The 70th Lieutenant Governor of the State Of Rhode Island Sabina Matos spoke to the Brown community Oct. 4 about her political journey and life in Rhode Island. The virtual event was moderated by Visiting Fellow Marc Dunkelman and was organized by the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy as part of its “Rhode Island Politics and Policy Series.”
At the event, Matos outlined her political beginnings as a campaign volunteer and her subsequent run for Providence City Council in 2006.
“I really enjoyed (volunteering for campaigns) and the energy of election day, but I never thought I was going to be a candidate until two council members approached me and asked me to run for office,” Matos said.
Matos was initially hesitant about the challenge of her own candidacy but ultimately decided to run.
“I had just finished my college education, was transitioning between jobs and, as a single mother at the time, I wanted to redirect the energy of my personal life to something more positive,” Matos said. “So I said yes.”
She lost the 2006 election to Democratic incumbent Josephine DiRuzzo, but Matos was eventually elected to City Council in 2010, representing Ward 15. “I had to learn how things were being done inside City Hall. There’s a lot of things that people don’t see,” Matos said.
“We run for office to get things done, and it’s always frustrating to see that it takes so long,” Matos added. “Democracy is messy and you need to work with others and compromise to advance what you care about.”
In 2017, Matos served as interim president of the Council for seven months after the former president stepped down, but was challenged by the lack of clarity surrounding her role. This spurred her subsequent run for Council president, though she lost the election.
The defeat “was a very tough process for me to go through, but what I have learned is that how you handle defeat is just as important as when you win,” Matos said. “It was important for me and for the City Council to move on. It wasn’t about me and how I felt at that moment.”
Two years later, Matos emerged victorious in the Council’s presidential elections, and she was appointed Rhode Island’s Lieutenant Governor this April. She is the first Dominican-American to hold the position of Lieutenant Governor in the United States, as well as the first woman of color to hold this post in Rhode Island.
Having emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1994, Matos considers her work with Rhode Island’s Latinx community crucial to her success. “Like any other community, we care about education, the economy, housing,” Matos said. “Sometimes, the Democratic establishment wants to talk to us only about immigration and that’s it, and that’s not the case.”
Matos also recalled her disappointment in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Initially a supporter of Clinton, Matos’ support wavered after a phone call between a Clinton campaign worker and leaders of the Rhode Island Latinx community. “They said they didn’t have the money to hire someone to help get the vote out of the Latino community,” Matos said. “They thought it was going to be up to us.”
“This happens a lot with national campaigns; they think that we’re just going to come out, and that there is no need to invest,” Matos added. “National campaigns need to understand that they have to invest in our communities.”
When asked about the national political situation, Matos commented on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and said it was unthinkable that such events would unfold in the U.S. “I was worried to see these things happening in this country,” Matos said. “This country should be a beacon for democracy and an example for other countries to follow.”
“We have to make sure that we protect democracy, and that has to do with how we interact with people that have different opinions to us,” Matos added. “We need more conversations and more civility in our politics.”