PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos kicked off her campaign for a full term on Thursday, pledging to keep her focus on “everyday Rhode Islanders” while highlighting the history she made when she took office.
“I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to run for office here in this country,” Matos told supporters during a noontime event at the Providence headquarters of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a nonprofit that supports the local food industry.
“I never imagined that a girl from the Dominican Republic who spoke little English when I came to this country — and my first job was in the garment factory in New York City before I moved to Rhode Island — that one day I would be the first Black female elected statewide in the state of Rhode Island,” Matos said.
Matos, 48, was serving as Providence City Council president a year ago when newly inaugurated governor Dan McKee picked her as his own replacement in the lieutenant governor’s office. Her campaign said it made her the first Black woman to hold statewide office in New England, as well as the first Afro-Latina to serve as a general officer in Rhode Island.
She is looking to defy history again this November. According to the state library, records dating back to 1640 show no appointed Rhode Island lieutenant governor has ever been elected to a full four-year term. The last appointee to the job, Republican Bernard Jackvony, lost his bid for a full term in 1998.
McKee and Matos have been close partners in office, with the lieutenant governor regularly appearing by the governor’s side at events and news conferences, and his office sometimes billing its announcements as coming from “the McKee-Matos administration.” He stood alongside her at Thursday’s kickoff, as she did at his in February, though neither one spoke at the other’s event.
The pair are running independent re-election campaigns, which Matos attributed to the fact that the state constitution contains no provision for joint tickets. During her speech, she thanked McKee for allowing her “to fully, authentically, and independently represent the people of Rhode Island through the lens of my lived experience.”
Matos has already drawn two challengers in the Democratic primary. State Sen. Cynthia Mendes is running on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, touting an anti-establishment progressive agenda. And last week another state lawmaker — state Rep. Deb Ruggiero of Jamestown — announced she would run for the job, too.
Incumbency isn’t the only advantage Matos has over her two Democratic rivals — she also has significantly more campaign cash in the bank, with $309,000 on hand as of Dec. 31, according to the R.I. Board of Elections. Ruggiero had $56,000, while Mendes had $53,000.
Two Republicans — Jeann Lugo, a Providence police officer, and Paul Pence Jr., who was the GOP nominee against McKee in 2018 — have also filed in the race.
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Matos used her speech Thursday to tout what she’s done in the job so far, saying voters have already been able to see her priorities and her work ethic. She listed four policies she would focus on in a full term: housing costs, education and job training, senior services, and economic development.
On housing, Matos said, “We cannot accept a reality where a family making $50,000 a year can only afford to live in three communities.” She said she played “a central role” in crafting McKee’s proposal to spend $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to develop more affordable housing.
She also touched on the pandemic, commiserating with other parents who had to help their children deal with remote school, and sharing the story of her father, who she said was one of the first COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Rhode Island and is now suffering from “Long COVID.”
“By the grace of God and thanks to the incredible doctors and nurses at Roger Williams Medical Center, he is still with us,” Matos said, as her father looked on from the audience.
Born and raised in the Dominican Republic — where her father served as a mayor — Matos immigrated to the U.S. with her family at age 20. After moving to Providence, she got a job at the Swarovski jewelry factory and also enrolled in English language courses, eventually earning a degree in communications from Rhode Island College.
She first ran for City Council in 2006, a year after becoming an American citizen, but lost to incumbent Josephine DiRuzzo. Four years later Matos won a rematch, taking over the Ward 15 seat that includes the Olneyville, Silver Lake and Valley neighborhoods. She later led the council as president for two terms.
In addition to McKee, other notables on hand to support Matos included Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva, Providence City Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan, union leader Michael Sabitoni and a number of state lawmakers.
Speaking to reporters after her speech, Matos dismissed questions about whether she could work with one of McKee’s rivals for governor if he loses but she wins, saying she isn’t expecting that to happen. She also downplayed the recently revealed FBI investigation into the McKee administration’s controversial awarding of a contract to the politically connected consulting firm ILO Group.
Last week the Matos campaign announced the hiring of four staffers: campaign manager Kristina Contreras Fox, senior communications advisor Mike Raia, research consultant Pete Brodnitz, and media consultants Tierney Hunt and Matt Burgess. Raia and Brodnitz both worked on Raimondo’s re-election campaign in 2018.
Matos lives in Providence with her husband, Patrick Ward, and their two children.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.