PROVIDENCE — No person of color has ever represented Rhode Island in Congress, but the list of potential candidates for the First Congressional District seat includes at least nine Black and/or Latino residents.
The first two major candidates to enter the race are Sabina Matos — born in the Dominican Republic and now the state’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor — and Sandra C. Cano — born in Colombia and now the first Latina to chair the state Senate Education Committee.
Also, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera — whose parents are from Puerto Rico and who is now the state’s first Latina mayor — is considering a run for the seat that US Representative David N. Cicilline is vacating on June 1.
So Rhode Island could see three Latina candidates vying to join the state’s congressional delegation, and observers say that vividly highlights the dramatic growth and influence of Rhode Island’s Latino community.
“I think that shows the maturity of this community,” said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a founder and the first chair of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee. “Some will say, ‘Oh, my God, they are fighting against each other now.’ But it means Latinos are here, and we have enough talented people to aspire to the highest office.”
Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, said, “This demonstrates how the strength and collective action of Latinos has grown in this state over the last 20 or 30 years. We now have great talent at the state and municipal levels, but to have someone at the federal level would be an incredible achievement.”
The odds of realizing that achievement have risen now that two potential candidates with a track record of raising enormous amounts of campaign cash — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and former CVS executive and gubernatorial candidate Helena Buonanno Foulkes — have decided they won’t enter the race.
Observers note that the First Congressional District contains many more Latino residents than the Second Congressional District.
The First Congressional District encompasses the eastern half of the state, including communities with many Latino residents such as Central Falls, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Newport, and parts of Providence. The latest census estimates show the First Congressional District with 112,222 Latino residents (20.5 percent of the district), compared to 75,555 Latinos in the Second Congressional District (13 percent of the district).
Those totals reflect dramatic growth: The US Census Bureau found that Rhode Island’s Hispanic or Latino population grew by nearly 40 percent between 2010 and 2020 — rising from 12.4 percent to 16.6 percent of the state population.
Amid that growth, Rhode Island elected Nellie M. Gorbea as the state’s first Latina secretary state in 2014. In 2021, Governor Daniel J. McKee named Matos as the state’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor in 2021, and last year she won a four-year term. Also, former Central Falls mayor James A. Diossa — who is engaged to Senator Cano — was elected as the state’s first Latino general treasurer in November.
But no Latino has ever served as governor or as a member of the state’s congressional delegation. And no woman has ever represented the First Congressional District. The only Rhode Island woman to serve in Congress has been Claudine Schneider, a Republican who represented the Second Congressional District from 1981 to 1991.
“It seems like the next milestone,” Betancur said of electing a Latino to Congress. “With 60 percent of Latinos in our state living in that district, the growth of the Latino community could be well represented in Congress.”
Questions have arisen about whether having three Latina candidates in the race would split the Latino vote, giving other candidates a better shot at victory.
But Betancur said, “We never say that when white men are running against each other. These three women have professional and personal stories that connect to CD1, and if the three of them chose to run, CD1 will be in good hands whoever wins.”
Cano agreed that such questions are not raised when multiple white men run for an office, and she said having multiple Latina candidates “would be testament to the progress of our minority community.”
She said she, Matos, and Rivera all took part in the Rhode Island Latina Leadership Institute, which helps Latinas develop skills for civic leadership. And she said, “The diversity of the district needs to be represented in Congress.” But she added that, “I have been a representative of everyone, regardless of background, and would be in Congress, too.”
In a statement, a spokesman said Matos “will be the only candidate in this race who has been a proven vote-getter district-wide, and she has heard from countless people who are excited about the opportunity to send a woman of color to Congress for the first time in Rhode Island’s history.”
As of Wednesday, Rivera had not announced whether she would enter the First Congressional District race. But she said she is “taking this decision on whether or not to run seriously and thoughtfully,” and plans to share her plans soon.
“This is a huge moment for a new bold, Democratic leader in Congress willing to tackle national issues that impact the lives of Rhode Islanders and our municipalities,” Rivera said. “I’m proud to see women, particularly women of color, recognizing this opportunity and working to elevate our representation.”
Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne commented on the two announced candidates — Matos and Cano — saying, “Both have significant community leadership and legislative experience that would serve them well in Congress. They are both well respected in Rhode Island Latino political circles.”
He said they would compete for Latino votes, which he estimated would account for 10 percent of the vote in a Democratic congressional primary.
While both Matos and Cano have shown they can assemble successful electoral teams, only Matos has won a statewide primary and general election, Affigne noted. Also, congressional elections can involve lots of mail ballots, and in the 2022 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Matos received more votes via mail ballot than her two opponents combined, he said.
“But in the end, special elections are notoriously rushed to organize, difficult to predict, and challenging to win,” Affigne said. “They feature extremely low voter turnout and expensive last-minute media get-out-the-vote operations, and local endorsements and alliances with local politicians can have an outsized impact.”
He noted there is still a long list of potential candidates who might jump into the race. But he said the picture will become much clearer in June after Cicilline steps down and an election schedule is announced.