PROVIDENCE — He’s not much older than Peter Parker, and he’s been known to wear a Spider-Man costume at community events in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
While state Representative David Morales has yet to wear the Spider-Man mask at the State House, the 22-year-old Providence Democrat does regularly don a “Power to the Workers” face mask. And he has emerged as an advocate for the working class since swinging onto the Rhode Island political scene last year and trouncing the incumbent in a primary.
A Democratic Socialist who counts Bernie Sanders, Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm among his heroes, Morales is part of a newly elected group of young, progressive legislators of color who have helped to make this year’s General Assembly the most diverse in state history.
“To me, Peter Parker represents the working class,” Morales said in explaining his choice of the Spider-Man costume. “If you follow the comic, he’s usually poor and struggling. The average person can relate to him, and that’s what makes his story so beautiful.”
So who is the man behind the mask?
The son of Mexican immigrants, Morales was born in 1998 in the rural, working-class, majority-Latino town of Soledad, Calif. – the setting for the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men.”
He said his father struggled with “alcohol issues and an addiction to drugs, notably crack cocaine” and left the family to return to Mexico when Morales was 8. His mother raised him and his sister on her own, he said, working up to three jobs at a time, including running a cash register at a gas station and picking fruits and vegetables in the fields.
“Our goal was always to make our mom proud,” Morales said.
He took college courses while in high school, so he was able to graduate from the University of California-Irvine in two years, with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies. At age 20, he became the youngest graduate in the history of the Brown University public affairs master’s program, he said.
In September’s Democratic primary in House District 7, Morales received 49 percent of the vote, topping six-year incumbent Daniel P. McKiernan, a deputy majority leader, who received 28 percent, and the endorsed Democrat, Angel Subervi, who had 23 percent.
The victory was not without plenty of effort. Morales said he knocked multiple times on every door in the district, which includes Providence’s Mount Pleasant, Valley and Elmhurst neighborhoods. He said he talked about issues such as affordable housing and the quality of public schools, while giving out his phone number and a list of local resources to help people amid the pandemic.
“Most importantly, our grassroots campaign did not just focus on ‘super voters’ who traditionally voted in primaries as we were determined to engage hundreds of new people into the political process who did not always feel like local politics was accessible,” Morales said. “This included working people, poor people, young people, and people of color who ended up voting for the first time this past September and November.”
At 22, Morales is now the youngest legislator in the General Assembly, and he is among the youngest Latino legislators in the country.
(The youngest legislator in Rhode Island history is believed to be former Representative Jeffrey J. Teitz, who was 19 when first elected in 1972, according to State Librarian Megan Hamlin Black, who consulted records dating back to the 1890s. Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy was 21 when he was first elected to the General Assembly in 1988.)
Morales said the election results reflect a growing acceptance for progressive ideas regarding health care, housing, and climate change. And he said the influx of new voices is changing a Rhode Island political landscape long dominated by more conservative or moderate Democrats.
“We are seeing a paradigm shift where you have an opportunity to adapt to these ideas that are considered more progressive or you risk a challenge from the ‘left,’ " Morales said.
In Rhode Island, some politicians hold conservative views but run as Democrats because it boosts their chances of getting elected, he said. “There are not too many other states where you will find a Democrat who is anti-choice or receives contributions from the NRA,” he said. “They are called Republicans in other states.”
Former House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who had an “A” rating from the NRA and who voted against an abortion rights bill, lost November’s election. So one of the first decisions Morales faced was whether to support K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, in his successful bid to become the next House Speaker.
Morales said he abstained from the leadership vote based on conversations with constituents, who noted that House leaders had not outlined the kind of progressive agenda touted by Senate leaders, who called for legalizing marijuana, taxing the rich, and boosting the minimum wage.
But Morales said he has been pleased that House leaders have supported the Act on Climate, which makes greenhouse gas reduction goals mandatory and enforceable, and a bill that prohibits landlords from discriminating against people who receive housing subsidies.
“It shows leadership is listening a lot more than in previous years in terms of what communities want and the needs of working people,” he said.
Morales has introduced 23 bills during his first three months in office, and he said his priorities include legislation to ensure that all children, regardless of immigration status, qualify for health insurance under the state’s “RIte Track” healthcare program program.
“Right now, we have 3,000 children in the state uninsured and the vast majority are low income or undocumented,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know this, but from 1996 to 2008 Rhode Island was one of the few states to provide universal health care to children. But because of the recession, it was slashed from the budget and not restored.”
Restoring the program would cost about $7 million, which he said is relatively small chunk of the state’s $11.7-billion budget.
Morales also has introduced a bill to cap the amount that insured people pay for insulin at $25 per month, and a bill that would provide “hazard pay” to those who provide “essential services” during the pandemic, including workers in supermarkets and restaurants.
House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said he has very different political views than Morales. “Obviously, I disagree with a Democratic Socialist philosophy,” he said.
But Filippi said he and Morales have found common ground on issues such as taxing Morales’ alma mater, Brown University, and he said he enjoys dealing with people, such as Morales, who don’t place every issue on a “linear political spectrum where people can’t unite.”
Although Morales is young, “he seems thoughtful and mature,” Filippi said. “He is clearly intelligent, no doubt about it.”
Morales and other newly elected progressives reflect a Democratic Party that is moving to the left, Filippi said. “It’s clear the Democratic Party is no longer your parents’ Democratic Party, no longer JFK’s Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s a hard-left organization.”
Representative Anastasia P. Williams – a Providence Democrat who took office in 1993, five years before Morales was born – described Morales as a “rising star.”
Although he is young, Morales is respected because he does his homework and asks questions, Williams said. “He is doing the work,” she said. “He speaks from the heart, he’s a well thought-out person. Young or old, honey, he gets it.”
Williams recalled seeing Morales testify at the State House on a $15 minimum wage bill before he ran for office. She said she went up to him afterward and told him he did a great job. “At that point, I knew I would see him again,” she said. “And now here he is.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.