With just five days until Rhode Island’s presidential primary, the campaigns are pushing hard for votes. A close race is expected between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Latino voters could play an important role in the outcome.
Central Falls is the tiniest town in the smallest state. The one square mile city of 20,000 residents is also mostly Latino. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s campaign chose Central Falls as the site for its second campaign office. The head of Clinton’s Rhode Island campaign, Nick Black, welcomed the crowd during a kickoff event.
"Good evening, Central Falls!" Black said to cheers. "One of the reasons why we opened this office is because it’s very important to be in this community. It’s a community on the rise, so we’re glad to be here, glad to have the support, and I just wanted to thank you all for coming.
Central Falls’ first Latino mayor, James Diossa, warm\ed up the diverse audience of more than 100 people in a storefront on Broad Street, calling Clinton a fighter for economic opportunity and social justice. Before long, he passed the mike to another Rhode Island political pioneer.
"I want to bring in the Latino mix and welcome our first female Latina secretary of state, Nellie Gorbea," he said.
"Gracias, gracias, buenas tardes al todo, good afternoon! This is exciting times," Gorbea said. "It’s going to happen in Rhode Island! I am excited to be here supporting the next president of the United States, Hillary Clinton."
One of the next speakers, Central Falls’ state Senator Elizabeth Crowley, is not a Latina. But like almost all of the elected Democrats in Rhode Island, Crowley is a staunch Clinton supporter. "She’ll stand for the little guy, and there’s no one littler than Central Falls, one square mile," Crowley said.
Sure, Central Falls is little. But Democrats wield big influence in Rhode Island. They hold all the state and federal offices, and most of the legislative seats. That means they can mobilize volunteers, and use their contacts to support Clinton’s campaign.
Still, the race between Clinton and Bernie Sanders is considered competitive. And with a close contest, Latinos could make the difference, since they represent 15 percent of Rhode Island’s population.
"People are pretty upset and are looking for alternatives, and are looking for real progress in terms of our children," said Pablo Rodriguez, an elder statesman of Rhode Island’s Latino politics. We should also note he’s on our board at Rhode Island Public Radio. Rodriguez said people he talks with are troubled by how their kids’ academic performance is among the worst in the nation for Latinos: "Immigration is really not the top issue for Latinos. Jobs and education are the most important issues."
Latinos overwhelmingly vote Democratic in Rhode Island. Their concerns about jobs and education have created an opportunity for Bernie Sanders’ insurgent challenge to Hillary Clinton.
Faye Zuckerman dialed supporters from Sanders’ Providence campaign office on Broad Street, the gateway to the city’s heavily Latino South Side. "What I’m trying do to today is sign up people like you who said you were willing to help canvass in neighborhoods, maybe do a staging from near outside your house," she said.
Outside, a hand-written sign counts the days until the primary. Inside, Zuckerman is one of about 10 volunteers trying to expand Sanders’ grassroots movement. Twenty-three-year-old Genesy Peguero is also a volunteer. Peguero happens to be a Latina; her heritage is Dominican.
"I’m a recent college graduate," Peguero said. "I’ve left college now with a bunch of loans and I would hate to see that happen to the generations below under me. I know that Bernie is strongly advocating for free college, free tuition."
Peguero says overcoming Hillary Clinton’s familiarity can be a challenge in building Sanders’ support among Latinos in Rhode Island: "So volunteers like myself, my friends, people here, are willing to let them know what it is Bernie stands for and what he’s doing. I plan to stand up as a Latina and let my community know that he’s actually working to help us."
The political director for Sanders’ Rhode Island campaign, Joe Caizzo, said the strategy comes down to getting out and talking to voters.
"Our whole game plan with the Latinos is the same as any other large swath of voters, you know, we’re doing doors and phones, we do have literature that’s in Spanish. But I think this speaks to the fact that Senator Senator’s key issues are those that affect people basically across the board. There is no certain set of issues that affect some over others."
Back in Central Falls, Clinton’s message appeals to some Latino voters like Maria Cristina Betancur: "She has a lot of experience and she’s not only running for president, she was secretary of state, and I think her experience counts a lot. She cares about Latinos and she really cares about families."
With the primary drawing close, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has brought in surrogates like Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez and former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank. The campaign is also airing a Spanish-language ad that takes aim at the Republican front-runner. The ad said – quote – “Donald Trump wants to divide us, calling immigrants ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists.’ ”
Trump’s Rhode Island campaign chair, state Rep. Joe Trillo, said there’s nothing he can do if some of Trump’s statements have turned off Latinos. But Trillo says some Latinos support Trump’s plan for stopping illegal immigration. Then again, Latino Republicans are very few and far between in Rhode Island, although the state GOP is trying to cultivate more Latino supporters.
Latinos have steadily picked up more political seats over the last 15 years, including the mayor’s office in Providence. That influence can be expected to grow in the years to come, as Latinos strive like other immigrant groups before them for better jobs, better education, and political representation.