Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Latino political growth in Rhode Island

Mayor Angel Taveras and the
Political Empowerment of Latinos in Providence, Rhode Island
By Pablo Rodriguez (January 4, 2011)

(This opinion letter was first published by the National Institute for Latino Policy newsletter.)

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND - The first Latino Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island was sworn into office yeterday, January 3rd.  Administering the oath of office was his uncle, District Court Judge Rafael Ovalles, both of Dominican descent. The capital and largest city in the state, Providence has a population of close to 173,000, which is 38 percent Latino, 39 percent White, 13 percent Black and 6 percent Asian.

It was 1998 when a rag tag group of Latino leaders came together in Providence to design a political action committee, the Rhode Island Political Action Committee (RILPAC). The idea was for it to serve as a vehicle for political empowerment and to educate the politicians of the day about the issues affecting what was then an emerging Latino community, which was at the time around 15 percent of the population.

Until that time, outreach by politicians was limited to the ransom payments given to "community organizers" who showed up at our doors, like the swallows of Capistrano, a couple of weeks before an election. Our political success was measured not in our ability to elect anyone but in the number of people that were hired by the winner. Usually one was lucky enough to get the infamous "community liaison" position that served, not as a bridge to the community, but as a door that was mostly closed until the next election cycle came about.

Just about 13 years later, the first legal counsel of this group, Angel Taveras, is now Mayor of the City of Providence and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee who credited Latinos for his victory, made repealing E-Verify the first act of his Administration. Providence now has six Latino Council members, a state senator, and three state reps. No one would have predicted this outcome when the early monthly meetings of RILPAC would sometimes have a quorum of only two, including the president!

What has been the secret of our success? From the beginning we made it clear to the politicos that our aim was not to elect Latinos. We believed that "la genética, no hace la política" (genetics does not make good politics). Policy ideas are the things that matter.

We also never claimed to represent the Latino community at large and warned those seeking our endorsement that they would fail if their outreach was limited to our group. Politicians are lazy and if you give them the impression that they could reach an entire community with a limited effort, they will limit their effort. Endorsement was based on an extensive questionnaire and on a personal interview that was meant to verify that the candidate him or herself actually completed the questionnaire, and not his or her community liaison. Most importantly, we were non-partisan, which allowed us to influence both sides of the aisle. 

However, it was not until the year 2000 that we were able to claim a very important victory. The Census showed remarkable growth in our neighborhoods and redistricting presented us with an opportunity to draw favorable lines for the election of Juan Pichardo, our first State Senator and the first Dominican state senator in the country. Of course we had to sue in Federal court and force a settlement that provided us with funds to continue our advocacy. From then on, issues affecting Latinos have become part and parcel of all urban and statewide campaigns.   

Latino communities nationwide have once again the unique opportunity given by the Census every ten years. The blueprint that we followed in Rhode Island is the same that many immigrant communities before us have followed. There is no need for large budgets or infrastructure if you are able to harness the boundless energy that lives in the hearts of those seeking opportunity for themselves and their loved ones. Providing a forum for educating not just Latinos about who we are and what matters to us is the beginning. Following a mission that values ideas and policy instead of individuals and political parties ends up being the true source of power.

Pablo Rodriguez, MD, is associate chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Women and Infants' Hospital in Providence, and is a clinical associate professor at Brown University's Program in Medicine. He is the host radio programs "Hablemos" and "Nuestra Salud" on WELH 88.1 FM, Latino Public Radio, where he also serves as Chairman. He can be reached at

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