As she prepares to leave office, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea talked to us about her eight years in office, her unsuccessful attempt to become Rhode Island’s first Latina governor, and what’s next for her.
Q: At 9:50 a.m. today, you will be a featured speaker at a Knight Foundation virtual conference titled “Informed: Conversations on Democracy in the Digital Age.” What are the main points you will make?
Gorbea: Bad-faith actors are increasingly targeting communities in the US with mis- and disinformation to create chaos and undermine faith in our elections and democratic institutions. These efforts have been seen in many languages other than English -- including Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. Latinos are an attractive target for these efforts because they make up a growing share of the US electorate. While many Latinos primarily speak English, a significant number still speak primarily Spanish and communicate on social media using Spanish.
Unfortunately, digital media companies have not focused on this problem, and the technology that monitors and moderates content in languages other than English is lacking. This conference is being presented virtually, and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to check in for some important conversations on how to effectively continue the ongoing effort to safeguard democracy in the digital age.
My conversation with Javier Marín, editor of El Planeta, will showcase some of the national campaigns that have been launched to give individuals and community organizations the tools to recognize, report, and combat mis- and disinformation in Spanish. We will also highlight the opportunities for the media and academia to increase visibility about this growing concern.
Q: As secretary of state, what was your biggest accomplishment and biggest frustration?
Gorbea: I am proud that my team and I proved to Rhode Islanders that their state government can work for them. We did this by bringing together dedicated Rhode Islanders who transformed an entire state agency and won national recognition for excellence in government. That commitment to excellence is apparent when you look at my office’s record: greater access and security in voting, record numbers of people starting businesses, more students learning about our history, and greater transparency in government.
As secretary of state, my biggest frustration is not being able to advance the construction of a Rhode Island History and State Archives Center beyond the concept stage. We are one of the few states that doesn’t have this type of facility. It would provide a place for important conversation and for learning to happen. It also would promote Rhode Island’s historic tourism sector.
Q: What is the main challenge that incoming secretary of state Gregg Amore faces, and what is your advice to him?
Gorbea: I am thrilled to be able to transfer the office to Secretary-elect Amore. His biggest challenge is the same one facing our entire country: continuing to build trust in our government and democratic institutions. As a social studies teacher and state legislator, he comes with a deep commitment to defending our democracy at a time when secretaries of state are critical in the fight against election deniers and their apologists.
Q: What can Rhode Island and the nation do about election conspiracy theories and election deniers?
Gorbea: We need to continue to promote history and civic education and maintain transparency in government. A lot of conspiracy theories gain a foothold because of ignorance about how our government works and our country’s history.
Q: What did you take from the experience of running for governor and finishing third in the Democratic primary?
Gorbea: It was wonderful to be able to meet so many Rhode Islanders and a great honor to carry their hopes and dreams for a better future. It was a blessing to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
At the same time, it was very sobering to see how much money was spent on the governor’s race. Based on this experience, it is clear to me that campaign finance reform is not only desperately needed, but also a civil rights issue. Well-qualified individuals who are not independently wealthy are at a distinct disadvantage. What’s more, income inequality is tightly correlated to race and ethnicity. This further disadvantages candidates of color. We must change our campaign finance laws if we are to have a more representative democracy and live up to the promise of universal suffrage.
Early in our history, Rhode Island set the example by separating church and state in government. We could set the example again by reducing the influence of wealth in politics through comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Q: In the homestretch, your campaign was criticized for steps such as posting a “red box” on the campaign website to signal to outside groups what messages you’d like them to send to voters. Was that a mistake?
Gorbea: As I mentioned, there are financial inequities built into our campaign finance system that force candidates with fewer resources to adapt within the law. Wealthy and well-connected individuals start with huge advantages when it comes to running for office. Until we have comprehensive campaign finance reform that requires ALL candidates to raise money from individual voters instead of relying on Super PAC expenditures and their own personal wealth, underfunded candidates will have to rely on all the available tools.
Q: Will you run again?
Gorbea: I will be closing my campaign account by the end of the year and will not seek public office again. I love Rhode Island and believe in Rhode Islanders. I look forward to continuing to bring Rhode Islanders together and make a difference from the private sector.
Q: What is next for you? Are you interested in becoming the next president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation?
Gorbea: Right now, my priority is finishing my term and ensuring a smooth transition to Secretary-elect Amore. I am also enjoying having more time with my family and friends.
I am excited to have been invited to join Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy as a visiting fellow in democracy and cybersecurity. I will be focusing my work on combatting mis- and disinformation, with a focus on communities of color and language minority communities. This problem has grown from targeting elections and is now a major problem in public health, as well.
Longer term, I am exploring a range of private sector options, including the Rhode Island Foundation. I look forward to finding a place where I can continue to bring people together and make a positive impact on our state and the people who live there. Fortunately, Rhode Island is a wonderful community, and there are lots of opportunities to move it forward.
This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, data about the coronavirus in the state, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.