PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On the day in 2011 when Sabina Matos was first sworn in as a member of the Providence City Council, nothing went right.
Shortly before the ceremony in the council chambers was set to begin, an audio speaker fell onto Matos’s family, hitting her 10-month-old daughter, Annemarie, on the head. The baby was rushed to the hospital and treated for minor injuries.
Laughing about it now, Matos has two distinct memories of the accident: Annemarie vomiting, and the panicked look she got from new Mayor Angel Taveras, who was on hand to greet the council.
Eight years later, things went smoother for Matos on Monday as the Ward 15 Democrat was sworn in for her third and final term on the council and then quickly elected its president on a 10-4 vote – with one abstention – by her colleagues. She is the first woman to be voted to the leadership post at the beginning of a term.
Matos, 44, will serve as president of an all-Democratic council made up of eight women and seven men, the first female-majority in city history. Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, who represents Ward 5, will serve as majority leader.
“These are important firsts for our city,” Matos told her colleagues after the vote. “These firsts help pave the way for others, and remind us that although we have come far, there is still much work to do to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.”
In an interview last week, Matos said she’s hopeful the council will begin having serious discussions about affordable housing across the city. She said she wants to find ways to close the gap between Providence’s owner-occupied tax rate of $18.80 per $1,000 of assessed of value and the non-owner-occupied rate of $31.91 per $1,000. City landlords have long lobbied the council to reduce the tax rate, and Matos said she believes doing so could stabilize rents.
Matos said Providence officials need to continue discussing the city’s long-term finances, although she acknowledged she does not support Mayor Jorge Elorza’s idea of monetizing the city’s water supply to prop up the poorly-funded retiree pension system. She did express support for Elorza’s pledge to offer all children in Providence access to pre-kindergarten programing at no cost to their families.
Matos also said she understands she needs to unite a City Council that was divided throughout the last four-year term. Although she did not face a challenger for president Monday, she admits she hasn’t yet won the support of all 14 of her colleagues. She said she’s not taking anything for granted.
“Out of respect for the office, for the constituents and for my colleagues, I shouldn’t be cavalier about it,” Matos said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a spotlight. I know that whatever I do is going to reflect the whole City Council. I want to do a good job.”
An immigrant’s story
Sabina Matos was born in the Dominican Republic, the daughter of a former mayor of Paraiso in the province of Barahona. Her mother worked as a teacher before the family moved to the United States in 1994. Matos had just turned 20 when she arrived in New York. Her initial memories of her new home all involve the hit Disney film “The Lion King” because her first job in the country was to deliver movie memorabilia designs in New York.
Matos quickly moved to Providence with her family, enrolling at the Community College of Rhode Island and later Rhode Island College. She said she spoke limited English, but she enrolled in classes to help her learn the language. She graduated from RIC with a degree in communications. She now works as the chief of program development at the R.I. Department of Administration.
Matos became a United States citizen in 2005 and first ran for City Council a year later, losing a close race to veteran Councilwoman Josephine DiRuzzo. She challenged DiRuzzo again four years later and won the seat in Ward 15, which includes the Olneyville, Silver Lake and Valley neighborhoods.
“I know that when a community cares about each other, when a community understands that we’re all in this together, we can achieve great things,” Matos wrote in a letter to constituents in 2010. She easily won re-election in 2014 and again in November.
On the council, she has served as president pro tempore and as a member of the Finance Committee, the legislative body’s busiest subcommittee. She also chaired the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning, a powerful panel that decides how to spend Providence’s $5 million federal Community Development Block Grant.
Matos briefly served as acting council president in 2017 after then-President Luis Aponte (Ward 10) was charged with embezzling from his campaign account. Aponte stepped down from the leadership post, but remained on the council. (He was re-elected last year and his criminal case is still pending.) But Matos failed to secure the votes to keep the job and was ultimately replaced by Councilman David Salvatore (Ward 14) for the final year of the term.
‘We all bring different strengths’
Her campaign for council president started soon after she beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Oscar Vargas. With the council on track to have a female majority, Salvatore backed off running for the top job. Other candidates flirted with running for president, but Matos quickly locked up the eight votes she needed to take the gavel. She added a ninth vote in December, all but ending the possibility of a challenge from the floor.
“What I like about the team that is coming together is we all bring different strengths, and that makes us better,” Matos said.
That team includes Ryan as majority leader, Councilman Michael Correia (Ward 6) as president pro tempore, Councilman John Igliozzi (Ward 7) as Finance Committee chairman and Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) as deputy majority leader. Other public supporters of Matos included Councilors Nick Narducci (Ward 4), James Taylor (Ward 8), Carmen Castillo (Ward 9) and Aponte.
Matos is hopeful that support base will grow.
She said she has tried to avoid pushing too hard for the four newcomer councilors – Helen Anthony (Ward 2), Taylor, Kat Kerwin (Ward 12) and Rachel Miller (Ward 13) – to support her because she understands the beginning of a term can be overwhelming. Her message to them: build alliances.
“They need to figure out what it is they want to accomplish in these four years,” Matos said. “They need to figure out how they’re going to accomplish this. Anything they want to accomplish, even if it’s something I’m not on the same page with, they are going to need their eight votes.”
But Monday was finally Matos’ day.
She was joined in the council chambers by her parents and her husband, Patrick Ward. Her children, Diego and Annemarie, were also standing by their mom. She joked that she had one goal for the day: get everyone dressed and out of the house on time.
“And stay away from the speakers,” she said, laughing.