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The View From Latino Voters In The Northeast


And I'm Steve Inskeep, in Providence, R.I., where we're getting a view from the Northeast in this election year. Nellie Gorbea is with us. She is secretary of state of Rhode Island, which makes her the first Latino official elected at a statewide level in all of New England. Could our live audience give her a welcoming this morning?


INSKEEP: We were - we were chatting beforehand. You said you were part of The Latino Wave in Rhode Island. What's that?

NELLIE GORBEA: So going back - I mean, this is - the Latino community in Rhode Island goes back to the '50s, but there was a huge influx in the '90s and the aughts that - I arrived here in 1992, and you could just feel it.

INSKEEP: From Puerto Rico, you came.

GORBEA: Well, I came from Puerto Rico, but there were communities like Dominicans, Colombians, who had been here dating back to the '50s, and it just sort of swelled. And the way I describe it is, you know, when you go to the mall. When I first got here, it was all English. And now it's, like, English and Spanish.


GORBEA: And, you know, even further more south into the state.

INSKEEP: So this region that has been whiter than some other parts of the country is becoming much more diverse. Now, you're a Democrat, we should mention that, but there are more statewide Latino officials across the country who are Republican. Why is that?

GORBEA: You know, it's hard to say. One would wonder that it's particularly in this election cycle. But, you know, clearly the Republican Party has been doing a concerted effort to try to groom people for these statewide positions.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, there were two Latino presidential candidates who are Republicans this time around.

GORBEA: That's right.

INSKEEP: So really interesting time to be a - a really interesting time to be in politics, and some contradictions, given the massiveness of the Democratic Latino vote.


INSKEEP: Let's play some tape here that gets into some of the complexities of being a Latino official, perhaps - or, let's say an official from a minority group. This is Raj Mukherji. We met him in Jersey City, N.J. He is the state's only Indian-American assemblyman.


RAJ MUKHERJI: You want to ensure that you're not pigeonholed as an ethnic candidate. You don't want to be the Filipino candidate. You don't want to be the candidate proffered by the Latino community to represent solely the interests of that community. You have to represent the community as a whole.

INSKEEP: You were nodding as he was talking.

GORBEA: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: We have heard, though, from conservative voters who feel that that is exactly what Democrats have been doing - representing individual groups and not representing the whole.

GORBEA: I disagree completely. Actually, if you see the Latino electeds in Rhode Island, you'll find that over half of them are actually in communities where Hispanics are not the majority. So you find that Latino candidates are engaging with the community as a whole.

INSKEEP: How do you make sure you do reach out to everyone?

GORBEA: You just talk to people like they're people.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GORBEA: You know? You just have conversations and you exchange viewpoints. And I think one of the beauties of Rhode Island is that it's a small enough state that you can go all over and introduce yourself. And, yes, the media dollars are important, for sure. But in the end, people remember who they spoke to and tell people who they know. And so that I think - that and the fact that we have an immigrant community and an immigrant history. So there's been a number of communities that have gone through Rhode Island and become part of the fabric of Rhode Island.

INSKEEP: So many reasons to talk about the Latino vote. One, that it's growing. One, that it's trending so Democratic that Republicans would like to do something about that. They're on their way to nominating Donald Trump, who's been talking about immigration. And let's hear from a Donald Trump supporter we interviewed this week. June McWilliam (ph) is her name. We met at a Trump supporters meeting in Pennsylvania, and she had a button on that said Build The Wall.

JUNE MCWILLIAM: Thirty-five years ago, I started the - I saw the perils of illegal immigration, and I've been involved ever since. By the way, people think that we're racist and whatever. I have an aunt from Guatemala. I have a nephew who's half black. I'm Jewish. Not racist - I'm just a realist.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State Gorbea, do you acknowledge sincere concerns on the other side when it comes to immigration reform?

GORBEA: You know, I think anybody in elected life in this country in this day and age should absolutely be concerned about immigration reform. I mean we're basically creating people being illegal by a bureaucratic process.

INSKEEP: But is it a fair concern to be worried about what happens if you legalize people who broke the law?

GORBEA: No - so here's the point. So if we had a law right now that said driving over 25 miles an hour makes you an illegal driver, you would find that most people would be illegal drivers. And so when you have processes that takes a decade to regularize people's status, it creates an illegality that's really artificially created.

INSKEEP: Are you saying the reason to legalize people, give people legal status who are here, is because it's partly the government's fault that they broke the law because the law was the wrong law?

GORBEA: I believe that the current system absolutely makes people illegal in a way that they wouldn't be - people are looking in the immigrant community to do things in a legal way. The processes take too long, and that's what makes them illegal.

INSKEEP: Let me bring Marion Orr briefly into this conversation. He's with Brown University. He's studied the Latino vote. How has the growing Latino population changed the politics of this region where we're in?

MARION ORR: Well, what is happening - and Nellie Gorbea is an example of it - we've seen more of Latino elected officials, especially at the local level, here in Providence, for example, we've had - we have a Latino mayor today, Jorge Elorza. Prior to that in there, we had another, Angel Taveras.

So what you're seeing is the mobilization of a Latino vote, and the result is, increasingly if slowly, Latino public officials.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State Gorbea, how does the Latino vote fit into the history of this state - founded by Roger Williams, who came here seeking, he said, separation of church and state, a state that goes back to colonial times? Where do Latinos fit in?

GORBEA: Latinos fit perfectly into the Rhode Island history. This is a community that's made up of different immigrant waves, and we see it up close and personal. I mean, just 50, 60 years ago, you could go to Woonsocket, which is a community in the northern part of the state, and find people speaking French on the street. And if you - so you - those people have now become a part of this community.

We are now in the process of accepting and integrating the Latino community from a variety of backgrounds. The mayor of Providence is Guatemalan. The city council president is Puerto Rican, and the vice president of the council here is a Dominican Latina. So you have that diversity that I think really represents the future of America and the Latino community.

INSKEEP: Changing regions. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, thank you very much.

GORBEA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Marion Orr - go ahead, you can applaud her. That's fine.


INSKEEP: Why don't we also applaud Marion Orr of Brown University? Thanks for joining us early this morning.


INSKEEP: And you can also applaud as Pedrito Martinez takes us out. Thanks for your congas this morning. Take it away, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.