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R.I. Latino candidates could win top posts, but represent a variety of political camps

“A lot of people think just because we are all Latinos, we are going to support each other this year,” Representative Karen Alzate said. “That is not necessarily the case. It is about policy and being able to work together.”

State Representative Karen Alzate, at the State House in April 2021, is the chairwoman of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus.Gretchen Ertl/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Latino candidates could win the races for Rhode Island governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and mayor of Providence this year.

So when Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza endorsed Gonzalo Cuervo in the mayoral race to replace him this week, it provided another data point for those who might assume Rhode Island’s Latino politicians are unified in this year’s election cycle.

But a closer look finds that some Latino leaders are backing the opponents of Latino candidates, that some races contain more than one Latino candidate, and that Rhode Island’s Latino electorate is far from monolithic.

Take Elorza, for example. He appeared at a July 28 news conference to endorse former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes in the Democratic gubernatorial primary that includes Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, who would be New England’s first Latina governor and the first Puerto Rican-born governor on the mainland.

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Elorza, who is of Guatemalan descent, explained his decision, saying, “What’s best for the state is really what I’m looking for. I also take into account who would be best for the city and who would be best for the Latino community.”

Democratic state treasurer candidate James A. Diossa, whose parents came from Colombia and who was the first Latino mayor of Central Falls, isn’t backing Gorbea, either.

While describing Gorbea as a friend who is “extremely qualified,” Diossa is supporting Governor Daniel J. McKee, who voted to endorse him in the treasurer’s race and who worked with him in the Blackstone Valley when McKee was Cumberland’s mayor.

Diossa’s successor as Central Falls mayor, Maria Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and Elorza’s predecessor as Providence mayor, Angel Taveras, who is of Dominican descent, are both backing Gorbea. And Gorbea has the support of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, the Latino Victory Fund, and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a longtime Latino community leader of Puerto Rican descent.

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But Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos — who was born in the Dominican Republic and became the state’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor last year when McKee chose her — is now running as an ally of McKee.

State Senator Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat who is of Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean descent, is also running for lieutenant governor, and she is teaming up with gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown as part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative slate.

Plus, the governor’s race includes Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, who grew up in Central Falls, the son of Puerto Rican parents.

So in 2022, the ballot includes a variety of Latino candidates, and Latino leaders are aligning in a variety of political camps.

The complexity of the Latino electoral landscape is seen in the decisions made by Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat of Colombian descent who chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus.

In September 2021, Alzate stood with treasurer Seth Magaziner as he announced he was running for governor at a time when it looked like he might face three Latino candidates — Gorbea, Elorza, and Muñoz.

At the time, she told the Globe, “Just because they are Latinos doesn’t necessarily mean we automatically support them. That is something we hear often. I genuinely believe in Seth. Latinos need someone who is going to make those hard decisions, and he will be able to bring us into a new generation of politics.”

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But since then, Magaziner has jumped into the race for the 2nd Congressional District seat that US Representative James R. Langevin is vacating.

And this week, Alzate said she is backing Gorbea for governor, Matos for lieutenant governor, and Diossa for treasurer. She said it would be “historic” if three Latino candidates won those three statewide offices at the same time, and predicted they would “do great things” if they worked together as a team.

But Alzate acknowledged that not all Latino leaders are on the same team in this year’s elections.

“In an ideal world, I would love it if we all supported each other in that way, but we don’t live in an ideal world,” she said. “A lot of people think just because we are all Latinos, we are going to support each other this year. We are showing that is not necessarily the case. It is about policy and being able to work together.”

As in so many aspects of politics, relationships matter.

Alzate said she has long admired Matos, so while she respects her House colleague, Representative Deborah L. Ruggiero, she is backing Matos over Ruggiero and Mendes in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

“We never had a Latina in that position,” she said of Matos. “She is someone I can identify with.”

Likewise, Diossa “is one of those people who opened doors for a lot of us,” Alzate said. “He let us know if this is what we want to do, you can do it.”

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Providence College political science professor Tony Affigne — who teaches a course on “Race and Politics in the Americas” and was the first-ever Latino candidate for Rhode Island governor in 1986 — said the divisions in the Latino electorate underscore that it is not a monolithic group.

“Political scientists have been arguing for years that candidates, government officials, journalists and pundits need to recognize the diversity of the Latino community and not offer to buy tacos in Puerto Rican neighborhoods,” said Affigne, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “Latinos are not one homogenous group.”

Rhode Island’s Hispanic or Latino population grew by nearly 40 percent over the past decade — going from 130,655 people to 182,101 people and from 12.4 to 16.6 percent of the state population between 2010 and 2020, according to the latest census data.

But there are subgroups within that group. The US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey reported the following breakdown of the heritage of Rhode Island’s Latino or Hispanic residents:

  • Dominican: 55,220
  • Puerto Rican: 51,904
  • Guatemalan: 23,717
  • Mexican: 11,492
  • Colombian: 6,641
  • Salvadoran: 2,662
  • Cuban: 2,562
  • Bolivian: 2,020
  • Other Hispanic or Latino: 10,000

Affigne noted that Rhode Island has long been the only state where Dominicans are the largest subgroup of the Latino population. Mexicans are the largest subgroup in most states, and Puerto Ricans are the largest subgroup in many Northeastern states.

Joshua Seguí-Rodríguez, policy associate for the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, said no major demographic category is monolithic. “When folks are impacted by social issues disproportionally, you will see a pattern in how they vote,” he said. “So you are going to see important patterns in voting from the Latino community.”

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Affigne said that as the state’s Latino population has grown, the novelty of having a Latino candidate for a major office has begun to wear off. So it was noteworthy when Taveras became Providence first Latino mayor in 2011 and when Juan M. Pichardo became the first Latino state senator in 2003, he said.

But now, Providence would be selecting its third Latino mayor if it elects Cuervo or Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune, an Afro-Latina candidate who was born in Haiti, and the current General Assembly is the most diverse in Rhode Island history, with 21 people of color in the 113-member legislature.

“We are in the second or third era of Latino politics in Rhode Island at this moment,” Affigne said. “That means Rhode Island Latino community leaders, pastors, professionals, and activists can pick and choose the candidates they believe will be most beneficial to the Latino community.”

As the Latino community grows, it is becoming more nuanced, he said.

“The choices people make are much less likely to be driven by ethnicity and more likely to be driven by existing relationships, shared political interests, personal positions, or ambition,” he said. “The Latino political community has become large and experienced enough so that individual leaders are able to move in different directions.”

Taveras suggested the divisions evident among Latino leaders are not surprising.

“It’s just like any community — you are going to have diversity, and folks are in different places for different reasons,” he said. “I’m not the only one to say politics makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes you have allies in politics, and this can sometimes change.”

Taveras emphasized that he does not support candidates just because they are Latino. “I look at their qualifications and what they have done,” he said. “I will not support a candidate when I think they are not worthy of the position.”

Taveras said he is backing Gorbea, Matos, and Diossa in the Sept. 13 primaries not only because their victories would be “historical” but also because “they are outstanding people who will make us proud.” He ticked off the credentials of each of those candidates, adding “and by the way” they are Latina or Latino.

Taveras said he is proud to see so many Latino candidates running for major offices this year.

“It takes time for folks to get an education, work, run for office, hold office, and put themselves in a position to really lead at a higher level, and we have done that over the last 25 years,” he said. “I‘m proud to see the candidates who are out there who are qualified, prepared, and front-runners.”

Updated to note Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune is an Afro-Latina candidate for mayor who was born in Haiti.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.