If ever there were a golden opportunity to increase black political representation in Rhode Island, it would be this fall’s City Council elections in Providence, home to the largest black community in the state. A broad field of candidates is competing, vying for almost all of the 15 seats, signifying a greatly heightened level of interest in city politics. Yet beyond Ward 11 incumbent Balbina Young, only one other black candidate, Ward 9 challenger Kas DeCarvalho, has caught the notice of political observers, and Ward 8 incumbent Ron Allen’s decision not to run could lead to a reduction in black representation.
The small number of black candidates, particularly compared to the 11 Latinos in the hunt, reflects how the latter community has steadily become more politically active, making gains in some cases at the expense of ebbing black political participation in Rhode Island. Asked about the apex of black politics in the state, former state Representative George Lima, 87, of East Providence, who flew with the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, says, “I don’t know that we’ve reached any high point,” considering how a black person has never been elected to statewide office.
In the House, Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D-Providence), whose mother is Cape Verdean, and who identifies as a person of color, carries considerable clout. Yet there are only two other black members in the General Assembly, Senator Harold Metts and Representative Joseph Almeida, both Providence Democrats, meaning that although blacks constitute more than six percent of Rhode Island’s population, they hold just three percent of legislative seats. (And Metts, of course, won his seat via a special election after a flawed 2001 redistricting plan pitted eventual winner Juan Pichardo against Charles Walton, the Senate’s only black member.)
To some, the recent lethargy of Rhode Island’s black politics reflects the loss of urgency caused by economic progress and the fading of overt racism, although more troubling factors, like disenfranchisement and dubious redistricting, as well as wider political apathy, are also certainly part of the mix. The fast-growing Latino community, which numbers more than 125,000, has also surged past the 70,000 or so black Rhode Islanders.
Now, with a recently revived Rhode Island Black Political Action Committee targeting increased political organizing, the question becomes not just whether it can duplicate the victories of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, but whether the two groups can effectively work together.
Whose bread gets buttered?
Common sense suggests a correlation between the relative political representation of any community and how well it fares in the corridors of power. The way in which the state routinely fails to meet the goal of its 23-year-old Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) law, which says minority businesses “shall be awarded” 10 percent of the value of state procurement and construction projects, for example, is a point of frustration for many in the black community. Walton says this shows, “We’re not even at the table, essentially.”
(Brian P. Stern, executive director of the state Department of Administration, says compliance with the 10 percent MBE goal for the five fiscal years up to 2005 averaged about 7 percent, up from less than 1 percent during the first seven years of the program. He says “many [state] dollars” are also being spent on minority businesses that have not yet been certified as participants in the MBE program. Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Governor Donald L. Carcieri, notes MBE compliance has reached its highest level in recent years and says the state is striving to attain the 10 percent goal.)