Italian American Presidential Candidates Participate in First GOP Primary Debate

During the first Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eight potential candidates for the GOP nomination took the stage in an effort to convince the American people that they are the right choice to go up against Joe Biden in 2024. While a wide range of topics were discussed up to and including the charges faced by President Donald Trump, something that was not touched on was the ethnic backgrounds of the candidates.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy appeared to be the only participant in the debate to briefly mention his immigrant backstory. Still, the ancestral backgrounds of these presidential hopefuls are particularly noteworthy as the group represents the most diverse set of politicians to vie for the Republican nomination.

Out of the eight total candidates to appear, two are of Indian descent (Ramaswamy and Haley), two are Irish (Pence and Hutchinson), while Tim Scott and Doug Burgum carry African and English ancestry, respectively. As for Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, these governors of past and present have Italian roots.

The family of Ron DeSantis, who is widely considered to be the most likely candidate to challenge Trump for the nomination, came to this country in the early 1900s during the first Italian diaspora and truly embody the idea of the American Dream. All eight of the Florida governor’s great-grandparents were born in Italy, meaning that he could become the first Italian-American President of the United States if elected. 

However, DeSantis has largely avoided referencing his Italian background during his campaign, whether intentionally or not. This comes to the surprise of Robert Allegrini, president of the National Italian American Foundation, who believes that the governor would be wise to highlight his family’s history as it would be a point of great pride for many Italian Americans in the United States.

“His is the quintessential Italian American success story,” Allegrini said. “It is what all of us aspire to and many of us achieve, and why we are an enriching component to the country.”

He continues to note that at their core, Italian Americans are “family people with strong family values, and that corresponds to his values.” While DeSantis may be shying away from this narrative due to his stance on immigration, Allegrini still thinks that there is a difference to be made between being anti-immigration and anti-illegal immigration and that the governor should not let this deter him from embracing his ancestral roots.

While past Italian American candidates may have felt the need to distance themselves from their ethnic backgrounds due to associations with the mafia stemming from unfair stereotypes, DeSantis has the unique opportunity to embrace his Italian ancestors like no politician before on the national stage.

As for Chris Christie, the former federal prosecutor and 55th governor of New Jersey is of Sicilian ancestry on his mother’s side, something that he has alluded to numerous times over the course of his political career. Perhaps the most high-profile reference came in his speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he is quoted speaking fondly of his mother Sondra:

“I am the son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother. My Dad, who I am blessed to have with me here tonight, is gregarious, outgoing and loveable. My Mom, who I lost eight years ago, was the enforcer. She made sure we all knew who set the rules. In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver.”

He would go on to note that his mother “came from nothing. She was raised by a single mother who took three buses to get to work every day. And mom spent the time she was supposed to be a kid actually raising children – her two younger siblings. She was tough as nails and didn’t suffer fools at all. The truth was she couldn’t afford to. She spoke the truth – bluntly, directly and without much varnish.”

He can also be seen discussing his heritage in the PBS documentary Italian Americans of New York and New Jersey, where he states that he is “half-Sicilian and half-Irish, and so both of those together are rather a combustible combination. But on the Sicilian side of things, you know, I think the emotions that I have that are very kind of, you know, out on the surface. (They) very much come from that side of the family.”

While neither candidate is likely to gain enough support to overtake Trump as the favorite to represent the GOP in 2024, it will be interesting to see if DeSantis or Christie make any remarks about their Italian heritage as they continue their respective campaigns for the presidency.


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