-wage workers, who were hardest hit by job loss in 2020. In Boston, Walsh has led an equal-pay-for-women program that included implementing free salary negotiation training for working women, which Hartmann said he may be able to scale nationally. 

“His labor background should alert him to the huge needs for stronger enforcement after four years of attacks on workers’ rights,” Hartmann said. 

On the small business side, Isabel Guzman, who was the former deputy chief of staff at the SBA during the Obama administration, would return to the SBA after a stint at California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate. There, she focused on implementing grant programs last year for businesses hit by the pandemic.  

In her role as SBA administrator, Guzman’s focus will likely be the implementation of a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans at the start of this year. The Latina would replace Jovita Carranza, another Latina, currently in the role. 

The Biden administration has also not yet nominated any Latinas to secretary-level positions. 

Rhett Buttle, a senior adviser to Small Business for America’s Future and a former national business adviser for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that he “can’t speak highly enough” of Guzman’s work ethnic and commitment to entrepreneurs. 

“After four years of an administration that put the needs of big business first, we are encouraged to see President-elect Biden give small businesses the leadership and help they deserve,” Buttle said. “We welcome an opportunity to discuss small business priorities with the new SBA administrator and commerce secretary.”

Originally published by The 19th