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Rhode Island could finally send a woman of color to Congress


Rhode Island could finally send a woman of color to Congress

Mar 21, 2023 | 2:06 am ET
By Nancy Lavin
Rhode Island could finally send a woman of color to Congress
Left to right: Sen. Sandra Cano of Pawtucket, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos pose for a group photo at Rivera's birthday event earlier this month. (Contributed photo)

During her first run for elected office in 2006, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos was painfully self-conscious.

A Dominican immigrant who spoke no English when she moved to the United States as a young adult, Matos worried her accent would make it hard for Providence voters to understand her.

“Even just door-knocking, I was terrified,” she said.

Now, Matos embraces her Afro-Latina roots, her accent and her experiences as an immigrant and single mother, placing herself in the spotlight as the first candidate to officially enter the race for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District.

And Matos isn’t the only Latina vying for U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s soon-to-be open seat. Rhode Island Sen. Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat originally from Colombia, declared her candidacy on Monday.

Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, a Puerto Rican native, has also hinted at a run. Rivera was not available for additional comment.

Growing Latino base in CD1

“You see in the district that there is an appetite among a lot of different voting groups to have a person of color, or a woman, in Congress,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “Just the fact that we still have two House seats really makes the argument that the time has come.”

Rhode Island’s congressional delegation has been dominated by white men; former U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider, who served from 1981 to 1991, remains the only woman elected to Congress from Rhode Island. But the tide is turning. 

Rhode Island’s Latino population grew by 40% from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of estimates in 2022, 17.1% of state residents identified as Hispanic or Latino. In the 1st Congressional District, it was one in five.

Rhode Island could finally send a woman of color to Congress
Just over 17% of Rhode Island residents identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In the 1st Congressional District, it was over 20%. /COURTESY U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

The State House, too, has become more diverse, with 21 lawmakers of color (out of 113) elected in 2022.

At the federal level, 133 lawmakers (28%) identify as people of color, making it the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in History, according to Pew Research Center. The number of women in Congress is also at an all-time high, with 153 including non-voting members of the House representing DC and U.S. territories, according to Pew.

Sending a woman of color to the House could give Rhode Island significantly more influence in the Democratic Party as it looks to gain support through women voters and people of color, according to Schiller.

“Someone like Sabina fits that leadership model really well, so I believe leadership would be very inclined to support her, to bolster her and give Rhode Island more benefits in ways they might not do for a white man,” Schiller said.

Rhode Island could finally send a woman of color to Congress

Not that there won’t also be white people and men competing for the seat. Especially because the timing of the fall election allows elected officials to run without giving up their current positions, Schiller said.

Crowded Democratic primary anticipated

Only Matos, Cano and former Republican Allen Waters, who is Black, have officially declared as of Monday, but all signs point to a crowded Democratic primary in which a winner emerges with a small percent of the vote. 

Crowded primaries may put pressure on candidates of the same gender or race to drop out and endorse a competitor to avoid vote splitting. But Schiller didn’t think having three – or more – Latinas running in the congressional election would do so in this race.

“It’s not clear to me that women or people of color vote monolithically,” she said. “Latinx voters might want to see a Latinx person win this primary, but that doesn’t mean white voters won’t want to see a Latinx candidate, either.”

And even among Latinx voters, politics differ, said Rep. Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat and co-chair of the Rhode Island Black, Latina, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus. Felix, for example, grew up in the Dominican Republic, a traditionally religious and conservative country. But her politics and values are far more liberal, reflecting her age and upbringing in Pawtucket.

The caucus this year decided to stop endorsing candidates for this reason.

“We don’t want to alienate anyone or make them feel like they can’t run,” she said.

Still, Felix acknowledged that vote-splitting among candidates of similar backgrounds was a reality. At some point, similar candidates might have to decide among themselves who has the best chance of winning, and coalesce around that person.

For now, it’s too early to tell. Cano, who recently celebrated Rivera’s birthday at an event with Matos, said she welcomed as many women and people of color in the race as possible.

“That shows progress in our community,” Cano said. “It’s important for us to reflect the diversity of our constituency. I think the excitement is there and the time is now.”

Matos also welcomed diversity in the race as a way to increase the likelihood that a woman or person of color wins the seat.

“We get more diverse candidates elected when more diverse candidates run for office,” she said.