Despite assumptions to the contrary, Portuguese Americans have achieved a high level of political incorporation in the state of Rhode Island and particularly in the city of East Providence. As indicated in a recently published study in Gávea-Brown (see Scott & Fraley 2014) — in a period spanning from 1930 to 2012 — we were able to identify 67 Luso Americans — 60 of Portuguese ancestry, six with Cape-Verdean roots, and one Brazilian — who were elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly, some as representatives, others as senators, and still others as both (see Tables 1 through 4).
[The research was originally inspired by Paul Tavares (former state senator and RI State Treasurer) who compiled an original list of leaders of Portuguese descent who had served in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The text that follows contains some excerpts and paraphrasing from our article (Scott & Fraley 2014)].
From 1941 to 2011, there have been 20 Portuguese American senators in Rhode Island’s General Assembly (see Tables 1 and 3). They have represented Bristol (4), East Providence (6), Little Compton (1), Cumberland (1), Jamestown (1), Middletown (1), Newport (1), Portsmouth (2), South Kingston (1) Tiverton (1), and West Warrick (1). Additionally, there were 52 representatives — five served also as senators — of whom 18 were elected in East Providence (see Tables 2 and 4).
With three senators and nine representatives serving in the 2011-2012 legislative session, Luso-Americans, including those of Portuguese and Cape Verdean descent, held close to 11 percent of Rhode Island’s General Assembly seats, while together, according to U.S. Census data, they constituted just over 11 percent of the state’s population (Portuguese close to 10 percent and Cape Verdeans around 1.5 percent). In some years, representation by elected officials of Luso descent has exceeded the Luso proportion of the population (see Chart 1).
The Portuguese have also been able to win three statewide elections: Barbara M. Leonard, although she did not acknowledge her heritage, was elected Secretary of State (1993-1995); Paul Tavares, in addition to serving as senator from East Providence, (1993-1998), was also elected to the office of General Treasurer, (1999-2007); and A. Ralph Mollis, former Mayor of North Providence, served as Secretary of State from 2007 to 2015.
Over time, people of Portuguese descent have also attained political leadership as mayors, city councilors, and school committee members, among other positions in areas of Portuguese spatial concentration in the state of Rhode Island. They have also served as members of numerous state and municipal boards and commissions. The chairman of the RI State Democratic Party from 2010 to 2013 (former Representative Edwin Pacheco) and high-profile leaders in the labor movement have also been of Portuguese origin.
Portuguese Americans have also achieved incorporation into public administration positions, such as Director of Labor and Training and Administrator of the Workers’ Compensation Court. Some moved on to the judicial system such as former Senator Gilbert Rocha as Family Court Justice, former Middletown Representative Arthur A. Carrellas as Associate Justice of the Superior Court, former East Providence Representative Antonio SaoBento as Associate Justice of the District Court, and former East Greenwich Representative Ernest C. Torres as a Federal Justice for the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. On June 25, 2012, Luis Matos, who was born in Portugal, was sworn by Governor Lincoln D. Chafee as Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court.
Portuguese American representation from East Providence, with six senators and eighteen representatives (three Cape-Verdean) from 1941 to 2012, has far outpaced the participation from other areas of Rhode Island (see Tables 1 and 2). A unique occurrence in East Providence is the service of five Portuguese Americans, who, from 1959 to the present, have held continuously the senate seat representing the 14th Senate District (previously 42th): Gilbert Rocha, William Castro, John F. Correia, Paul J. Tavares, and Daniel Da Ponte. Paul E. Moura served in a different Senate seat also from the area of East Providence.
[A tribute to Luso-American elected officials was held at Rhode Island College on October 15, 2008 in celebration of fifty-years of continuous service of Portuguese Americans in the same Senate seat from East Providence (see Picture below). The tribute included the presentation of the DVD “Legacy of Service: 50 Years of Service to the Luso-American Community and the State of Rhode Island.” The DVD was based on one hour-long video interviews carried out by Marie Fraley (Institute for Lusophone and Portuguese World Studies at Rhode Island College) and Rhode Island College students. It can be accessed through the website provided below].
© Rhode Island College Photo / Source: http://www.ric.edu/iplws/research_projects.php
Explaining the political success of the Portuguese in East Providence
An extensive analysis of the factors that are related to a high level of Portuguese political success in East Providence can be found in Scott & Fraley (2014). Here, we provide a brief summary of what we found to be the most significant factors that have been conducive to Portuguese political incorporation in this city.
Bi-partisan electoral system, population concentration, small electoral district, and WWII vacancies
In East Providence, Portuguese population concentration in a small electoral district — characteristic in a small state such as Rhode Island — may have forced both political parties to compete at the local level for the Portuguese vote.
The political party commissions of East Providence began to include Portuguese Americans in their ranks in the 1930’s — the Democratic Party in 1933 and the Republican Party in 1939 (see Providence Journal Almanac). Later on, Portuguese officials were also incorporated at the highest levels of the party structures at the state level. Both parties nominated simultaneously in 1940 a Portuguese candidate for the RI General Assembly — Frank Maciel by the Republican Party and Anthony Lamb, Jr. by the Democratic Party. Both candidates won, beginning their legislative terms in 1941 (see Table 2).
The opportunity to be nominated by the parties to political office, as pointed out by Paul Tavares in a 2011 personal interview, may also have been aided by the existence of political vacancies during WWII.
Incorporation in the 1930’s into the existing political party structures may have put in motion processes of leadership training and the acquisition of political know-how, which concurrently led to the mobilization of community organizations on behalf on the political endeavors of co-ethnic candidates. Although the Republican Party, once the dominant party in the state, went into decline after the 1930’s, the Democratic Party machines remained strong and dominant until the late 1970’s. According to see Moakley and Cornwell 2001), the Democratic machines
“… screened and nominated candidates, recruited new voters onto the Democratic rolls, campaigned and raised money tirelessly at the local and state levels, and provided core electoral support in primaries for the party’s endorsed candidates.” (136)
The labor union movement became highly organized in Rhode Island in the 1930s. In a study of Woonsocket, Gerstle (1989) provides evidence that it was customary in the late 1930s and early 1940s for labor unions in that city to balance their leadership by ethnicity, including, as such, some Portuguese in their leadership ranks. The same might have taken place in East Providence. Some of the early Portuguese American elected officials from East Providence to the RI General Assembly were labor unions leaders (e.g., Julio F. Rocha — first elected in 1944 — and John L. Lewis — first elected in 1948 — see Table 2).
With the traditional association between the Democratic Party and the labor movement, it was not unusual for labor leaders to be slated or sponsored by the party as candidates for political office. [John Lewis would come to be the campaign manager of U.S. Senator Clairborne Pell’s first campaign to the Senate in 1960.] Leadership in the unions for some Portuguese American elected officials, then, became another vehicle through which they rose to leadership positions within the ranks of the Democratic Party. Both the unions and the party played key roles in support of the candidates and in the mobilization of both the ethnic and non-ethnic vote in favor of the Portuguese candidates that they sponsored.
The political activities of Portuguese candidates in East Providence were facilitated by the existence of strong community organizations, and, in particular, Phillips Street Hall (as well as other mutual-aid societies) and Saint Francis Xavier Church. These organizations provided spaces where leaders could emerge and the Portuguese population could network, engage in collective action, and organize grassroots political activities. For example, the five senators who have held the same senate seat consecutively from 1959 to the present served as past presidents or held positions of high visibility within Phillips Street Hall as well as Saint Francis Xavier Church. Since its inception, the church has shared a deep connection to Phillips Street Hall, particularly in the joint effort to put together the annual Holy Ghost feast.
Individual and familial mechanisms
From our interviews with current elected officials, it became evident that Portuguese American candidates nowadays also rely on individual and familial mechanisms in their campaign efforts. The candidate’s family and friends become a major source of campaign support. Involvement in trans-ethnic organizations and events — such as the school system, the PTA, and children’s sports — may also provide entrance into the world of politics. For some candidates, name recognition in small towns may come through ownership of family businesses — and thus a high level of family name recognition — sometimes inherited from previous generations.
The existence of a competitive partisan electoral system — as evident in the initial election of two Portuguese legislators, one from each political party in 1940 — may have provided an initial impetus for the political incorporation of the Portuguese in East Providence. Insertion into political party commissions and party nominations for office, as well as participation and leadership of the Portuguese in labor unions, led to a politicization of community organizations and to the emergence of what has been referred to as the Portuguese “political machine” of East Providence (see Bailey, 2000). As the Republican Party went into permanent decline and Rhode Island came to have what amounted to a single party electoral system (see Moakley & Cornwell 2001, pp. 136, 138), new generations of Portuguese Americans have continued to benefit from integration into the Democratic Party, as well as the political infrastructure and the grassroots mobilization established by earlier Portuguese community and political leaders. With the continued decline of both the Democratic Party (see Moakley & Cornwell 2001, p. 131) and the labor unions in Rhode Island, Portuguese Americans will have to rely to a larger extent on individual and familial mechanisms to attain victories at the polls. The Portuguese are, nevertheless, well positioned to continue to run for office and win elections in East Providence and other areas of Rhode Island.
–Bailey, B. (2000). History and description of Portuguese immigration and the East Providence/SE New England Portuguese community. The Selected Works of Benjamin Bailey.
–Gerstle, Gary. Working-class Americanism: the politics of labor in a textile city, 1914-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
–Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies. “Projects.” Rhode Island College. http://www.ric.edu/iplws/research_projects.php.
–Moakley, M. & Cornwell, E. (2001). Rhode Island politics and government. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
–Providence Journal Almanac (various editions)
–Scott, D. M. & Fraley, M. R. (2014). How did they do it? A Structural analysis of Portuguese American political incorporation in Rhode Island. Gávea-Brown, 36:7-47.
–U.S. Census Bureau (2007-2011). Selected Population Tables. American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
Dulce Maria Scott hols a PhD in Sociology from Brown University, USA, and is full professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Anderson University, Indiana, USA.