Nellie Gorbea got her first taste of political service far away from Rhode Island, where her 2014 election as secretary of state would make her the first Hispanic to win statewide office in New England. That first taste happened back when Gorbea was a student in a classroom in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“I was that kid who, when they explained what student council was, thought that it sounded like an interesting thing to do. I raised my hand, and I ended up serving for seven years,” Gorbea says. “I guess that’s where it all got started.”
Gorbea felt as ready to take on the office of secretary of state as she had been to join student council years prior. The experience that she had gained in the interim—spanning the private and the public sectors, the for-profit and the not-for-profit worlds—gave her the confidence to step into the role, intent on making a difference. Over the course of her two terms, she has driven civic engagement statewide, defended the democratic process, and demonstrated the value of a government that is accessible and accountable to its people. Now, she is once again ready to run—this time, for governor of Rhode Island.
Gorbea left Puerto Rico to obtain a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Princeton University, followed by a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. She then further developed her background through board memberships and varied roles in state government, public finance, internet consulting, and nonprofits—including HousingWorks RI, an organization focused on affordable housing where she served as executive director.
Finally, Gorbea decided to put her skills and experience to the test with a run for secretary of state. “I’ve always been interested in working on problems in the communities around me, so why not run for office?” she recalls wondering. “I wanted to make the Department of State an agency that helps people improve their lives and that holds government accountable.”
Despite her historic win, Gorbea admits that she didn’t register the rarity of Hispanics in elected statewide offices right away. “Where it hit me was when I would go read to classrooms in schools. I realized that for the Hispanic kids in those classrooms, it was such a big deal that I was Hispanic,” she says. “It’s been an amazing blessing to show them that I’m like them.”
Upon taking office in 2015, Gorbea immediately implemented a strategic plan to upgrade all elections technology and increase ballot-box access across Rhode Island. “We passed online voter registration and automated voter registration, rebuilt the central voter registration system, and implemented electronic poll books for the first time in the state,” she states. Her incremental efforts to modernize the election system played a crucial part in supporting another of her aims as secretary of state: to increase election security, especially in the face of rising cyberthreats.
Gorbea knew that election security would be more important than ever in 2020. After connecting with federal resources to prepare her team for the challenges ahead, she set about educating Rhode Island’s cities and towns on the importance of cybersecurity and the nonpartisan nature of the issue.
With the local governments up to speed and backup systems in place, Rhode Island weathered the storm of the election far better than most states. Through a combination of at-home voting, early voting in person, and in-person voting on Election Day, Rhode Islanders turned out in November 2020 in record numbers—and enjoyed the smoothness of the experience. “As somebody who has worked all her life to make sure that people are civically engaged, it gives me incredible joy that we had that kind of turnout, response, and results,” Gorbea says.
“I wanted to make the Department of State an agency that helps people improve their lives and that holds government accountable.”
Beyond keeping elections safe and secure, Gorbea has improved government transparency and increased the accessibility of civics education materials during her time in office. In addition, she has streamlined the process for business incorporation by upgrading business services systems and launching a new website that enabled Rhode Islanders to start businesses at high rates even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gorbea achieved her goals as secretary of state by concentrating on communication and by centering diverse perspectives in policy discussions—an approach that she plans to continue if elected governor. “I’m excited for the opportunity to show Rhode Islanders that they can have a government that works for them and to do it in a way that harnesses the energy, the enthusiasm, and the knowledge of state employees—and combines it with communities that may not always have been asked about their opinions on how we can improve government,” she says.
With the encouragement of many Rhode Islanders, Gorbea announced her campaign in May 2021 with videos in both English and Spanish. In so doing, she became the first Latina ever to run for governor in New England. “We need to provide a quality public education to everybody in the state, provide affordable housing across different socioeconomic levels, and face the challenges and the opportunities of climate change,” she says of her platform. “I’m focused on making those three areas the pillars of a much more just and equitable local economy.”
Gorbea believes strongly that applying a different—and more inclusive—approach to policy-making will create a government that benefits all Rhode Islanders, not just a select few. And though she may be the first Latina to seek to bring about that change as governor, she is certain that she won’t be the last.