Dulce Maria Scott
The general election of November 4, 2014 returned to Congress three Portuguese Americans from California: Jim Costa (D), Devin Nunes (R), and David Valadao (R). Congressman Jim Costa (D) was able to hold on to his seat in a narrow victory in competition with another Portuguese American, Johnny Tacherra (R) (Ellis 2014).
The success of Portuguese Americans from California in winning elections to the U.S. Congress, starting with the victory of Tony Coelho (D) in 1978 (see Table 1) and reaching a high of four seats (Pombo, Cardoza, Nunes, and Costa) during the 109th Congress (2005-2007) begs the question: Why have Portuguese Americans been successful in attaining seats in Congress from California but not from Massachusetts or Rhode Island?
As Jose Cruz (1998:18) states: “No single study, however representative its focus and comprehensive its range, is capable of considering the full extent of variables that influence and cause political action, and rarely, if ever, does analysis exhaust the possible interpretations of processes and outcomes.”
Socioeconomic factors, according to some scholars, can explain the differences in the level of Portuguese American political incorporation in California and New England. For example, after providing a biography of California’s six Portuguese congressmen and noting their ties to land ownership and agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, Alvin Graves (2013:173) emphatically concludes: “The successes that have been achieved in political office holding at the federal level by Portuguese Californians is a direct result of their successes in agribusiness in the San Joaquim Valley over more than a century.” The inverse side of this argument, however, is that “purportedly” lower levels of economic success among the Portuguese of New England have inhibited their capacity to win a seat in Congress.
The Portuguese of California are also said to be more established and integrated into American society than their New England counterparts. For example, a lower percentage of California’s Luso-American population is foreign born (10.5% as opposed to 21.2% in Massachusetts and 15.5% in Rhode Island, according to 2011-2013 Census Bureau data).
In this essay, while not dismissing the effects of such socioeconomic and demographic variables — but arguing that they do not tell us the whole story — I delve into the impact of social and structural factors related to the electoral systems in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and California. In particular, I ask whether differences in the level of “opportunity to run for Congress” might be a factor that has had a major, hitherto unacknowledged, impact on the electoral outcomes for Portuguese Americans in the three states under consideration in this essay. The opportunity to run for Congress is much higher in California than it is in New England.
The opportunity to run for Congress is limited in MA and RI
As I began to carry out research on the incorporation of Portuguese Americans into the Rhode Island State Assembly (initially with the assistance of the Institute for Lusophone World Studies at Rhode Island College-IPLWS) and later into the Massachusetts political systems at the municipal and state levels, this factor — opportunity to run for office — kept emerging, particularly in my interviews with Portuguese American politicians. Additionally, the capacity to be “ready,” that is to be “in the right place at the right time” was also evident in my interviews.
Critical to the opportunity to run for office and win is the emergence of open seats. This criticality was first brought to my attention in a personal interview with Paul Tavares — former Rhode Island state Senator (1993-1998) and General Treasurer (1999-2007). In East Providence, Portuguese Americans were first able to win seats to the RI General Assembly in 1940 when Frank Maciel (R) and Anthony S. Lamb, Jr. (D) were successfully elected. When asked about their victories, Tavares noted that office vacancies during WWII had created opportunities for the election of Portuguese officials to the General Assembly. [Although the emergence of vacancies is a critical variable in the political electoral process, there are other factors that account for the political success, at the state level, of the Portuguese from East Providence (see Scott and Fraley 2014)].
A small number of seats, long tenures, and single party dominance
The RI congressional delegation has 4 seats — 2 senators and 2 representatives. The MA delegation, after a gradual reduction of congressional districts from 12 in the 1970’s to 9 currently, has a delegation of 11 members (9 representatives and 2 senators — see Table 5 in Part 2 of this essay). With such a small number of districts and long tenures by incumbents, vacant seats are hard to come by.
As one looks at the tenure of RI Democratic senators Claiborne Pell (1961-1997) and John O. Pastore (1950-1976), who served respectively 36 and 26 years in Congress — and likewise at the tenures of Congressmen Barney Frank, who served 32 years, most of which in the heart of Portuguese Massachusetts, Gerry Studds (1973-1997) in Massachusetts, and Fernand St. Germain (1961-1989) in RI’s 1st district — it becomes obvious that the opportunity to run for an open seat in a political body with no terms limits, such as the U.S. Congress, can indeed be rare.
Vacancies occur even less frequently in states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where over time a single party — the Democratic Party — has become dominant, and candidates, therefore, generally run in politically “safe” districts, without much competition from members of the other major party. In single party dominant districts, the “real” competition would take place in the primary election, but running against an incumbent, generally a powerful member of one’s own party, could lead to political suicide and, as such, it is generally avoided by would be opponents.
Non-Portuguese congressional politicians become “honorary” Portuguese, against whom Luso-Americans refrain from running
As my historical research progressed, it was easy to note that politicians in Massachusetts and Rhode Island went to great lengths to cater to Portuguese-Americans. For example, RI Senator John O. Pastore, along with Senator John F. Kennedy, and Congressman Joseph Perry Jr. convinced Congress in 1958 to attribute special immigration quotas to the Portuguese in the wake of the Capelinhos disaster (for a quick reference, see Wikispaces, “Capelinhos”), sparking, thus, the latest great wave of Portuguese immigration to the U.S.. Senator Clairborne Pell was also considered a friend of the Portuguese and Portugal. Pell’s relationship with the Portuguese began when he hired a Luso-American, former union leader and RI state representative, John Lewis, to serve as manager of his first senatorial campaign in 1960 (Miller 2011).
Massachusetts congressmen and senators have been known to adopt, as their own, issues that pertained only to the Portuguese, as, for example, the protest waged by the Portuguese community against TAP’s decision to stop flying to Boston (see Portuguese Times archives in 1980-81). The following political ad placed in the Portuguese Times on October 28, 1982, shows how Barney Frank marketed himself to the Portuguese as a fighter for the needs of their community. In the full-page ad, Frank presents himself with the only Portuguese congressman at that time, Tony Coelho, who had come to Fall River to campaign for his fellow Democrat. Due to a reduction in the number of congressional districts from 12 to 11 in Massachusetts, Barney Frank had come to be in direct competition with Congresswoman Margaret Heckler for the same seat, and, thus, needed to appeal to the Portuguese vote. Examples of this type of political campaign ad abound in the Portuguese ethnic media.
More recently Patrick Kennedy (representative from RI’s 1st district, from Jan. 3, 1995 to Jan. 3, 2011) made it a point to be present at just about every major event held in the Portuguese community of that state, and was even granted honorary member status by some Portuguese organizations (see, for example, Clube Juventude Lusitana, Portuguese Times, August 30, 2000). Writing about Patrick Kennedy’s capacity to mobilize the ethnic vote, Moakley and Cornwell (2001) stated:
“U. S. Representative Patrick Kennedy has forged another variant of ethnic politics in his bids for Congress. In a brilliant strategy Kennedy first organized ethnic awareness and support among the Portuguese. Using family connections in Washington, Kennedy invited the prime minister (…) of Portugal and other high-level representatives of that country to visit Rhode Island ostensibly on trade missions. By doing so he tapped into this politically diffuse group, raised awareness of their common identity, and created strong political ties with this constituency. In a similar effort he used his family connections to invite the prime minister of Italy to Rhode Island, raising the awareness of the common bond among Italians-in a most benign and celebratory way-across party lines.”(p. 33)
Frequent travel to the Azores and continental Portugal, the bestowal of honors to American politicians by the Portuguese and Azorean governments and Portuguese American organizations, as well as repeated meetings between Azorean, Portuguese, and American politicians in both Portugal and the United States, have further cemented the ties between New England Congress leaders, Portugal, and the Portuguese communities.
Portuguese American politicians are not likely to run against powerful incumbents and members of prestigious New England families
Establishing close and productive relations with leaders in the U.S. Congress is undoubtedly a positive development for the advancement of Portugal’s and the Portuguese American political agendas. Nevertheless, such friendly ties and relations, and a sense of indebtedness on the part of the Portuguese, place obstacles to the potential election of members of this ethnic group to Congress. Portuguese Americans may feel obliged not to run against powerful figures, such as the Kennedys and long-term incumbents like Barney Frank, who have done so much for and have enjoyed such a high degree of popularity among the Portuguese, both in Portugal and the United States. As I explain below, state Senator Marc Pacheco’s decision not to run for a seat that would be vacant in the elections of 2012 provides an illustration of this claim.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank — as a result of upcoming reapportionment and redistricting that would substantially alter his district, cutting out from it the democratic stronghold of New Bedford — decided to retire from Congress (Leblanc 2011). Barney Frank’s district — the 4th — had the highest percentage of Portuguese — 18.6 % — of any district (see Table 2). With the 2012 reapportionment, which brought about a reduction of districts from 10 to 9 in Massachusetts, New Bedford and portions of Fall River became a part of the 9th district, whereas Taunton and other parts of Fall River stayed in the 4th district. As a result, the populations of the 4th and 5th districts are now respectively 10.6% and 15.3% Portuguese (see Table 3).
[While the division of the Portuguese population essentially into two districts might be seen as having negative political consequences for this population, other things being equal, this division might make it more feasible for Portuguese Americans to run from both the 4th and the 9th districts when the opportunity arises.]
After Barney Frank announced that he would retire from Congress, Marc Pacheco was among those who stated that he would consider a run for the seat (see Leblanc 2011). However, a day after Joseph Kennedy III declared that he would run in the 4th district, Pacheco announced that he would not enter the race and would instead support Kennedy (see Tuoti 2012).
In neighboring Rhode Island, Paul Tavares (state Senator, 1993-1998, and General Treasurer, 1999-2007) and Daniel da Ponte (state Senator, 1999-present) have been perhaps the best positioned Portuguese Americans to run for higher office, and indeed Tavares did so successfully when he ran in a statewide election for General Treasurer in 1988. Both Tavares and da Ponte are from the 1st district, where the percentage of people of Portuguese ancestry is double that of the 2nd district (see Table 4). When this district’s congressional seat became open in 1994, Patrick Kennedy entered the race. When the seat became open again in 2010, after Kennedy decided not to run, due to personal matters, it was not the right time for either Tavares or da Ponte to run. With former mayor of the city of Providence, David Cicilline (D), an Italian American, assuming this seat, Portuguese Americans will have to wait until Cicilline vacates it before they can try to run for it.
The political success thus far attained by the Portuguese at the local and state levels in New England should not be ignored
The political success thus far attained by Portuguese Americans in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, however, should not be overlooked. For example, in East Providence, the Portuguese have held the same senate seat for 55 years since the election of Gilbert Rocha to the General Assembly in 1958. The president of the RI Senate, Teresa Paiva-Weed, is the granddaughter of Azorean immigrants, and there are numerous Portuguese Americans who have held both elected (more than 60 just in the RI General Assembly) and appointed office at the municipal and state levels in this state.
In Fall River, Massachusetts, there have been four mayors of Portuguese descent starting with John Arruda, who served from 1958 to 1963. Most noteworthy was the “populist” tenure of Carlton Viveiros who held the same office from 1978 to Dec. 23, 1990, time at which he resigned and assumed the position of clerk-magistrate of the Southeastern District Housing Court. Portuguese Americans have also held a majority of seats in the City Councils of Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton at different times in the last few decades.
Massachusetts has had its share of state legislators, starting with Representative Arthur Goulart who was elected in 1928 and Senator Joseph Francis, who served from 1939 to the start of 1945, both from the New Bedford area. The tenure of Fall River’s Mary Fonseca as state senator for 32 years (1952-84) and as the first woman who served in a position of leadership in the Senate (Assistant Majority Whip) is quite remarkable, as are the tenures of current state Senators Marc Pacheco and Michael Rodrigues. Representative Tony Cabral’s lengthy tenure in office from 1991 to the present is also noteworthy.
We should not overlook either the great strides made by the Portuguese in the City of Taunton, where four of this city’s mayors have been of Portuguese descent: Rudolph H. Silva (1972-74), Theodore Aleixo, Jr. (1974-76), Joseph Amaral, (1978-82), and Robert Nunes (1992-99 and 2004-07). Nunes resigned from the mayor’s office on March 12, 2007 to serve as Director of Municipal Affairs for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Theodore Aleixo, Jr. and Marc Pacheco have served as representatives and as senators in a period that has spanned from 1969 to the present.
In the space afforded by this article, I cannot mention all Portuguese Americans that have been elected or appointed to political office in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Suffice it to say that in both states, people of Portuguese descent have been positioned to wage successful campaigns for national office, but various factors have contributed to making Congress seats illusive for members of this ethnic group. Among these factors, we find (1) a small and declining number of congressional seats; (2) longevity in office by highly prestigious and powerful incumbents, some of whom are members of large and established immigrant groups (e.g., Irish and Italians); (3) the stranglehold imposed inadvertently by the dominance of the Democratic Party in both states, which has meant “safe” districts for incumbents, and (4) the courting of the Portuguese vote by long-term incumbents and power elites, towards some of whom the Portuguese feel indebted and grateful, and against whom they refrain from running.
This article continues with an analysis of California in Part 2.