Recent campaign comments by Democratic congressional candidate Joseph R. Paolino Jr., urging an end to bilingual education programs and expressing support for making English the official national language have incensed members of the Rhode Island Hispanic community.
The Dominican-American Political Committee is asking Latinos not to vote for Paolino, labeling him “an enemy” who opposes “the advancement and the rights of Hispanics and immigrants in the state.”
On July 27, the emcee at the Puerto Rican Festival snubbed Paolino, refusing to let him address the thousands of Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans who had gathered at Roger Williams Park, even though other political candidates already had spoken.
Paolino, a former mayor of Providence, recently resigned as U.S. ambassador to Malta to return home and seek the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Jack Reed.
Paolino won the Democratic endorsement at the state convention in June, but faces a September primary against Lt. Gov. Robert A. Weygand, former West Warwick Mayor Kathryn O’Hare and former state Sen. Joseph J. McGair.
The 2nd District covers most of the western half of the state. It does not include the Blackstone Valley, where many Hispanics live, but it does include South Providence, home to a large percentage of the state’s Hispanic population.
Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, estimates there are 12,000 to 13,000 Latino voters in the district.
“In a primary, that’s a real number,” West said. “I suspect that voter turnout among Hispanics in general will be up because of the (Speaker of the House Newt) Gingrich revolution. People understand that the stakes are very high.”
Emphasizes Italian heritage
On the campaign trail, Paolino has emphasized his Italian background, drawing a contrast between his forebears and more recent immigrants.
“Our families came here to find a newer world, with a better chance.” Paolino said at a Verrazzano Day banquet in May. ” . . . They didn’t come through the back door. They came here legally. . . . They were humble, honest, and saw American citizenship as an opportunity to learn more, earn more and give something back.
“And they wouldn’t even think about taking a handout or anything they didn’t earn. To suggest welfare as a way of life to them was unthinkable. To ignore American culture or to be educated in their native tongue instead of English would have been admitting failure.” Paolino’s “native tongue” reference was aimed at bilingual education classes in which students take their academic subjects in their native language while learning English. This contrasts with English as a second language classes in which students receive intensive training in English until they are ready to join mainstream classrooms.
In June, Paolino again took aim at bilingual education, saying in his announcement speech that he supported “phasing (it) out.”
This week, Paolino changed his position, saying “we should have an open debate on” its future.
“Even 20 years from now, there should be bilingual education, but it should be for a better way of life, not a way of life. Bilingual education did not exist when the Europeans came here. Some lost out. Some worked harder,” he said.
Paolino likened bilingual education to welfare and public housing, which are supposed to be transitional social services, but often aren’t.
In an interview Monday, Paolino reiterated his support for English Only, a national movement that would require all government business to be conducted in English. He said that if the proposal becomes law, he would introduce legislation to appropriate financing for programs that teach English.
“This country is a nation made up of all nations,” he said. “The one thing that brings us together is our English language.”
A bill that would make English the official language of the United States cleared the House of Representatives last Thursday. The Senate will now consider it.
Latinos attack stance
Paolino also supports Senate Bill 1664, which would provide $ 12 million to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for improved enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, among other things.
Victor Mendoza, a member of the Dominican-American Political Committee, said that many Hispanics believe that Paolino considers it safe to target immigrants.
“You can read between the lines and see what he is doing,” Mendoza said. “He is running in a district where there are not many Latinos, and so he thinks he can pander to the crowd. . . . He’s saying his ancestors came here to work, while ours came to live off welfare.”
Paolino’s stance on immigration should be a warning to Latinos, said Ramon Feliz, also a Dominican activist.
Feliz said that while Paolino was mayor of Providence, he praised immigrants, but that he now appears to have adopted the kind of anti-immigrant platform that is winning votes for candidates elsewhere in the country.
Paolino said that the Hispanic community should work with him on immigration issues, rather than react to perceived slights. He also said that he was refused permission to speak at the Puerto Rican Festival because of a political grudge.
Recounting the incident at the festival when Paolino asked to speak, emcee Jenny Rosario said she told him: “Over my dead body.”
Rosario, a teacher at Hope High School in Providence, says Paolino was trying to call in a political favor.
“He said to me, ‘But I hired you for the Housing Authority when I was mayor in Providence,’ ” Rosario said. “I didn’t care. He can’t get away with saying those things to us.”
“Jenny and I go back,” Paolino said Monday. “She always wanted me to give her a job she was not qualified for. I couldn’t play politics. . . . She did this for political and personal reasons.”
Organizers said they had planned to give Paolino a chance to speak, but people gathered at the front of the Temple to Music saw him and protested, said Lourdes Saiz, president of the Puerto Rican Parade of Rhode Island Inc., sponsor of the festival.
“There were Dominicans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans there. Everybody started yelling when they saw Mr. Paolino was going to talk,” she said. “Jenny and the people told him no. Maybe he should have brought a Hispanic representative to introduce him.”
Meeting with Latinos
Lt. Gov. Weygand, one of Paolino’s opponents in the Democratic primary, said he believes the English Only push “is a hidden agenda similar to (Republican presidential candidate) Pat Buchanan’s and Newt Gingrich’s, and smacks of segregation of the haves and have-nots.”
Weygand said that bilingual education is a proven tool that leads people to greater self-esteem and better jobs.
Weygand has agreed to meet with a group of Latinos tonight at 7 at the International Institute in Providence to discuss his views and answer questions.
Paolino had planned to meet next week with a separate group from the International Institute representing immigrants and refugees, but rescheduled the meeting to today at 4:30 p.m.
The meeting, however, has been limited to three people, said Delia Smidt, legal education coordinator for the International Institute.<