The rise of Sabina Matos

Posted 4/7/21

When Sabina Matos won election as president of the Providence City Council in 2019, it was impossible to know that she'd win the pick a few years later to be Rhode Island's lieutenant governor. Matos, 47, nonetheless emerged as the early frontrunner for

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The rise of Sabina Matos


When Sabina Matos won election as president of the Providence City Council in 2019, it was impossible to know that she’d win the pick a few years later to be Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor.

Matos, 47, nonetheless emerged as the early frontrunner for LG once it was clear that Dan McKee was on a path to becoming governor. During a news conference outside the State House last week, McKee cited various reasons for his selection, including Matos’s government experience and her ability to serve as an inspiration for others.

“Sabina’s story is our story, it’s my story,” the governor said, alluding to how immigrants from the Dominican Republic have traveled the path of earlier immigrant groups to the Ocean State.

McKee dismissed the idea that strategic considerations influenced his selection, although as a Latina from Providence, Matos is likely to help his statewide profile when he seeks reelection next year.

In the end, there were only a few serious/politically palatable LG contenders, including former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and state Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), and the odds were always strong that McKee would pick a woman. Matos still faces Senate confirmation.

Matos’s rise continues the significant strides made by Latinos in Rhode Island politics over the last 20 years. And the evolution of her pairing with McKee (depending largely on what happens in the 2022 election season) will offer Rhode Islanders a very different look from the mostly non-existent relationship that persisted between McKee and his predecessor, Gina Raimondo.

Ripple effects

The LG selection process – of little interest to regular people – punched above its weight in mindshare for the metaphorical Gang of 500 who pay rapt attention to Rhody politics. And while the debate about the necessity of the lieutenant governor’s office is unlikely to fade, Sabina Matos’s selection does have tangible consequences.

For starters, there’s the matter of filling the Ward 15 city council seat in Providence. More significantly, Matos is no longer in the potential field of candidates for mayor of Providence in 2022, where Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune, and Brett Smiley are off and running. (Does Aaron Regunberg, who narrowly lost the LG race to Dan McKee in 2018, jump in?)

Finally, assuming she is confirmed, Matos gets a leg up in the race for LG next year, with 18 months to develop her record as an incumbent. Who else runs? For now, the potential candidates include Regunberg and Sen. Louis DiPalma.

How history rhymes, RI version

Back in 1992, Joe Shekarchi managed the presidential campaign in Rhode Island of Paul Tsongas. That’s noteworthy since Tsongas co-founded the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that raised an alarm almost 30 years ago about growing federal budget deficits and the national debt. (For perspective on how things have changed, the U.S. hasn’t had a budget surplus since 2001, and the debt to GDP ratio has surpassed 100 percent in recent years.)

While Tsongas died in 1997, Shekarchi – in his current role as House speaker – will have considerable influence over how the gusher of federal stimulus money pouring into Rhode Island will get spent. The magnitude of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package has sparked GOP concerns about the fiscal fallout. Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, respond by citing the need to bolster the economy.

Asked for comment, Shekarchi said in a statement, “I am concerned about the large federal deficit, but obviously have no control over it. I want to point out that unlike the federal government, Rhode Island is required to pass a balanced budget every year. If the federal government is going to send Rhode Island stimulus money, we are going to accept it and put it to good use. It is worth noting that interest rates are substantially lower than they were when Paul Tsongas was discussing this issue nearly 30 years ago.”

Climate fight

The most significant environmental bill to emerge from the General Assembly in years, the Act on Climate, is shaping up as the first legislative showdown of Gov. McKee’s tenure.

McKee said he supports the intent of getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, although he cited a concern this week in a letter to lawmakers; he says the bill could lead to costly and protracted litigation against the state.

The Senate sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), downplays the concern. “[T]he reality is that the citizen suit provisions are very common in environmental law,” Euer said on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio. “And the recovery is only injunctive relief. So basically, if somebody does sue the state, basically, the state just has to follow the law. And I’m confident that once the governor and his team get a full look at the bill, that their concerns will be eased.”

The legislation has the enthusiastic backing of labor, and 70 environmental groups and individuals have signed onto a letter urging McKee to support the measure. Republicans are urging McKee to veto the bill, and he’s not ruling that out, as Patrick Anderson reported in the ProJo.

The real world for RI Democrats

Welcome to “The Real World,” RI Democratic Party version, in which a longtime political strategist with a track record of supporting pro-choice women candidates is hired to lead a party apparatus that has had a badly strained relationship with pro-choice women.

Kate Coyne-McCoy, speaking during a Zoom meeting last week of the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus, prefaced her remarks by tempering expectations that her hiring by the RIDP signals a move to the left for the party.

“While I am super-progressive, right now my goal is to get Democrats elected and I know there is a wide swath of Democrats in Rhode Island,” she said.

Coyne-McCoy said she is keen to put to rest concerns about the party’s control of VAN, the vital voter-information software, and that she wants to build a structure to support a big tent of Democratic candidates.

“This is a new day,” she said, recounting identifying in 2018 with the woman candidates outraged by a series of RIDP endorsements, including one for a former Donald Trump supporter. (A subsequent rules controversy led to the creation of the breakaway RI Democratic Women’s Caucus.)

At the same time, Coyne-McCoy indicated that she lacks ultimate authority over her work for Rhode Island’s perennially dominant party: “I’m working under somebody else’s marching orders and direction. Am I going to be influential in that process? I hope so. I’ve been at this a long time and I think I understand where the divisions are and where the challenges are.”

Fighting fires or shoreline access?

Did you know that fire districts in southern Rhode Island mostly fight public access instead of knocking down fires? That’s the key finding from an eye-opening story by my colleague Alex Nunes: “‘Weekapaug is like a medieval fortress where they draw up the drawbridge, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get in,’ said Mark Rooney, the Westerly town manager. Before moving to Rhode Island from Illinois to take his current job, Rooney said, he’d never seen anything like the Weekapaug Fire District, which also has the legal authority to raise taxes for public services. ‘This is very unusual to me: fire districts owning access to the ocean, essentially, and limiting it to their own taxing body, not to the general public,’ he said. ‘The Weekapaug Fire District is a district mislabeled in name. They are a land entity.’ Weekapaug isn’t alone. Seven coastal fire districts in Westerly, Charlestown, and Narragansett claim ownership over nearly 400 acres of property their towns have assessed at more than $18 million, and public records show acquisitions have continued in recent years. Only two of the districts, Misquamicut and Watch Hill in Westerly, have fire departments.”

Stimulus priorities

Sen. Dawn Euer on how stimulus money should be spent, via Roundtable: “I think that we need to learn lessons from previous recessions and depressions. And we need to think about building an economy that works for those in the middle and those at the bottom. What we have seen in COVID is that those who can least afford to get laid off, those who can least afford to lose their job, are the first in line of getting evicted, are the first in line for losing their economic security. I think that we need to make sure that we’re prioritizing items in the budget that are making sure that we’re having a recovery that works for working-class Rhode Islanders.”

For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org. Ian Donnis is on Twitter at @IanDon and he can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org.

politics, Donnis


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