PROVIDENCE — Seven of the 12 Democrats vying for the First Congressional District seat are Black and/or Latina, making this the most diverse field of congressional candidates in Rhode Island history, observers say.
On Friday, matters of race and inequality will come into sharp focus as the Black Lives Matter RI PAC and the Rhode Island Black Business Association host a congressional debate at 5:30 p.m. at the Providence Public Library.
But it remains to be seen if voters will elect a person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress for the first time in state history. The Democratic primary is set for Sept. 5, and the Nov. 7 special election will decide who replaces David N. Cicilline, a Democrat who stepped down to lead the Rhode Island Foundation.
“To have four white men representing Rhode Island in 2023 or 2024 seems disconnected to me, based on Rhode Island’s diversity,” Brown University political science Professor Wendy J. Schiller said Thursday. “There is a disconnect there.”
But the fact that people of color make up more than half of the Democratic primary field shows that Rhode Island “is catching up to its own diversity,” she said.
The 2020 Census found Rhode Island grew more diverse over the previous decade, including an increase of nearly 40 percent in the Latino or Hispanic population. The First Congressional District, which includes the eastern half of the state, is 62 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Black, and 4 percent Asian, according to Census Reporter, which uses US census data.
Also, Schiller noted that while they account for 51 percent of the population, women make up little more than a quarter of Congress, and Rhode Island has sent a woman to Congress just once — Republican Claudine Schneider, who represented the Second Congressional District from 1981 to 1991.
“So it’s an argument that I think can resonate among different types of voters going into the primary — that it’s time for Rhode Island to have a representative from a diverse background,” Schiller said.
She said Friday’s debate will underscore that “this is really an amazing opportunity for communities of color in Rhode Island to elect someone to Congress from a community of color.”
But the outcome will hinge on whether some of the leading candidates of color — such as Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, state Senator Sandra Cano, and former White House official Gabe Amo — can organize an effective on-the-ground operation to reach voters and get them to the polls on primary day, Schiller said.
If they don’t, she said, the election could go to one of the leading white candidates, such as former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg, a progressive Providence Democrat who has lined up some key endorsements, funding, and on-the-ground support.
Friday’s debate is expected to include Black candidates such as Amo, Stephanie Beauté, and Providence City Council member John Goncalves, and Latina candidates such as Cano, state Senator Ana B. Quezada, and Matos, who describes herself as Afro-Latina.
Allen Waters, a Black candidate who previously ran as a Republican, is one of four Democratic candidates who were not invited to participate, and the Republican candidates — Terri Flynn and Gerry W. Leonard Jr. — were not invited.
Harrison Tuttle, president of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, said the organizers invited the eight candidates they view as having the strongest chances of winning the race.
Tuttle recalled how significant it was to him to see President Obama elected as the nation’s first Black president. And he said that electing a person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress would “show kids in Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and Providence that they, too, can aspire to be elected to office in positions of power.”
“There is an argument to be made that there should be a person of color in Congress from Rhode Island based on demographics and where we believe the demographics are going to grow in the next couple of years,” Tuttle said.
But he said the color of a candidate’s skin should not be the only factor for voters to consider. Voters must take into account where candidates stand on the issues that are important to them, he said, and he hopes Friday’s debate can help clarify where this field differs on policy matters.
“We want to be focused on what specific policies in Washington they will fight for and see their knowledge on the issues,” Tuttle said. “For me, it comes down to policy. I trust Rhode Islanders will vote based on what they think is in their best interest.”
The number of candidates of color who are qualified to serve in Congress makes it difficult to tell who is going to win this race, Tuttle said. “That tells me the Rhode Island Democratic Party is letting democracy play out the way it should be, and I commend them for doing so,” he said, noting the state Democratic Party is not endorsing any of the 12 candidates running in the primary.
Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne said the most common pathway to elected office, including Congress, is prior service at a lower level of government, and he noted this year’s Democratic field includes candidates of color who have served as lieutenant governor, in the state Senate, and in the Providence City Council. And he noted Amo has experience in the White House.
“It shows that over the past several decades Rhode Island has seen the emergence of Black and Latino elected officials as something of a pipeline to credible campaigns for Congress,” Affigne said. “It’s clear from the campaign so far that all of these candidates are qualified, so this election should not turn on the question of qualifications.”
The chances of electing a person of color to Congress from Rhode Island are better now than they have ever been, Affigne said. “But it remains to be seen whether the electorate that turns out to vote on Sept. 5 decides to select one of the minority candidates,” he said.
While the race of candidates will be a factor for some voters, it may not prove to be the decisive factor in who wins, Affigne said. “It’s much more likely that campaign organization, outreach and advertising, endorsements, and personal contact will be more important in voters’ minds,” he said.
Friday’s debate “will begin to signal to the broader electorate how each of the candidates would address issues of concern to the communities of color,” Affigne said, “and also signal to the constituency at large whether or not the candidates can credibly represent all of the voters.”