Angel Taveras may soon be Providence’s first Latino mayor. But his victory in the recent Democratic primary is much more than a triumph of the city’s growing Hispanic population. It marks the death of a political entitlement accorded to two ethnic groups — Italian- and Irish-Americans — for decades in the capital city.
Taveras’ opponents, State Representative Steven Costantino and City Councilman John Lombardi lost, and lost big, in neighborhoods where ethnic political attachments might have held sway just a few years back.
Not so long ago, anyone but an Irishman would have had a steep uphill battle on Smith Hill — absent a green stamp of approval — and anyone but an Italian running in the Silver Lake section of Providence would have been written off in a heartbeat.
Taveras won handily in both areas, even with the once influential Councilman Terry Hassett of Smith Hill and the formerly powerful Councilman John Igliozzi of Silver Lake supporting Costantino.
Former Mayor pro-tem John Lombardi did carry his home turf on Federal Hill and four other wards, but couldn’t build enough momentum to broaden that victory, even in neighborhoods where his Italian surname would once have been gold.
Lombardi’s and Costantino’s losses in Providence, like Bill Lynch’s loss in Pawtucket (the Lynch dynasty’s home base and stepping stone to bigger political plums for two generations), mark a sort of dirge for Irish-Italian power.
Many Rhode Islanders cannot remember a time when the mayor of Providence wasn’t either an Italian-American or an Irish-American male. The more recent era of Cicciline, Lombardi, Paolino and Cianci was preceded by decades of names like Doorley, Reynolds, Roberts, Collins, and Dunne — all the way back to 1927.
Before the mid-1920s, running Providence fell mainly to men whose WASP names can still be seen on Providence school buildings, parks and street signs: Olney, Knight, and Bridgham, to name a few.
Periodically, non-Italian and non-Irish descendants tried to re-take City Hall — the late Fred Lippitt comes to mind — but the Irish-Italian grip on the job was simply too strong. Every election day, voters — mostly Democrats— would rally around their candidate.
And when Rhode Island’s Irish- or Italian-American candidates reached beyond their ethnic bases, they didn’t reach too far. Italian-American hopefuls would often have an Irish-American wife, campaign chairman or top aide; Irish-American candidates would trot out their de rigueur Italo “intimates” in the same way.
Every March, politicians at both City Hall in Providence and in the Senate lounge at the State House celebrated both St. Patrick and St. Joseph on the same day. They usually ate the proverbial Italian zeppole filled with green cream to honor the Irish.
There is, now, a change in the air. This March, if those Irish and Italian saints are honored at all, perhaps it will be with dulce de leche, sweet potato pie, Asian sweet buns, honeyed Middle Eastern pastries, or other sweets from around the globe.
But even if we acknowledge our diversity more fully, there is a tribalism in this state that will be difficult to eradicate. In Rhode Island, locals always answer the question, “What nationality are you?” by responding, “Italian” or “Irish” or “Armenian” or “German,” or what-have-you. The fact that we are all “Americans” is lost in a shuffle of ethnic identities we seem reluctant to give up.