Sep 5, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Just 1 Dominican American serves in Congress — but that could soon change

Latino representation in the <span style="color: #3A3A3A; background-color:#cfd0d0; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap">U.S.</span> and the <span style="color: white; background-color:#19AD6D; padding: 0px 4px; display: inline-block; margin: 5px 0px 0px; white-space: nowrap;">118th Congress</span>
Data: Pew Research, U.S. Census; Note: U.S. population values as of 2021; Chart: Axios Visuals

Dominican Americans, one of the fastest growing U.S. Latino groups, have rarely cracked federal office — although that could start to change with a special congressional election in Rhode Island that includes two Dominican American candidates.

Driving the news: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and state Sen. Ana Quezada, both Dominican Americans, are among the field of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the race for former Rep. David Cicilline's open House seat.

The big picture: Despite a 200% increase in the Dominican American population in the U.S. — from about 800,000 in 2000 to 2.4 million now, according to the Pew Research Center — there is only one Dominican American in Congress: U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) He's also the first one.

  • While there are roughly the same number of Dominican Americans in the U.S. as Cuban Americans, there are 10 Cuban Americans in Congress.
  • Dominicans and Guatemalans are the second-fastest growing segment of the U.S. Latino population, behind Venezuelans, according to Pew.

What they're saying: Espaillat tells Axios it was a long road to becoming a congressman partly because of his past immigration status. He predicts, however, that the U.S. will soon start to see more Dominicans in federal office.

  • "You will certainly, I think, see more of a presence and not just necessarily I would say from places where Dominicans are in high numbers," he says.
  • "I think we're making a dent and our presence is being felt," he says. "But we need to have additional members of Congress."

Tom Perez, a senior adviser to President Biden who was the secretary of labor in the Obama administration, was the first Dominican American to serve in a Cabinet position. He tells Axios that Dominicans have not been in U.S. politics partly because previous generations were just starting to understand the American political system.

  • "The whole American dream is premised on the notion that every generation is going to be a little bit better off than the preceding generation," he says. "Part of why I've served in public service for so long is I want to give."

Matos, who grew up in the Dominican Republic before moving to the U.S. in 1994, previously told Axios that her parents, a teacher and a former mayor, taught her about public service.

  • Matos was appointed to be lieutenant governor in 2021 and elected to the office the following year, after serving on the Providence City Council for a decade.

Between the lines: A majority of Dominican Americans live in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, according to Pew.

  • That concentration in one area could be one reason why their representation is so low in federal office, says Nancy Lopez, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico.
  • "It takes a while for people to become familiar with the political landscape and to attain the levels of education you would need to pursue those levels of office," she adds. "Increasingly, it is happening certainly at the local level and municipal level in New York City."

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