Raimondo says she won’t be Biden’s health secretary

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Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Thursday that she has taken herself out of contention to be President-elect Joe Biden’s health secretary.

“I am not going to be President-elect Biden’s nominee for HHS secretary,” she said during a press conference on Thursday, declining to elaborate further. “My focus is right here in Rhode Island, as I have said.”

Her decision threatens to scramble Biden’s plans for assembling a health care team to lead his pandemic response. Just a day earlier, people close to the transition told POLITICO that they viewed Raimondo as a leading contender for Health and Human Services secretary after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham fell out of favor with Biden’s camp.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, also once seen as a top HHS candidate, is already planning to return to the surgeon general role with a broader portfolio that includes serving as a leading voice in the administration’s pandemic response.

Biden had been planning to roll out a slate of senior health care picks as early as Monday that included his choice for HHS secretary — a consequential Cabinet position for an administration that will immediately confront the spiraling coronavirus crisis.

The incoming administration has spent weeks deliberating over the health secretary job, hoping to find a candidate with both the managerial experience to oversee the sprawling department and the trust of a president-elect who has prioritized close relationships in filling a series of high-level jobs across the federal government.

Raimondo, 49, had impressed the Biden team this summer when she was vetted as a potential running mate, two sources close to the transition said. That put her in contention for multiple Cabinet roles, including at HHS and Treasury. She also boasted extensive experience running government bureaucracies, first as Rhode Island’s treasurer and in her current role as governor.

But news of Raimondo’s candidacy on Wednesday prompted immediate fury from progressive groups over her past as a venture capitalist and record in state government. As treasurer, Raimondo in 2011 spearheaded legislation slashing pension benefits, an effort vehemently opposed by unions. More recently, she drew criticism over a decision to grant nursing homes immunity from liability for resident injuries and deaths during the pandemic.

Raimondo is also facing a major resurgence of Covid-19 cases in her state that forced her to institute a two-week "pause" that shut down certain businesses and limited indoor dining.

"The data is very concerning, there’s no other way for me to say it," she said on Thursday. "This wave certainly seems to be much more dangerous than what we experienced in the spring."

Raimondo won widespread praise early in the pandemic for her aggressive moves to ramp up testing and bring the virus under control. But her standing has eroded in some corners over the last few months, after Raimondo pushed to reopen schools ahead of another sharp rise in cases.

Tyler Pager and Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.

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