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The Latino connection (continued)

CRANSTON MAYOR Stephen P. Laffey enraged at least a portion of his base when he announced plans on April 26 for Cranston to recognize identity cards issued by the Mexican and Guatemalan embassies. The talk-radio chatter that afternoon was thick with cries of disappointment and betrayal from Laffey supporters alarmed about the prospect of increased illegal immigration.

The controversial Republican mayor has made a practice of reaching out to Latinos — just, he says, as reaches out to Armenians, Portuguese, and members of other ethnic and racial groups. "I try to represent all of the people of Cranston," Laffey says. "If I have a soft spot, it’s for people who want to live the American dream." His interest in the Latino community, including past trips to Guatemala and the Mexican border, have "nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with cultivating."

Laffey’s denials notwithstanding, his efforts to strengthen ties with Latino voters seem like a deliberate attempt to craft a reputation as an inclusive fellow and blunt the more conservative components of his ideology. (There’s also a certain irony in how Ronald Reagan, one of Laffey’s political heroes, backed policies that resulted in egregious human rights abuses in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America in the ’80s. Reagan was also the last US president to sponsor an amnesty for illegal immigrants, in part to aid those forced to relocate because of the violence in Central America. Asked about this, Laffey says the US was wrong to support a 1954 coup in Guatemala, but he contends that Reagan, on the whole, "did a wonderful job," and supported freedom around the world.)

It remains to be seen whether Laffey will enter the race to challenge US Senator Lincoln Chafee, but regardless of which office he might pursue in 2006, his outreach to minority communities could prove to be a considerable asset.

Similarly, Chafee’s Democratic challengers, Secretary of State Matt Brown and former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse each cite Latinos as a significant part of their campaign preparations. "I think the Latino population is a very important political group in Rhode Island, very empowered, and very energized," Whitehouse says. "It’s important for any candidate to have a serious strategy to reach out into the Latino community, and obviously we will." One signal of Whitehouse’s interest in this area is Juana Horton’s selection as his campaign treasurer.

Brown, who avidly sought Latino support during his successful effort to oust incumbent Ed Inman in 2002, and subsequently hired Nellie Gorbea, a past president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, as his director of administration, has already made some meaningful inroads. State Senator Juan Pichardo (D-Providence), seen by some as having the most elective potential of any of the current crop of Latino officeholders, will co-chair Brown’s campaign in Providence. Sylvia and Betty Bernal, who have been active with the RILPAC, are involved with his campaign committee. Says Brown, "We start out with a lot of support in the community."

Asked about his efforts to increase Latino political participation as secretary of state, Brown cites a program launched in 2004, called First Voters, which targeted making first-time voters out of high school and college students, as well as freshly inducted American citizens. He says his office also started Civics 101, a pilot effort in Woonsocket and Central Falls that has since gone statewide, which promoted civic education. "Anecdotally, we get a good sense that we reached a lot of people," Brown says, although there are not hard numbers to quantify newly registered voters.

FOR HER PART, state Representative Grace Diaz has helped to break down cultural barriers, taking some of her legislative colleagues to lunch on Broad Street, for example, so they can see the strengths and struggles of her community. Recalling her own experience after coming to Providence to join an established friend in 1990, she says, "Like every immigrant, you just start at zero."

Diaz had worked in her native Dominican Republic as a secretary for the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) and a customs officer. She lost her job when the party fell out of power, and she subsequently began traveling back and forth to Rhode Island. Diaz pursued classes at the International Institute and then the Community College of Rhode Island, serving as a factory worker, cashier, and bartender before graduating as a certified nursing assistant. By 1995, she was earning enough to bring over her five children from the DR, and her mother joined them four years later.

In 2002, she opened her home-based day care — a step that would propel her into activism, grassroots organizing, and her eventual victory last year over Leon Tejada as a state representative. "It’s a big, big step and a challenge every day," says Diaz, who comfortably navigates the corridors of the State House, sharing a basement office with Representatives Anastasia Williams and Joseph Almeida, also Providence Democrats. For her part, she says, "Right now, the Democratic Party is trying to reach more Latinos than ever."

Asked about Diaz, House Majority Leader Gordon Fox says, "I find her a very progressive legislator, and she can only get stronger."

The freshman representative has also impressed H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, who resides in the district represented by Diaz. "I think she’s a natural political leader," West says. "Not everyone who gets elected is. She has a quick grasp of the issues. She’s clearly an extrovert in that she loves to connect with people and thrives on the energy of conversation. And there’s something about her that I think people are inclined to trust."

With her upbeat personality and compelling personal story, Diaz is the type of person who can facilitate ties between Rhode Island’s Latino community and the prevailing Democratic Party. In fact, it seems as if making such connections is practically part of her DNA. When it comes to building a wider and more symbiotic relationship between Democrats and Latinos, the 2006 election season will likely shed some light on the future.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]


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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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