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R.I. Legislative Black and Latino Caucus elects leaders, considers name change

Representative Leonela Felix and Senator Jonathon Acosta were elected co-chairs. While the caucus used to include four or five members, “it’s very different when there are 21,” Acosta said, and the caucus can now have a significant impact on public policy.

Members of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus elected two new leaders this week and is considering changing its name to reflect the election of the state’s first two Asian-American legislators.

The caucus voted on Thursday night to elect Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat, and Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, as co-chairs. They succeed Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat.

Acosta and Felix said the caucus is considering a name change now that Rhode Island has elected its first Asian-American lawmakers — Senator Linda L. Ujifusa, a Portsmouth Democrat, and Senator Victoria Gu, a Charlestown Democrat. And they noted that Representative Brianna E. Henries, an East Providence Democrat, is of Native American, African-American, and Cape Verdean descent.


They said some options for the new name include: the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Caucus; the Black, Latino and AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Caucus; or the Solidarity Caucus.

Felix said caucus members will fill out a form with their recommendations for a potential name change and vote on Feb. 2.

Democratic state Representative Leonela FelixHandout

“We have more representation now, and we have members of Asian groups and Indigenous groups that are not reflected in the name,” Felix said. “So in order to be more inclusive, we want to update the name. I’m glad we are moving forward with it.”

She noted, for example, that the Oregon legislature has a BIPOC Caucus.

Acosta said the caucus is considering the name change as it updates its bylaws. “The name is one thing we are debating,” he said. “It’s to signal we are more inclusive of all people of color.”

Caucus members elected the leaders two days after the General Assembly kicked off its 2023 legislative session.

The 2020 election produced the most diverse General Assembly in Rhode Island history, with 21 people of color in the 113-member legislature, and after this year’s elections, the Assembly still has 21 legislators of color. But while the total remains the same, there were changes within the caucus.


For example, the 38-member Senate is now more diverse than ever, with seven senators of color — up from five last year.

“This is a considerable change from not so long ago,” Senate spokesman Greg Pare said. “You don’t have to go back far to when we had only two (Senators Harold M. Metts and Ana B. Quezada in 2017-2018), and really not that long ago there was only one, prior to the 2004 redistricting lawsuit settlement (Senator Juan M. Pichardo, in 2003-2004).”

In the fall elections, the Senate lost former senator Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor and lost. But the Senate gained Senators Gu and Ujifusa, in addition to Senator Robert Britto, an East Providence Democrat.

The 75-member House, meanwhile, became less diverse in the fall elections, going from 16 to 14 legislators of color.

The House lost Representatives Jean Phillipe Barros, Liana M. Cassar, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Carlos E. Tobon, and Anastasia P. Williams. But it gained Representatives Cherie Cruz, Enrique G. Sanchez, and Jennifer Stewart.

On this week’s Rhode Island Report podcast, Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne said Black and Latino legislators were “pretty lonely” up at the State House in the 1990s, but the last few election cycles have brought to the Assembly “younger, more assertive, Black, Latino, and now Asian-American legislators.”


“They don’t need to wait as long as that first wave of legislators of color did,” Affigne said. “Their personalities are somewhat more assertive, and they’re also in a very different social context. They’ll have more public backing and will probably be more successful earlier in their careers.”

Acosta, who had Affigne as a professor at Brown University, said that given Rhode Island’s changing demographics, he expects the Assembly to continue to grow more diverse.

Former legislators such as Anastasia Williams and former Senator Harold M. Metts paved the way for the current Black and Latino Caucus, Acosta said. While the caucus used to include four or five members, “it’s very different when there are 21,” and the caucus can now have a significant impact on public policy, he said.

“Outside of our assertiveness, we also have a much greater range in terms of life experience and professional experience,” Acosta said. The caucus includes educators, lawyers, and others with expertise that can help in analyzing and advocating for a wide range of issues, and the caucus includes members from low-income urban areas as well as more affluent communities, he said.

Acosta said that in the next couple of months the group will discuss issues it wants to prioritize for the 2023 legislative session. While the 21 legislators are part of the caucus, they might have different priorities and stances on issues, he said, citing the adage that “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.”


All current members of the caucus are Democrats, but he said the group will have to decide whether it will limit membership to one party in the future, as is done in some other states.

Last April, the caucus unveiled 13 priorities for the 2022 legislative session, focusing on areas such as health care, criminal justice, and the minimum wage.

The Assembly ended up achieving some of those goals, including the provision of health coverage for all children regardless of immigration status. But the Assembly did not pass other measures such as a proposed revamp the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died when a police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In a joint statement, Acosta and Felix said, “There are still so many challenges facing Rhode Island’s community of color, and the caucus is committed to working with the General Assembly and all of the dedicated community organizations to continue advocating for the voiceless at the State House, ensuring that every Rhode Islander is treated with dignity, respect, and compassion.”

Alzate said she is sure Acosta and Felix “will do an incredible job” continuing the work of the caucus.

“We made great strides over the past two years, in particular when confronting the inequities regarding the pandemic,” she said, “and I am looking forward to working with both co-chairs to continue the caucus’s positive momentum into 2023.”


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