PROVIDENCE — Democratic former Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa won the state treasurer’s race on Tuesday, defeating Republican James L. Lathrop, North Kingstown’s finance director, the Associated Press projects.
With 98 percent of polling places reporting, Diossa had 54 percent to Lathrop’s 45.9 percent, according to the state Board of Elections.
Diossa will succeed Seth Magaziner, a term-limited Democrat who ran for Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District seat.
“I promise I will not let you down,” Diossa said while celebrating at the Graduate Providence Hotel.
“I am incredibly grateful for every single person who has made my unlikely journey from blue-collar first-generation American raised in Central Falls to mayor to winning tonight’s election and becoming the treasurer of our amazing state,” Diossa said. “Thank you, Rhode Island.”
The treasurer’s office has served as a springboard for higher office in recent years, with Magaziner running for Congress, former treasurer Gina M. Raimondo becoming governor and now US commerce secretary, and former treasurer Frank T. Caprio running for governor.
In a hard-fought Democratic primary, Diossa beat former Rhode Island commerce secretary Stefan Pryor, 55.6 percent to 44.4 percent. Governor Daniel J. McKee, the former lieutenant governor, did not choose Diossa to replace him when he became governor although Diossa was among the five finalists. But McKee did vote for Diossa when the Democratic State Committee endorsed him over Pryor at the June 26 party convention.
Diossa spent a total of $691,671 on the race, while Lathrop spent $47,679, according to the state Board of Elections.
Diossa, who announced his candidacy in December, served as mayor of Central Falls from 2013 to 2020, becoming the youngest mayor in the state’s history and the city’s first Latino mayor. He now lives in Pawtucket with his fiancee, state Senator Sandra Cano, and works as senior adviser at Brown University’s Policy Lab.
Diossa made the case that his experience as mayor of Central Falls qualifies him to be state treasurer. Skeptics questioned how significant his role was in leading the impoverished city out of bankruptcy.
Central Falls emerged from bankruptcy in 2012 after a judge signed off on a plan that balanced the city’s budget for the next five years by hiking taxes, cutting employees and pensions, and revising labor contracts. Diossa said, “A plan can’t manage itself, and so I was able to manage the five-year plan.”
During the campaign, Diossa faced scrutiny over travel while serving as mayor of Central Falls, a 1.29-square-mile city of some 22,500 people that became what he calls an inspiring comeback story.
Diossa traveled more often and farther away than the leaders of some nearby and similarly sized cities in Rhode Island, taking trips to Taiwan, mainland China, England, Mexico, Colombia, East Timor, Malaysia and Israel. The trips were for conferences, speeches, and cultural exchange visits. Third-party groups paid for 26 trips over the years, and Central Falls paid for a dozen or so.
Lathrop, who announced his candidacy in May, lives in South Kingstown, and has served as finance director for Hopkinton, Portsmouth, Westerly’s School Department, and New London, Conn., in addition to North Kingstown. He also worked as deputy town administrator for Portsmouth and town manager for New Shoreham (Block Island).
Rhode Island has not had a Republican state treasurer since Nancy Mayer served from 1993 to 1998. But Lathrop said, “I think there is a turn. I’m a Republican, but I have a heart. I think I can relate to people.” He argued that he has the experience and technical skill needed for the job, which involves overseeing the state pension system worth more than $10 billion.
During the campaign, Lathrop called for phasing in cost-of-living increases for state retirees. “They are not receiving their promised COLA increases,” he said on his website. “I will advocate for changes that include a phase-in of COLA’s at funding rates of 60%, 70%, and 80%. I will advocate for legislation that provides partial tax exemption for pensions benefits of those who are not receiving COLAs.”
Globe reporter Alexa Gagosz contributed to this report.