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Rhode Island's Nellie Gorbea becomes first Latina in New England to run for governor

"I am the only candidate who's actually transformed an agency of government, and that's something that nobody else has done."
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea before giving the oath of office to the State Representatives at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, R.I., on Jan. 5, 2021.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea before giving the oath of office to state representatives at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, R.I., on Jan. 5.Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is running to become the state's next governor in 2022.

Gorbea, a Democrat, is the first Latina to run for governor in New England. If she wins, Gorbea would also be the first Puerto Rican governor in the mainland.

Gorbea, 53, is no stranger to making history in public office. In 2015, she became the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in New England when she became secretary of state. She was re-elected to the position in 2018, and her term ends next year.

"Yes, they elected the first Latina statewide official, but almost more important than that is that I performed, that I delivered on what they hoped I would do," Gorbea told NBC News. "Many of them came up to me and encourage me to run for governor."

Gorbea said that as secretary of state, she modernized Rhode Island’s elections infrastructure, increased cybersecurity measures and brought both online and automated voter registration to the state. She has developed online resources and reduced red tape to make it easier for small businesses to start and grow.

"It's being able to deliver an election during a pandemic where everybody who was eligible to vote could vote in a safe and secure manner, or having record numbers of businesses incorporate during the year of the pandemic, because we had already prepared ourselves with online systems and training to make sure that we could do that," Gorbea said.

"Rhode Island, like a lot of the country, is at a crossroads. We need to elect people into office that are willing to rethink how we're doing government and make it, deliver it to the people," she said.

Gorbea is entering a crowded Democratic primary race that's expected to include the incumbent, Gov. Daniel McKee; General Treasurer Seth Magaziner; and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, an independent, has already announced that he will run as a Democrat, The Boston Globe reported.

McKee, a former lieutenant governor, replaced Gina Raimondo as governor in March when she became secretary of commerce in the Biden administration.

When asked how she plans to stand out in what's anticipated to be a packed race, Gorbea confidently responded, "I am the only candidate who's actually transformed an agency of government in Rhode Island, and that's something that nobody else has done."

Gorbea said some of her constituents approach her, even when she's out grocery shopping with her mask on, to thank her for how well the 2020 election went amid the pandemic and for providing more online resources to make it easier to start or maintain a small business.

Additionally, Gorbea overhauled lobbying laws to hold special interests accountable when they don’t follow the law, ensure better compliance so the public can see who is influencing their government and enhance transparency.

"What comes next is a turning point in the history of the state and in the history of our country because we need to build things in a fundamentally different way," Gorbea said. "The government structures that were created in the '80s and '90s are not going to help us handle our cyber challenges" — an issue that rose to prominence this month when Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., was forced to shut down operations after one of the most disruptive cyberattacks in U.S. history.

In videos announcing her campaign, in English and in Spanish, Gorbea said she is "running for governor to make government more accountable to the people, to bring diverse voices to the table and connect people to hopeful opportunities that will help them thrive."

Gorbea is part of a growing number of Latinos who have been elected into public office in Rhode Island in recent years, including mayors, state legislators and other local offices.

The rise of Latino political power in Rhode Island is consistent with the state's Latino population growth.

About 148,000 Latinos live in Rhode Island, making up about 16 percent of the state's population, most of whom speak Spanish. Nearly 123,000 native Spanish-speakers live in Rhode Island, which is 12.3 percent of the state's population.

"In order to build an equitable and just economy, you got to focus locally on making sure that every kid has a quality education, that you have housing affordability across a variety of economic incomes. And then we need to be able to address the challenges and opportunities of climate change," Gorbea said.

Gorbea said that the combination of both her lived and professional experiences put her in a unique position to deliver on those promises.

Gorbea was born in Puerto Rico. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

In the late 1990s, Gorbea worked at the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank. She then served as deputy secretary of state from 2002 to 2006 when Matt Brown was secretary of state.

Gorbea has also worked as the program officer for economic and community development for the Rhode Island Foundation. She was the founding president of the now dissolved Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and the executive director of HousingWorks.

"That is where my background absolutely comes into play. It's yes, my dedication for public service, but it's also the fact that I come into it as a Latina, and someone who has made her home here in Rhode Island," Gorbea, who lives in of North Kingstown, said. "It's not just the six and a half years that I've worked as secretary of state. It's the almost 30 years of working in the community at the state and local level to make sure that government is held accountable."

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