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Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea before giving the oath of office to the State Representatives at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, RI on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea before giving the oath of office to the State Representatives at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, RI on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A New England primary with many Latino candidates

Rhode Island’s Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, is the latest candidate to enter the primary race to challenge new Governor Daniel McKee.

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The State of Rhode Island has been making history in recent years in terms of electing Latinos to higher office. 

Nellie Gorbea was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the Ocean state after completing her masters in public administration at Columbia University. 

She founded the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes Latino civic and political participation, and became the executive director of HousingWorks RI, which develops research on housing and distributes it to influence public policy. 

Gorbea ran for Secretary of State in 2014 and after her victory, she became the first Hispanic to hold statewide office in New England. 

After president Joe Biden selected Governor Gina Raimondo as the new U.S. Secretary of Commerce, her second-in-command, Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee, took her role, and had to pick someone to take his old office. 

He chose Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, who was born in the Dominican Republic, and worked in public relations and housing before entering politics. 

She was unanimously confirmed by the state senate and became the second woman of color, but first Afro-Latina to hold elected office in Rhode Island. 

In her swearing in ceremony, Matos was sworn in by her fellow barrier breaking, Secretary Gorbea. 

Gov. McKee is currently filling out the rest of his predecessor’s term, which is scheduled to end in January 2023. 

He has yet to make a formal announcement, but both him and Matos have intentions of participating in next year’s Democratic primary. 

The current lieutenant governor told AL DÍA News that she hopes to change electoral laws so that her position and the gubernatorial candidate can run as one ticket. 

“Just look at what happened now. Gina Raimondo was appointed Secretary of Commerce, then Gov. McKee became the governor and had to try to catch up on everything that was going on. It would have been different if the positions had run together as a ticket,” she explained. 

Someone who has already launched their gubernatorial campaign is Secretary Gorbea. Her announcement came Sunday night, May 23, and she has since updated her campaign website. On her social media, she has also released videos in English and Spanish.  

Even though McKee and Gorbea have been working together for less than six weeks, she already believes that she can deliver more for Rhode Island. 

Gorbea is now the first Latina in New England to launch a bid for governor. 

On Monday, Gov. McKee was asked his thoughts on the general officer wanting to challenge him this early. 

“She’s in campaign mode, I don’t wanna be in campaign mode, I wanna be working for the people in the state of Rhode Island right now… My job is not to run for any office, my job is to reopen the state of Rhode Island safely,” he said. 

2014 was the last time that there was an open governor’s race, and the prominent Democratic candidates kick started their campaigns much later than Gorbea. 

Then Providence mayor Angel Taveras and then general treasurer Raimondo did not make a formal announcement until October and December 2013, respectively. 

More candidates are expected to formalize their bids for Rhode Island governor soon. 

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is of Guatemalan descent and also willing to take on another executive position in his political career after leading his state’s largest city for more than six years.

The local official famously stood against the Trump administration in its early days by defending his city’s sanctuary city status to protect law abiding undocumented immigrants. 

In terms of climate change Elorza has supported initiatives to make Providence a more bike-friendly city and plans to be carbon neutral by 2050.

As of now, three prominent Latino elected officials will be vying for the top two positions in Rhode Island state government next year. 

The Ocean state has a Hipanic or Latino population of 16.3%, which is the second highest percentage in New England. 

Identity politics will be in full display when the three campaign in Providence ahead of the primaries, since the capital city is 43.3% Hispanic. 

Elorza and Gorbea are in for a tough fight since Gov. McKee is already using his incumbency advantage. 

Rhode Island has the fifth highest rate of fully vaccinated residents, with nearly 50% of its population being immunized. 

Last Thursday, May 20, the governor signed a law that will raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $11.50 to $15 by 2025

The action will appeal to progressive voters in the primaries and it demonstrates his intent to protect the working class once COVID-19 relief from the federal government ends. 

Less than 16 months before the primary elections it is already clear that there are multiple viable Latino candidates and the Latino vote will be decisive in making Rhode Island a leader in diversifying New England governments.

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