R.I. could see first woman, Latino or Asian governor

Gubernatorial contestants reflect diversity of state’s changing demographics

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2014

Though Rhode Islanders have never elected a person of color or a woman to the governor’s office, the upcoming gubernatorial contest offers the state an opportunity to buck this trend. 

General Treasurer Gina Raimondo would be the state’s first female elected governor, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras the first Latino American and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung the first Asian American. In the state, Taveras was the first Latino mayor, Fung the first Asian American mayor and Raimondo the first Democratic female treasurer.

Over the past decade, minority populations have been growing, according to the Equity Profile of Rhode Island, prepared by the University of Southern California Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, which outlines demographic trends in the state and analyzes disparities across socioeconomic groups. The Latino population of Rhode Island has grown by 44 percent in the past ten years, and the Asian American and African American populations have grown by 28 and 23 percent, respectively, according to the report. But these minority groups remain underrepresented among Rhode Island’s elected officials.

“I think there is definitely a lack of representation,” said Pablo Rodriguez, president of Latino Public Radio. “In terms of Latinos, we have an increasing presence in the workforce and an increasing percentage of children.”

Having a diverse range of candidates with a wealth of experience and knowledge will allow different people to be represented, said Mary Grace Almandrez, assistant dean of the College and director of the Third World Center.

“I don’t see the needs of their specific community being exclusive to the needs of all communities,” Almandrez said. “What they determine to be important may be informed by their background,” she added.

“Issues of women are important for the health of the economy,” said Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and professor of Africana studies, adding that leadership in state government has historically been male-dominated.

“We are really excited to see more women get involved,” said Allie Schaefer ’17, vice president of the Brown University Republicans. Though no Republican women are running in the gubernatorial race, Rep. Doreen Costa, R-Exeter and North Kingstown, Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry, Warwick and West Warwick, and political newcomer Ana Santana are among the Republican candidates running for House seats this fall.

“Women have had a very difficult time winning statewide  office,” said Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and professor of political science, adding that Taveras is the first serious Latino gubernatorial candidate in Rhode Island’s history. Taubman Center polls from Oct. 9 indicated Taveras’ increasing popularity across the state of Rhode Island, he said.

There have previously been female candidates for the state’s executive office — Myrth York, a former Rhode Island state senator made three unsuccessful bids as a Democrat for the governor’s seat. York endorsed Raimondo in March.

“I think it is very important that two-thirds  of the candidates would be breaking the status quo of Rhode Island, especially given that demographics in Rhode Island are changing,” said Joshua Bronk ’16, intern for the Taveras campaign.

A variety of constituencies are pushing to have their issues addressed, and increased diversity in government would encourage a more holistic approach to these challenges, Bronk said.

Increased voter participation may be an important aspect of the election, Almandrez said, adding that citizens “can empower themselves by educated voting.”

“I’m very, very interested in education and how it will lead to community members being fuller participants. I would like to see the candidates talk more about education reform,” Almandrez said.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT  — a nonprofit  organization that works to improve the outcomes of the children in Rhode Island — said that she is excited that issues related to children are already being addressed. She said she hopes expanding access to early childhood education, boosting Head Start program funding, closing the achievement gap and supporting low-income students will remain important topics throughout the election.

The health care and education systems in Rhode Island remain underdeveloped, said Jing Yi ’13, who said she observed some of these challenges while working with the Rhode Island Free Clinic, an organization providing healthcare to low-income individuals. “The resources are not catering to the needs of the Spanish-speaking population,” Yi added.

Changing demographics in Rhode Island may influence the political climate of this election season, Orr said. Minority voters in particular may significantly influence the outcome of the state’s elections. “We see that in the way candidates reach out to minority groups,” he added.