Rhode Island's New Latina Secretary Of State


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Nellie Gorbea, the first Latina to hold a state-wide office in New England
Bill Sarno

Puerto Rico-born Nellie Gorbea’s first run for political office in Rhode Island was not only a personal triumph but it also was historic for Hispanics in New England. Running as a Democrat, she won the secretary of state contest November 4 by a wide margin and became the first Hispanic ever elected to a statewide position in New England.
Although her race was overshadowed by the contest for governor, Gorbea, a 47-year-old mother of three girls, received the most votes of anyone on the ballot, being endorsed by 60 percent of the voters and racking up a 62,000 vote margin over Republican John Carlevale.
In addition, Gorbea’s campaign drew national attention and support from Latino and female advocacy groups like EMILY’s List. Her victory established her as a rising star for a party that took its lumps nationally on Election Day.
“Her story is very compelling for Latinos and for women,”  said Jose Batista, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, an organization whose sole mission, he said, is to empower the Hispanic community.
Moreover, Gorbea’s victory underscored the assimilation of Hispanics into the Ocean State’s political mainstream.
“My election shows the kind of place Rhode Island is,” Gorbea said, citing how various communities have been integrated.
She noted that none of the major candidates, including herself and Jorge Elorza, the son of Guatemalans who was elected mayor of Providence, were portrayed as Hispanics in their candidacies.
She did deliver part of his victory speech in Spanish, however.
The 21 percentage point victory margin Gorbea generated indicated that Hispanic support was not pivotal in the secretary of state race as it was in Connecticut’s gubernatorial contest.
Rhode Island’s Latino population has tripled to nearly 140,000 people, or more than 13 percent of the population, in just 20 years, but Hispanics comprise less than 8 percent of the state’s eligible voters and an even smaller portion of the actual turnout, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
On January 6, Rhode Island’s Hispanic population will take a small but temporary bump upward as Gorbea’s parents and sibling attend her inauguration.
What drove Gorbea to this ceremony was her ability “to get her message across and to present herself as a clear choice,” Batista said.
Gorbea emphasized the need to make it easier to vote; to increase transparency in government, particularly in regard to lobbyist records; and to cut through the red tape businesses encounter in dealing with the state.
She also nailed her Republican opponent on the issue of the controversial photo ID voting law; Carlevale likes it and she champions repeal. Another difference was whether Rhode Island needs a constitutional convention: he says yes, she questions its value.
Gorbea’s path to the State House in Providence took her from the beaches of Puerto Rico, through New Jersey to North Kingstown and its nearby beaches.
It is the “beach culture” and the closeness  of the community — “everybody knows everybody” — that Gorbea says makes her new home resemble Puerto Rico and are among the reasons she loves Rhode Island.
The newly elected secretary of state grew up in San Juan as the eldest of four children. Gorbea’s father Roberto, an electrical engineer, and her mother Nellie, for whom she was named according to tradition, still live on the island, as do a brother and sister. A second brother is in Germany.
It was understood that the Gorbea children would attend college, she said. So, at the age of 17, she went to Princeton University in New Jersey where she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. At Princeton, she met her future husband, Steven D’Hondt. They dated more than six years before marrying.
Gorbea stayed a couple of years in New Jersey to work with the state government and then earned a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
After finishing graduate school, Gorbea moved to Rhode Island where D’Hondt was already a member of the faculty at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
In Rhode Island, Gorbea continued to establish solid and extensive credentials for the office she will assume in January. This includes being executive director of HousingWorksRI and receiving a political appointment to serve as deputy secretary of state for four years. She also has worked closely with various other local boards and community organizations as well as being president of RILPAC in 2002.
Among those applauding Gordea’s election is Nicole Legace, the current director of HousingWorksRI, an affordable housing advocacy group. “I am so proud and happy for her,” she said.
Last year, Gorbea stepped down from her HWRI post, when she committed to run for office.
This decision to become a candidate was the result of a long process that included deliberations with her family. One of the benefits of campaigning in a small state like Rhode Island, she said, is that every night you can come home to your family.
Gorbea’s three daughters — Isabel, 11; Cecilia, 8; and Monica Maria, 4 — frequently joined their mother on the campaign trail. They were great to have along, she said, and even helped make name tags.
Running as a Democrat was almost an automatic for Gorbea. The Democratic Party values community building and inclusiveness, she said, and, like her, “believes government can work for the good of the people.”
Based on her experience, seeking the secretary office also was a natural progression. She has said she was less interested in the title than doing the job.
What was not so automatic was getting the Democratic nomination. This required a tough primary fight against a well-financed opponent. She managed to win by 4,000 or 51.8 percent of the vote.
Along the way to the Nov. 4 election, Gorbea picked up support from various national Latino organizations and from EMILY’S List, a national political action committee that backs pro-choice Democratic female candidates. She also was endorsed by RILPAC, the group she formerly headed.
The Providence Journal, the state’s dominant newspaper, also endorsed Gorbea, describing her as a  “bright, energetic and articulate advocate of openness in government.”
The Journal did find fault with Gorbea in regard to her opposition to the state’s voter identification law.
Rhode Island’s voter ID law poses more of a hurdle and an inconvenience than a barrier. People without a valid photo ID are given a provisional ballot which is tallied if their signature matches one on their voter registration.
Supporters of the new law, which included some black and Latino legislators, said the photo ID requirement is needed to prevent election fraud in a state with a history of political corruption.
Still, the Rhode Island voter law, coming in a state with a Democratic legislature, a liberal tradition and a large immigrant population, has lent ammunition to Republican efforts in other states to impose laws that critics say would disenfranchise minorities and would torpedo the rising electoral power of Latinos.
Gorbea has expressed disappointment that the ID law was backed by her predecessor. She said there is no compelling evidence to make a change of that dimension, especially one which will suppress voting by members of minorities, the elderly and women.
Gorbea said that studies have shown that photo ID laws have a depressing effect on voter turnout.
“I want more people to vote… . Any barrier is troublesome to me,” she said in an October interview on national public radio (NPR).
Evidently, Rhode Island voters are comfortable with her position on voting rights and other issues and are willing to give her at least four years to pursue her agenda.
As for the future, Gorbea says her focus is on the task at hand. “I want to take one particular area of government and make it work well for Rhode Islanders,” she said.