An Afro-Latina’s story of public service: Meet Rhode Island’s New Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos
Lt. Gov. Matos recently told AL DÍA about stepping into her new role to build on the work she has done in Providence City Council.
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Sabina Matos’ story begins far away from the halls of the Providence City Council or the office of Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor.
She grew up in the Domincan Republic and her hometown was Paraíso in the Barahona province.
Politics and public service seems to run in her veins, since her father was the mayor of Paraíso and her mother was a public school teacher in the same town.
Eventually, they moved to the country’s capital city, Santo Domingo, and there her mother rose to become the assistant principal of a high school in a municipality called Los Alcarrizos.
While living there, the family made sure to house loved ones who needed to visit the capital to see specialized medics or attend other important matters.
This practice would later be reflected in her efforts to tackle housing issues as an elected official.
In 1994, at age 20, her family moved again, but this time it would be to the United States.
Like many Dominican immigrants they arrived in New York City, but Matos spoke no English.
She also had hardly any time to adjust since she landed on a Friday, and her family already had a job lined up for her start to start on Monday.
Although she only lived in New York for three months, she still remembers taking the train from Washington Heights, which is also known as “Little Dominican Republic,” to Queens where she worked at a clothing factory.
One of the reasons she recalls the time so vividly is because she thinks of all the Lion King children shirts being produced by the factory at the time. The film was new and all the rave in those days.
Her parents then moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and Matos came afterwards. They lived in the Olneyville neighborhood, and enjoyed that city was “much calmer” than the Big Apple.
Placing a large value on education, Matos’ parents wanted her and her sister to go back to school since moving to the Ocean state.
She took her studies seriously by first learning English at the International Institute of Rhode Island before transferring to community college and finally graduating from Rhode Island College with a degree in communications, with a concentration in public relations.
A graduation requirement made her get more involved in the community and grow out of the shell the future leader said she had at the time.
She was mildly reserved because of her English, so she interned with the local Spanish radio station.
It was because of her timidness that she chose to stay in Providence for college as a commuter, while her sister went to the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, about 45 minutes away.
After graduating college in 2001 she stayed with the radio station and helped them organize several community events. The experience allowed her to connect with many of the local leaders in Providence.
Matos continued to build relationships in finding ways to tackle the problem of affordable housing, an issue she would later prioritize as an elected official.
She joined the board of a non-profit community developer, Olneyville Housing (now known as One Neighborhood Builders).
The shy girl from Paraíso would soon be recognized for her willingness to give back to a city she felt received her warmly.
Elected officials began to notice her efforts and ahead of the 2006 municipal election, then-councilmembers Luis Aponte and Miguel Luna asked her to run in Ward 15.
She faced a 24-year incumbent in Councilmember Josephine DiRuzzo and lost the election, receiving 43% of the vote.
But in losing, she found the support she needed to run again in four years.
“When I ran the first time I was a single mother. I met my future husband because he came to volunteer on my first campaign. After the campaign, we started dating and eventually we got married. Then I had people asking me to run again and my husband was very supportive,” she said.
When Matos ran again in the 2010 primaries, she defeated DiRuzzo by receiving over 54% of the vote. This confirmed her seat on the city council, since she did not have an opponent in the general election.
After starting her second term in local government in 2015, she became the first Latina Council President Pro Tempore of Providence. She served in that role until she was elected City Council President at the beginning of her third term, in 2019.
The former council member proved to be very successful electorally, and the motivation went beyond her own father’s political career in the Dominican Republic.
“No it was never a factor, I honestly never thought that I was gonna be a candidate for office. I really enjoyed helping in other people’s campaigns. I think it's more fun,” Matos explained.
During her time in city government, she is most proud of changing the way tax stabilization agreements (TSA) were reached.
Matos was angered by the fact that developers were paying fixed low tax rates and would ask both the city and state governments for extensions to keep that rate. The Council President worked on legislation with her colleagues to have the taxes increase incrementally for developers after they requested extensions.
Another effort she was honored to be part of was assisting families in need during the pandemic last year while also striving for an accurate census count in her city.
Her office partnered with the Elisha Project and Rhode Island’s Census Complete Count Committee to host events in neighborhoods throughout the city to provide personal protective equipment, boxes of food, and have people fill out census forms.
This initiative was vital to Rhode Island not losing a congressional district, and therefore an electoral vote, as they were projected to.
Although she was the Council President, it was a part-time position, and her second job was in the state’s office of Diversity, Equity & Opportunity. The role allowed her to coordinate large scale efforts for her community while holding two jobs and being there for her family.
Before President Joe Biden had been sworn in, it was announced that he would be picking Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to be the new U.S. Secretary of Commerce. She had previously served as the state’s treasurer.
She was confirmed by the Senate 84 -15 on March 1, and resigned from her seat as governor the following day.
This elevated Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee to Raimondo’s old position, and he had to find someone to fill his previous job.
Over 70 applicants applied to become the Ocean state’s second-in-command and Matos was one of them.
She was ultimately one of the last five selections and this meant that she would be having a private meeting with the new governor.
The Council President was called back for more questioning and it was then that McKee told her that he would choose her to be Rhode Island’s new lieutenant governor.
“I was so overwhelmed with the news. I think I’m not able to quote him directly on how he said it. But after that it took me some time to realize that this actually happened,” she said of the moment.
Matos made the distinction that when someone is elected to the position they are given several weeks to prepare, but being appointed meant that she had to jump into the job.
It was similar to her first journey to America, when she jumped right into work at the clothing factory after arriving in New York..
This time, the trip was in the same city instead of thousands of miles away.
She was unanimously confirmed by all 34 members of the state senate on April 13. The 70th lieutenant governor and first Afro-Latina to hold this position was also sworn in by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, the first woman of color to hold statewide office.
She assumed her new role on April 14 but a formal public inauguration was held for her in front of the Rhode Island State House on May 2.
Matos spoke about criticism Gov. McKee received for selecting her to work with him.
“I’m very proud of who I am and what I represent. I’m very proud of being a woman, an Afro-Latina and of my culture. At the same time, what I bring to this position is my experience being elected three times already in the capital city,” she said.
In a press conference following her confirmation, Matos told reporters that housing will be a top issue for her to raise in the McKee administration. The new lieutenant governor wants to ensure that the people of her state can find sufficient affordable and workforce housing.
Whether as a little girl in the Dominican Republic or as the second in command in Rhode Island, she understands the difference that adequate housing can make.
Another thing she and the governor want to do is change the state law so that they can run as one ticket instead of separate candidates.
“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.
The pair will not have much time to rewrite this law since next year the Ocean state will have a gubernatorial election.
She hopes that she can use this new position to elevate the voices of the Latino community and other people of color. Matos is confident in her ability to do so in part because of her time in the state’s office of Diversity, Equity & Opportunity, but also because of her own life experience.