ALTHOUGH SHE SAYS the grousing is "valid to a point," noting that it takes time to change public perception, Depeña points to a variety of fresh efforts, contending the party is doing far more than it was two years ago to increase political participation by Latinos and other minorities. Among the efforts: a new Providence-based caucus, co-chaired by Jim Vincent and Abigail Mesa, which is tentatively slated to hold its first meeting in June. Originally intended as an effort to promote cooperation among blacks and Latinos — who have emerged as rivals in some legislative races in recent years — the caucus is now envisioned as a wider initiative to forge closer ties between Democrats and various minorities.
Meanwhile, a youth outreach program staffed with three volunteers, also targeted to start in June, will target two groups: college students and young people, ages 18 to 25, who are not in college. A tentatively planned "Democrats in Action" tour will also seek to strengthen city and town committees throughout the state. "We don’t want to concentrate on just Providence, Warwick, and Cranston," Depeña says. Summing it up, she adds, "I feel good that we’ve made some progress. I do agree that we need to do more."
For Lynch, who singles out such issues as Social Security, wages, and health-care, it’s hard to imagine minority voters not recognizing Democrats as traditional champions of the working class. He says the party has worked hard to stay in touch with the Latino community, for instance, by buying advertising in Spanish-language media and mounting aggressive voter-registration drives in Hispanic neighborhoods during campaigns. Lynch attributes some of the griping to the difference between the heightened activity level of a campaign and the more staid state of normal affairs. "It’s impossible to continue that kind of direct retail politics on a year-round basis," he says. [But] we don’t take any vote for granted."
Latinos, of course, are not a monolith — those in Rhode Island have mostly come from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Colombia — although they do tend to lean Democratic locally. For all the political, entrepreneurial, and other strides made by local Hispanics, who conservatively number more than 100,000, they continue to suffer from disproportionately high rates of poverty and other social problems. Political representation, not surprisingly, given the history of the Irish, Italians, and other immigrant groups, is seen as part of the solution.
The strength of Latino voters is not to be taken lightly, considering how they represent a significant number of tallies in statewide elections. For now, however, given the dominance of primarily white Democrats at the General Assembly, and how freshly registered Latinos might pose an unknown quantity in some legislative races, the status quo might work well enough for some. If the Democratic Party went out and registered 500 fresh Latinos voters in a district, such a step could make clear the benefits of heightened activism.
As it stands, though, "In terms of the parties, people are looking for alternatives," says Luna, the Providence councilor. "People are hungry and none of the traditional parties are really filling that hunger. There is no excitement [for] these parties."
If the sense of dissatisfaction felt by some Latinos offers an opening for the perennially struggling Rhode Island Republican Party, even Patricia Morgan, the GOP chairwoman acknowledges that it has not done much to exploit the situation. As Republicans pressed a legislative push in 2004, one of the GOP candidates was David Quiroa, a native of Guatemala, who ran for a legislative seat from Newport. Republicans were disappointed when Quiroa didn’t get the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee’s endorsement.
Morgan holds out hope that the premium placed by Latinos on family and work represent a potential match with the GOP, and she says the party will do better. "We are going to start reaching out to them," she says, "and we hope that they will meet us halfway and look at the Republican Party." For now, though, Morgan acknowledges, "There is an incredible amount of pressure in their community to be Democratic."