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Changing Demographics A Factor In Rhode Island's Gubernatorial Race

Two supporters of gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo walk past protesting union members outside a rally at which Raimondo announced her run for the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island in January.
Michael Dwyer
Two supporters of gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo walk past protesting union members outside a rally at which Raimondo announced her run for the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island in January.

Parades, social clubs and awards dinners are part of the routine of political campaigns everywhere. But if you're running to be Rhode Island's next governor, then there's one more stop you just can't miss.

Namely, the makeshift studios of Latino Public Radio, which is housed in a two-story, single-family home complete with a living room, dog and cat.

This local Spanish-language radio station based in Cranston, R.I., was co-founded almost a decade ago by Pablo Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, Latino Public Radio's president and host of its political talk show, says, "Every campaign, every campaign — no matter whether Democrat, whether Republican — all of them try to get to my show at least once a month."

Now that it's primary season, he jokes, people actually return his calls.

"Actually, I don't even have to call them," says Rodriguez. "They call me."

Rodriguez is talking about Rhode Island's gubernatorial candidates on an ethnically diverse slate that includes state treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and granddaughter of Italian immigrants; the Dominican-American mayor of Providence Angel Taveras, a Democrat whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic; and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican and son of immigrants from Hong Kong.

There's also Republican businessman Ken Block and Clay Pell, a Democrat and grandson of the late Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island's longest-serving U.S. senator. Among the five gubernatorial candidates currently in the running, Pell serves as the genetic torchbearer of the Yankee patrician class that once dominated the state.

But times have changed in the nation's smallest state. Rhode Island's Latino community has almost doubled over the past decade, and that has led to a reordering of its traditional political landscape. Former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci says for other ethnic groups, the case is actually the opposite.

"Is there an Italian vote out there? Now, yeah, I guess you can say there is. But it's not like it was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago," says Cianci. "The Irish vote, I think even less."

Cianci served two terms in the state capitol — both ended with forced resignations after criminal convictions. But despite the controversies, his election in 1974 marked a first for Italian-Americans in a city long governed by Irish-Americans. Both groups had deposed the state's Yankee Protestant ruling elite decades earlier.

"Now the Hispanics are some years behind, and that's why they believe they need to get political power — and I agree with them," Cianci says. "And that's the natural progression in America."

Rhode Island's Dominican Independence and Heritage Award Committee's annual celebration is part of that progression. For ten years, social worker Everin Perez has helped to organize the event. She says that when she and her committee throw a party, politicians line up.

Perez left the Dominican Republic for Rhode Island as a teenager in the late 1970s. That's long before she could imagine that a son of Dominican immigrants would eventually become Providence's first Latino mayor — and be a candidate to become the state's first Latino governor.

Still, the Latino community itself includes immigrants from many countries and Dominican-American candidate Angel Taveras will have to work for the vote.

Providence resident Maritza Martell is still undecided — but she says one thing is clear: Rhode Island today is more welcoming than when she moved from Puerto Rico in 1980.

"So many doors were closing to me. Being a woman and Latina and with an accent, you cannot make it," Martell says. "However, now I feel that I can talk and people will listen."

Rodriguez of Latino Public Radio says this is all part of the circle of American political life.

"And you know, 10, 20 years from now, we're going to have another group of immigrants in our position today," he says. "And they will be trying to, you know, take us down from the political power, as all communities eventually do."

Today, Latinos are the voters to court in Rhode Island — but politicians haven't forgotten that white residents still make up more than three-quarters of the state.

For their recent interviews on Latino Public Radio, two of the gubernatorial candidates not only brought their own Spanish interpreters, but they were also armed in shades of green and geared up for their next campaign stop: The Pawtucket St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.