PROVIDENCE — Tuesday’s elections could produce the most diverse General Assembly in Rhode Island history.
When he began tracking the number of elected leaders of color in Rhode Island 25 years ago, Latino activist Tomás Ávila counted just one Latina state legislator and a dozen Black legislators, accounting for 9 percent of the General Assembly, which then had 150 seats.
On Tuesday, the number of legislators of color could jump from 15 to 20, which would represent 18 percent of a General Assembly that now has 113 seats.
Ávila said that would give Black and Latino lawmakers more political power than they’ve ever had in Rhode Island.
“What we will see next week is what I consider the future of Rhode Island politics – a future that is more diverse,” he said. “What we are witnessing is the mainstreaming of Black and brown communities across this country.”
Though it would be a significant step forward, a General Assembly with 18 percent people of color still does not completely reflect the diversity of the state, where 29 percent of residents are people of color. According to U.S. census Bureau figures, 16.3 percent of Rhode Island residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, 8.5 percent as Black or African-American, 3.7 percent as Asian, and 1.1 percent as American Indian.
“We have made a lot of progress in electing officials,” Ávila said. “But we still haven’t reached parity in the demographic groups.”
As president of the Milenio Latino Institute, a nonprofit research organization, Ávila has written two books documenting the rise of Latino political power in Rhode Island. He said he is looking forward to Election Day, when the number of state senators of color could increase from three to five, and the number of state representatives of color could jump from 12 to 15.
Ávila said the change reflects the renewed national focus on racial equity.
“It’s part of an awakening,” he said. “It’s an awakening to the reality that the only way a lot of the systemic racism is going to be changed is through running for office, getting elected, and becoming part of the decision making and law making of the country.”
Increasing the number of legislators of color in the Rhode Island House and Senate will “actually have true influence in the legislature,” Ávila said – power that will give them the ability to shape key policy areas such as policing, poverty, and economic development, he said.
Ávila said Tuesday’s victors are likely to include young candidates of color who are emphasizing a “general agenda” – as opposed to issues identified with a particular racial or ethnic group – reflecting the mainstreaming of Black and Latino elected officials.
When Ávila first started keeping track 25 years ago, he said the only Latina legislator was Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat born in Panama who identifies as both Latina and Black.
“It was very lonely,” Williams said Thursday, recalling the early days of her 28-year career. She said she is glad to see “fresh eyes and fresh minds” joining her on Smith Hill.
“It’s their time,” Williams said. “One statement you hear is ‘This will be their future.’ No, honey, this is their present – right now. They are saying they are not being heard, so now they are here, and they are claiming it.”
With greater numbers, legislators of color will be able to do more than raise questions – they will be able to get results, Williams said.
She noted the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, focused national attention on police brutality and criminal justice.
Since then, Williams has called for overhauling the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to increase accountability for police misconduct. “While justice is blind, that scale has been tipped on their side for far too long,” she said.
She has called for greater diversity among state judges, pressing Governor Gina M. Raimondo to appoint the first person of color to the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the first Latina judge to the Family Court.
And Williams has sponsored the legislation that sets up Tuesday’s referendum on changing the state’s official name from The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to simply “The State of Rhode Island.”
In 2010, voters resoundingly rejected a ballot question to change the state name, with 78 percent voting against the idea and only 22 percent in favor. Historians say that in the 17th century, “plantations” referred to colonies or settlements with agricultural economies, not slavery.
But Williams said many more people now recognize that Rhode Island played a big role in the slave trade and that the word “plantations” is inexorably linked to the enslavement of Black people. She thinks the name change stands a “very good chance” of passing this time around.
While she applauds the increasing number of candidates of color, there is still room for more diversity in the General Assembly, Williams said, adding that she knows of no Asian, Southeast Asian, or Native American legislators. “Rhode Island is a melting pot overflowing with many different cultures,” she said.
When Williams was first elected, David Morales had not yet been born. But Morales, a 22-year-old Providence Democrat, will soon join her in the House.
After knocking off Deputy Majority Leader Daniel McKiernan in a three-way primary, Morales has no opponent in Tuesday’s general election, and he said he will become the youngest Latino legislator in any state legislature in the country.
“The importance of having a diverse government body in the legislature is our lived experience,” Morales said. “A lot of us from communities of color grew up in low- and medium-income households.”
So he and others are focusing on issues such as income inequality, housing, and public education. He has called for Rhode Island to invest in affordable housing on an annual basis, rather than with occasional bond items, and for changing the state education formula to better serve English language learners.
Morales said he expects the legislature to grow more diverse in the years ahead.
"I think 2022 is going to be a year where a lot of young, diverse candidates might feel inspired by the 2020 election and will step up to challenge incumbents that are not supporting policies that help improve the quality of life for our communities,” he said.
The progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative formed last year, and one of the group’s goals was to increase the diversity of the General Assembly, said co-founder Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who will return to the Senate this year after winning a primary and facing no general election opponent.
“It’s good for the people of Rhode Island to see people who look like them in these legislative positions,” Calkin said. “Going forward into 2022, we are going to be looking for more people of color, more women of color, to run for office.”
This year, for example, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative supported three candidates of color who are on track to join the Senate: Jonathon Acosta, of Central Falls; Cynthia Mendes, of East Providence, and Tiara Mack, of Providence.
Mack defeated Senate president pro tempore Harold M. Metts, the only Black senator, in a Democratic primary. At age 72, Metts has served in the Senate for 15 years and in the House for 13 years, emerging as a leading opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. At age 26, Mack is a self-described Black, queer woman and Planned Parenthood youth organizer who has fought for abortion rights.
The Rhode Island Political Cooperative also backed House candidate Brianna E. Henries, who is of Native American, African-American, and Cape Verdean descent. She faces no general election opponent.
As young candidates of color step forward, they will be following the path first blazed by the Rev. Mahlon Van Horne, who was elected in 1885 as the first Black member of the General Assembly.
Keith Stokes – the vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group of Newport, who speaks around the country on early African heritage and history – said Van Horne, who is one of his ancestors, led passage of the state’s first civil rights legislation.
Stokes noted that in the late 1880s and early 1900s Black people accounted for the majority of non-white Rhode Islanders. These days, the state’s population – and the country’s – includes a growing number of Latinos and members of other ethnic groups.
The racial and ethnic categories of the US census often fail to capture the complexity of this increasingly diverse population, he said. But many different groups share “African heritage” – a broader category that includes multi-racial families, people from the West Indies and Cape Verde, those who just arrived from African nations and eighth-generation Rhode Island families such as his own, he said.
In the General Assembly and elsewhere, political power is all about numbers, Stokes said. “And if we can unify the people of color with African heritage in this state, that’s a pretty powerful political force,” he said. “Now, our voices can be heard.”