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The Latino connection
Even with meaningful strides, some say the RI Democratic party has not done enough to tap political momentum among Hispanics
BY IAN DONNIS

IN THE SIX months since she won election, state Representative Grace Diaz has become a familiar presence at the State House, favorably impressing the House leadership and other observers with her warm personality and growing understanding of the legislative process. It’s quite a contrast from how Diaz came to Providence from the Dominican Republic in 1990 with $40, two dresses, and no understanding of English. As the freshman Democrat from Providence’s South Side puts it, "Sometimes I have to pinch myself — am I still dreaming?"

Beyond epitomizing the opportunity that America still holds for immigrants, Diaz offers a striking example of how Latinas of modest means can engage and win local elections, even when faced with significant odds. The election of Diaz, who last year ousted incumbent representative Leon Tejada, a fellow Dominican, was noteworthy considering the male-dominated nature of Rhode Island’s Latino political establishment. As a leader in the organizing drive by home-based day care workers, Diaz also showed an ability to work simultaneously at several levels of the political process.

After the watershed of the 2002 election, in which Democratic and Republican candidates courted Latino voters like never before, Diaz’s rise can rightfully be seen as another harbinger of the steadily ascending political profile of Hispanics in Rhode Island. Indeed, the state is already a trendsetter, serving as the home of the first Dominican woman elected to statewide office in the US (Diaz), and the first Dominican state senator in the country (Juan Pichardo of Providence) — a distinction attributed to the Ocean State’s small size. Elsewhere, Rafael A. Ovalles, a Dominican, last month became the first Latino judge in the state court system, and Latino representation on the Providence City Council doubled when Miguel Luna was elected in 2002, joining Luis Aponte.

Still, with just six Latino elected officials in Rhode Island — the others are state Representative Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), a native of Panama, and Colombian native Ricardo Patino, a city councilor in Central Falls — Hispanics remain underrepresented in elective office. And although the state Democratic Party is cranking up several efforts to increase political participation by Latinos in preparation for the 2006 election season, a view persists among some that the party has not done enough to help realize their political potential. The situation is somewhat ironic, considering how Democratic Party chairman Bill Lynch tabbed Melba Depeña, then the president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, as the party’s executive director after her similar criticism was reported in the Phoenix (see "Ready to rumba," News, June 27, 2003).

Luna says the question of whether the Democratic Party is doing enough to cultivate more political participation by Hispanics is a hot topic in the Latino community. Since Myrth York edged Sheldon Whitehouse in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a narrow victory attributed to Latino voters, he says, "There have been a lot of discussions about it, in terms of what are we doing, what is the Democratic Party doing, is it really putting in resources, does it really care about our agenda?" Luna, an outspoken and unabashed liberal, extends the critique to both of Rhode Island’s major political parties. Ultimately, he says, "We feel, so far, we are used by politicians," because they tend to hire a few Latinos after wining a campaign, rather than working more actively to implement policies that expand opportunities for working people.

Victor Capellan, a former director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy (CHISPA), who now works as an educator in New York City, takes a more nuanced view. Capellan, who continues to closely follow Rhode Island politics, says the Democratic Party has come a long way. Trying to engage the party when he ran for the legislature in the mid-’90s, he says, "was like pulling teeth." Capellan credits Lynch with having taken some major steps, such as hiring Depeña, and he notes how various candidates have hired key Latinos for their campaigns. "Some of the stuff that needs to happen is more of the organized or structured sort of outreach," he says. "Having Melba in there is great, but I don’t think the Latinos are in the structure of the party, the caucuses . . . . I think that’s the next level — getting it more into the community at large, not just the few individuals."

A related element is how the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (RILPAC), which helped to raise the profile of the state’s Latinos prior to the 2002 election, stagnated somewhat after Depeña’s departure. In particular, the group drew criticism when its 2004 endorsements included only one Latino. Now, though, 28-year-old Domingo Morel, who succeeded Tomas Avila as RILPAC’s president two months ago, cites plans to revitalize it, in part with more extensive monitoring of how officeholders act on issues of interest to Latinos. In terms of the performance of the Democratic Party, Morel, an academic advisor in the talent development program at the University of Rhode Island, says he doesn’t yet have enough information to make an assessment. He adds, though, that the hiring of Depeña, "in itself, is a huge statement. They’ve made huge progress, but it remains to be seen if they keep up with their promises, and we certainly hope they will back them up."

For critics, the disconnect can be seen in places like heavily Latino Central Falls — not far from the Democratic Party’s Pawtucket headquarters — where municipal elections will held this fall.

One would think that the party might want to cultivate someone like Patino, who became Central Falls’ first Latino councilor when he was elected in 2001, as a way of showing its commitment to a diverse constituency, if nothing else. (He might also be a good ambassador in Woonsocket, which, despite the presence of a significant Hispanic community, has yet to elect one as a councilor; local elections will also be held there this fall.) Asked about how well the Democratic Party does in encouraging greater Latino political participation, Patino says, "Honestly, I never heard of the party. It’s more the candidates who have been doing it. I never saw them [party officials] do anything for us, honestly."

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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