RI's First Black Queer Senator: Tiara Mack
Tiara Mack has become Rhode Island’s first openly queer Black state senator. An activist and educator raised in the South and educated at Brown University, Mack, at 26 years old, unseated 15-year incumbent Harold Metts in September’s primary with 60% of the vote, and won handily in the general election, as Democrats in Providence do. Mack’s district, Senate 6, is one of Rhode Island’s more gerrymandered districts that includes five zip codes from the East Side to the South Side, with people of color accounting for more than 75% of residents.
I lived in Senate 6 in 2004, and first met Harold Metts at a neighborhood park while he campaigned for Senate. Our smile-filled conversation took a sharp turn when I expressed my support for same-sex marriage. Every muscle in his face drooped. “That’s where you and I differ,” he said, and the conversation quickly ended. Longtime local activists will remember that Metts went on to oppose same-sex marriage at every hearing throughout his time in office, citing religious beliefs, which also lead him to oppose reproductive rights. Mack works at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England as a youth organizer and is a board member of the Women’s Health & Education Fund, a nonprofit that funds abortions for low-income women in Rhode Island.
I asked Senator Mack about her decision to challenge Metts.
Options: Clearly you and your predecessor, Harold Metts, have very different views on LGBTQ+ and abortion rights. I read in an interview you gave NBC News that, as a constituent, you sent Metts a postcard urging him to support the Reproductive Privacy Act; he replied with a letter citing Bible passages as his reason to oppose abortion rights. Were there other factors beyond these social issues that inspired you to mount a campaign against him?
Senator Mack: Aside from his anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ views, I also felt the district needed a more representative voice and a more engaged voice. I met Senator Metts during hearings as an activist at the State House for abortion rights, but I never received mailers, got a call, or knew much about his vision. I spend a lot of time at the State House, and very rarely did I see people who looked like me: young, Black, queer. I think representation is important and I also felt that we needed a much more engaged community.
O: You state on your website that you “pledged to not take a single penny from” fossil fuel donors or corporate PAC lobbyists. How challenging is it to fund a campaign that reflects your values?
M: Not hard at all! I led a grassroots campaign and was able to collect donations from $1-$1000 from people in my community, people who were inspired by my campaign message, and friends. When most of your donors are people who are paying attention to your message, tuned into your policies, and holding you accountable to them and the community, it means a lot more, and you really feel the love and support from every donor more fully.
O: What life experiences do you feel have prepared you for legislative office?
M: I grew up low-income. My family was on food stamps, faced evictions, struggled to make ends meet. I went to great public schools and eventually to Brown University as an undergrad. My background is why I am in this fight for working people.
O: Do you know of any bills specifically affecting LGBTQ+ people that are expected to come up during this legislative session? Or do you foresee sponsoring any legislation specifically impacting LGBTQ+ people?
M: I am very interested in sponsoring LGBTQ-specific legislation. I also know that LGBTQ people are impacted by all issues: housing, food insecurity, living wage, quality education. I am waiting to get all my bill language back but soon I will announce all the legislation I am sponsoring this year.
O: You were sworn in as a newly elected Senator on January 5. On January 6, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. How were you experiencing and processing all of that?
M: I am still processing it all. As a Black woman, I am not surprised that this happened. I am hopeful that this has sprung more people into action, but I still am recovering and learning how to process the fear, anger, and frustration that Jan. 6th created for me.
O: I read that you campaigned door-todoor introducing yourself as a “queer Black, formerly low-income educator, and activist.” What do you say to people who believe that identity politics is dividing America?
M: My identities tell a story of oppression – Black, queer, low-income. A lot of people are uncomfortable with dealing so openly with that, and having someone boldly state who and what they are. I think it is important to tell stories, even the difficult ones, and highlight how our experiences shape the way we experience the world. I don’t think stories or identities divide us but rather bring other people into our world, build connections, and make us closer to the people around us.
I never saw people who looked like me in public office when I was growing up. I still find it so hard to believe that I am an elected official because everything I had seen and been told about elected officials was not me. I hope more people see and hear my story, resonate with my identities, and use that to either run for office or do something else impactful for their communities.
Learn more about RI State Senator Tiara Mack at tiaramackdistrict6.com.