How much will Latino voters hold sway in CD1 election?

Amo and Leonard campaigns make outreach efforts to this growing bloc of voters

By: - October 18, 2023 5:01 am

Kids from Providence-based Quisqueya En Acción perform a traditional Dominican dance at t General Treasurer James Diossa’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the State House on Oct. 13. (@GreggAmore1/X)

Both candidates running for the state’s open 1st Congressional District seat appear to be sticking to their respective pledges to campaign across each of its 19 municipalities.

And Democrat Gabe Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard have each paid particular attention to communities featuring Rhode Island’s fastest-growing demographic: Latinos.

In Central Falls — a city whose Latino population makes up around 71% of its population — Amo met recently with local officials and stopped by the opening of Fuerza Laboral’s new headquarters. He already boasted an endorsement from that city’s mayor, Maria Rivera — the first Latina mayor in Rhode Island history.

Amo also stopped at General Treasurer James Diossa’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the State House on Oct. 13.

Leonard, meanwhile, visited La Mega Hispanic Radio on Reservoir Avenue in Providence earlier this month for an on-air interview with a translator to help introduce him to the station’s listeners.

That same day, he stopped at Roberto’s Auto Repair and Panaderia El Quetzal (a Guatemalan bakery) on Hartford Avenue in Providence — though those businesses are technically in the 2nd Congressional District.

Leonard also donated $250 to the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for its ​​Gala de la Hispanidad, according to recent campaign filings.

“Latinos are a big part of the voting bloc here in Rhode Island,” said Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, a former 1st Congressional District candidate who is originally from the Dominican Republic. “And we’re only getting bigger.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Rhode Island’s Latino population increased almost 40% between 2010 and 2022 and currently makes up 17.6% of the state’s population. 

In Providence County, which has 10 communities in the 1st Congressional District, Latinos accounted for almost all population growth between 2010 and 2020. There is no data on voter demographics, but the Pew Research Center found in 2022 that Latinos/Hispanics made up 11% of the state’s electorate

Latino Policy Institute Executive Director Marcela Betancur said while she is appreciative of outreach efforts made by both campaigns, she hopes whoever wins continues their support for Rhode Island’s Hispanic community.

“Are they doing it to show up, or is it to check off a box?” said Betancur, who is of Colombian heritage. “It’s something we see a lot and it can be very disappointing.”

Low enthusiasm

That feeling of neglect can lead to low turnout, Betancur said — something that was seen in last month’s primary election which featured three Latina candidates: Matos, Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano, and Providence Sen. Ana Quezada.

In Central Falls, just 639 of the city’s 7,653 registered voters cast ballots last month — representing a turnout of 8%. Pawtucket, which has 25.2% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino, had a 10% turnout.

The overall turnout rate in the Sept. 5 primary was 12.2%

Betancur suggested one factor for low turnout was because many Latino voters were doubtful their vote even matters in a district seen as safely Democratic. The Cook Political Report’s 2023 Partisan Voting Index found that the 1st Congressional District is 12 points more Democratic than the national average.

“That probably disengages people a little,” Betancur said.

But that’s not the factor in why fewer Latinos turned out in September. Rep. Karen Alzate, a Democrat of Colombian heritage who represents Pawtucket and Central Falls, said a lot of people just were not aware the election was even happening.

Alzate recalled door-knocking for Cano’s campaign and meeting residents who told her they did not know the deadlines for the election or who was even running. Some voters told Alzate, “We’re going to vote for David Cicilline.” Cicilline resigned from Congress at the end of May to take a new job as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. The Nov. 7 special election is to fill his vacant seat.

“I don’t blame them, and I don’t think any campaign could have done anything differently to get out the message,” Alzate said. “I just think people in general don’t understand our government, how it works, and what we do.”

She said Latinos also may not want to vote in the Nov. 7 election now that there are no Hispanic candidates in the running. 

“Representation matters,” said Alzate, adding she will happily support Amo in the race. “Some day, we’ll maybe have a race where it’s all Latinos.”

A lot of Latinos also aren’t registered to vote because of their immigration status, Alzate said.

Oscar Mejias, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said many business owners he works with simply don’t have the time to pay attention to politics.

“They need to be involved in the day-to-day of their business,” Mejias said. “If you go door-to-door and ask them what a Congressperson does, they will say ‘nothing.’” 

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos speaks at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Rhode Island State House on Oct. 12. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Not a monolith

What are the needs of Rhode Island’s Latino community? That varies, Betancur said, as a variety of backgrounds make up the growing demographic.

Dominicans are the largest group, comprising nearly 30% of the state’s Hispanic/Latino population, according to the Census. But there are also Rhode Islanders who either immigrated or have roots from places like Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela.

“Latinos are not a monolith,” Betrancur said. “We all have different experiences, especially depending on our immigration or generational background.”

Latinos are also far from a cohesive voting bloc.

Alzate said many Latinos are also deeply devout Catholics and do not approve of LGBTQ+ people or access to abortions. 

She added that while Latinos are seen as solidly Democratic, many people (particularly from countries like Cuba or Venezuela) do not approve increasing investments in social safety net programs.

“To them, that means socialism,” she said.

Matos rejected Alzate’s assessment.

“I think that the Latino community really wants to make sure we’re able to afford health care, housing, and send our kids to school,” she said. “It’s the same thing every other community cares about.”

So how can Amo and Leonard activate this base? Being involved with the community and paying attention to their issues, Betancur said.

Speaking Spanish is also a plus. “When it comes to any immigrant, non-English speaking community, we’re more likely to create trust when we speak in our one language,” Betancur said.

A collection of flags from Latin American countries. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

But lots of commonality

Though their backgrounds may be different, Betancur said there are many common threads shared by Rhode Island Latinos. Chief among them is economic equity.

“We’re seeing huge pay gaps for Latinos in our state compared to everyone else,” Betancur said.

Housing costs are also a big concern. Betancur, who grew up in Central Falls, recalled her parents paying $800 a month in rent just 15 years ago. Today, that same apartment costs $1,300 a month.

“The cost has skyrocketed,” she said. 

Latino small businesses owners also struggle to keep up with rising rent, Mejias said. Because of the high costs, he said owners either have to close up shop or conduct business out of their basements.

“But people don’t really have an option,” he said.

Immigration reform is also a top issue.

“No president has really addressed it,” Alzate said.

Whoever wins the Nov. 7 election, Betancur said she hopes they will keep those issues in mind as they serve in Congress and continue to be part of the community.

“You can’t just expect Latinos come out for you,” she said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.