Sandra Cano is surging at the right time in Rhode Island’s congressional race
The state senator is hoping a stream of endorsements from unlikely allies puts her over the finish line
By Dan McGowan Globe Columnist, Updated August 29, 2023, 8:00 a.m.
You won’t find three people with less in common than R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senators Sam Zurier and Sam Bell.
One’s favorite pastime is betting on college basketball. Another is a Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar. And the third is a geologist who seems to take a great deal of pride in being a thorn in the sides of the other two. Sure, they’re all Democrats, but they aren’t exactly eating lunch together at Angelo’s on Federal Hill.
And yet they’re each lending a hand to support a Colombian-born mother of two young children from Pawtucket over 11 other Democrats in next week’s special primary for the First Congressional District.
Which raises the question: What does state Senator Sandra Cano have over Donny and the Sams?
They just see what so many of their colleagues in the General Assembly and other school committees and town councils across the First District, along with three major unions (the two teachers’ unions and the United Nurses and Allied Professionals) also see: A candidate working her tail off on a shoestring budget who appears to be ascending at the right moment in this race.
I wanted to see it for myself, so I popped into Notes Coffee in Pawtucket to meet her for a chai (inexplicably, she doesn’t drink coffee). I found the unusually bubbly senator dancing as she talked with the barista.
“It’s almost over,” she said, practically singing. “September 5th. Have you voted yet?”
It’s not that Cano isn’t enjoying herself on the campaign trail; she has appeared to be excited and energized. But she is so ready for the race to end because frankly, she is simply exhausted. Her daughter had turned 4 that day, and her son, who was born in January, is still breastfeeding, which means Cano sometimes is pumping while pitching herself to voters over the phone.
Oh, and she’s currently on unpaid leave as commerce director for the city of Pawtucket, which means her only income is her part-time salary as a state senator. Her fiancé, James Diossa, is a former mayor of Central Falls and is currently the state treasurer.
When I asked her how she would handle raising two children while also spending half her week in Washington, D.C., as a member of Congress, she explained that she thinks she might end up getting to spend more time with her family if she isn’t forced to juggle multiple jobs.
“It would be the honor of my life to have one job doing what I care to do,” Cano told me. “This would be better for my family. This would be better for my kids. This is the reason why I’m running – because of them.”
She’s also running to make her mom and dad proud. They couldn’t have fathomed their daughter getting elected to Congress when they moved to Rhode Island from Colombia in 2000.
Cano was 16 when her father was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas. They ransacked a town and took him hostage while he was managing an airline company, likely assuming they’d be able to get ransom money. He was gone for more than a week, but one of the guerrillas knew him from work, and freed him.
Executives at his company helped him move to the US, where he sought political asylum. Cano and her mom arrived in September of 2000. Their political asylum was approved on Oct. 10, 2003, and Cano became a naturalized citizen five years later.
It’s not easy being a teenager in a new country speaking a different language. Cano remembers falling into a deep depression, especially since she landed in ESL classes where the work – especially math – was far too easy for her. She landed a job at a local grocery store, and slowly began to learn English.
It was politics that helped Cano finally feel like she belonged.
She met Diossa when he was a councilman in Central Falls and she wanted to know how to run for school committee in Pawtucket. She won. Then she won a seat on the Pawtucket City Council – “that was the hardest job in politics,” she jokes – and when a seat in the state Senate opened up in 2017, she was victorious in the special election.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at Rhode Island politicians when they talk about bringing people with different views together. Virtually everyone who matters in R.I. state politics is a Democrat, so it’s not exactly the same as negotiating with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
But Cano has managed to find some middle ground with some of the far-left politicians in the Senate as well as the more conservative ones, like Senate President Ruggerio. In his endorsement statement, Ruggerio praised Cano’s ability to bring “diverse groups together.”
Zurier, the Rhodes Scholar who now works as an attorney, and Bell, the Brown University graduate and geologist seen as one of the most progressive politicians in Rhode Island, hailed Cano as a compassionate policy wonk who understands how to turn good ideas into legislation that can actually pass in the General Assembly.
Cano points to compromise legislation that gives people in the country illegally the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license, but only if they have an individual taxpayer identification number that proves they are paying taxes in the US.
While Cano isn’t naïve enough to believe that she can go to Washington and solve the gridlock around immigration reform, she does believe that she can add a credible voice to the cause. “It’s never compromising your values,” Cano said. “It’s being able to advance policy.”
First, Cano has to win the biggest race of her life.
She lacks the funding of frontrunners like former state representative Aaron Regunberg and former President Biden aide Gabe Amo, as well as Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money, but has watched her campaign collapse in recent weeks because of a nomination paper signatures scandal.
Instead, Cano is counting on an endless stream of endorsements, including from unlikely places. She’s got the support of some of the most liberal voters on the East Side of Providence, and from North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi, a Democrat who openly admits that he voted for Donald Trump for president twice.
The beautiful thing about this race is that Cano’s story isn’t unique.
Matos and state Senator Ana Quezada, another candidate in this race, each moved to the US from the Dominican Republic speaking very little English, and both have risen to impressive careers in Rhode Island politics. Amo is the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants.
Still, Rhode Island has never elected a person of color to Congress, so there’s a glass ceiling to be broken if one of those candidates can win.
Cano has a credible argument to make that she’s the one. But she’s keeping an optimistic outlook no matter the result. She reminded me that she turns 40 the Saturday after the primary.
“Either way, we’re having a party,” she said, laughing.