Providence City Council President Sabina Matos has, for some time, been seen by many observers as the clear frontrunner in the lieutenant governor sweepstakes.
After all, she has been a frequent, visible presence at Gov. Dan McKee’s public events since he assumed the state’s top job roughly a month ago.
On Wednesday morning, the long-suspected selection was made official with McKee’s formal announcement that he will nominate Matos to fill the post he himself held for six years.
“It’s a real American story. It’s a tremendous American story … It’s inspirational,” McKee said of Matos’s journey from the Dominican Republic to the steps of the State House.
“I’m humbled and excited to be here today,” said Matos, who, if confirmed by the Rhode Island Senate, will become the first person of color and the second woman to served as lieutenant governor in the state’s history.
She added: “The governor and I share a common belief that public officials whose experience is grounded in cities and streets and neighborhoods can bring thoughtful and practical leadership to Rhode Island.”
Matos, 47, has represented Ward 15 on the Providence City Council since 2010. The ward borders Cranston and includes Olneyville and parts of the Silver Lake and Valley neighborhoods. A Democrat, she became the council’s president in 2019.
Matos was born in the Dominican province of Barahona and came to the United States with her family in 1994. After a brief time living in New York City, she moved to Providence. She is a 2001 graduate of Rhode Island College, and she currently lives in Olneyville with her husband and two children.
“As the first Afra-Latina woman nominated to this post, I’m grateful to the governor’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Matos said Wednesday.
Matos cited a number of priorities in her new partnership with McKee, including ensuring COVID-19 vaccination reaches the state’s underserved communities; “addressing the affordable housing crisis”; supporting Rhode Island’s small business community; and working to “reverse learning loss” seen among the state’s K-12 population during the past year.
The jockeying for the lieutenant governor’s office – and speculation over who would be selected for the post – began during the waning weeks of 2020, as reports suggested former Gov. Gina Raimondo was being eyed for a cabinet post in the incoming Biden administration.
In early January, the new president nominated Raimondo to serve as secretary of the Department of Commerce. After a drawn-out process, she won U.S. Senate confirmation on March 2, at which point McKee officially took the reins as governor.
McKee launched an open, if at times uneven, search process to pick his successor as lieutenant governor, welcoming applications from any Rhode Islander interested in the job. In the end, approximately 80 people applied.
Last week, McKee’s office announced that list had been narrowed down to five finalists – Matos, former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, state Sen. Louis DiPalma, state Rep. Grace Diaz and Rhode Island Democratic Party treasurer Elizabeth Beterra-Perik.
The selection of Matos will have a significant impact on politics in Providence, where she was seen as a likely contender in next year’s mayoral election.
It also has major statewide implications, given that all five of the state’s general offices will be on the ballot in 2022.
McKee, who had long been expected to run for governor, will now seek the Democratic nomination as an unexpected incumbent. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who are all term-limited in their current roles, are also expected to join the Democratic field.
Matos’s selection may stymie the plans of other lieutenant governor aspirants. It sets up McKee and Matos to effectively run as a ticket next year – a marked change from recent election cycles, and a sharp departure from the often distant, or even strained, relationship between Raimondo and McKee.
It also represents a chance for McKee to potentially broaden his coalition heading into next year’s primary – although Steve Frias, a historian and the state’s Republican National Committeeman, says the “impact of running mates on the outcome of an election is over-hyped and is rather insignificant.”
Additionally, the process of filling the vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office has generated renewed debate over whether the post ought to be filled at all. The late Robert Healey, founder of the Cool Moose Party who once ran for lieutenant governor with the sole objective of eliminating the office, has often been evoked. Frias and others publicly called on McKee not to fill the position, citing the its relative lack of responsibility – and the roughly $1 million budget for the office as a whole.
During Wednesday’s announcement, McKee said his selection of Matos represents “an opportunity to show how a governor and a lieutenant governor can work together as one team in the best interest of all Rhode Islanders.”
Asked by a reported if picking Matos had more to do with political positioning than governing, McKee replied: McKee – “That’s ridiculous. This is about the work, and it’s not about any political agenda.”
Matos also said she views the arrangement as a “partnership.”
Asked why should would accept the lieutenant governor nomination rather than remain in Providence and seek the mayor’s office, Matos said: “The question is, why not? I think that this is a great opportunity for me to give back to the state.”
Matos on Wednesday said she is uncertain when the Senate will take up her nomination.