From his desk on the tenth floor overlooking Hartford’s State House Square, Joseph Rodriguez has an awesome view of the gleaming buildings that overlook the city’s riverfront.
But as the first and only Latino in the state to serve as a Deputy District Director for a congressional office, Rodriguez’s focus is much closer to the ground level. As the second in command for Senator Richard Blumenthal’s 18-person Connecticut staff, his attention is devoted to the broad array of concerns that he and the senator’s constituent service team address.
“What drives me every day,” Joe Rodriguez said, “is being able to iron out problems.”
And there is no shortage of problems and issues for staff of case workers and outreach organizers that State Director Rich Kehoe and Rodriguez oversee from their offices at 90 State House Square in Hartford and at a smaller outpost in Bridgeport.
“On any day, there are 900 to 1,000 open cases here,” said Rodriguez, who took his current position last February. He attributes this workload to the mission that the senator has instilled in his staff to “help anyone and everyone.”
In a state with a large Latino population, “everyone” often includes members of this community, a group with which Rodriguez, with his Puerto Rican heritage, has a strong affinity. But while Latinos may turn to Blumenthal’s office for help on issues related to discrimination or immigration, such as obtaining a green cards, more often their concerns are similar to those shared by the general population, Rodriguez observed.
“We do amazing work every day,” Rodriguez said, adding this work can be very “emotional and personal.”
The constituent services staff has been trained to offer people assistance with a federal agency, such as the Veterans Administration or Social Security, or for other problems. The office also handles requests for U.S. flags and tours of the White House and Capitol Building.
“If someone has an issue with a federal agency, we can help,” Rodriguez said. “If it is a local issue, we can provide direction to local resources.”
Rodriguez’s current assignment fits well with his background in politics and public service. Now approaching his 30th birthday, his contributions to the local Latino community began in his teens. He now has extensive ties to other towns and cities that have been developed over a decade of political and community activism. They include two terms representing the Fair Haven section on New Haven’s Board of Alderman, a previous stint as outreach organizer for Senator Blumenthal, liaison to this council for Mayor Toni Harp and a highly visible tenure as chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus.
Rodriguez has also been very much involved in getting Latinos engaged in politics and elected to state and local offices during a highly visible tenure as chairman of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus, a post he relinquished last spring. He often devoted his weekends to stumping for Hispanic candidates such as Mayor Pedro Segarra in Hartford and Eliosa Melendez, a young college student, who is in her second term on Norwalk’s council.
In his current role, a case Rodriguez cites with pride concerns an individual with Stage 3 cancer who had been denied medical coverage. The senator’s staff worked with the insurer and doctors to obtain the care that person needed.
Rodriquez’s basic function is to oversee operation along with the senator’s state director Rich Kehoe who has worked with Blumenthal for a quarter century, going back to the Greenwich Democrat’s several terms as state attorney general.
The state staff is basically is divided into two teams: the constituent services case workers and a four-person group working as outreach organizers. This latter group goes throughout the state informing organizations, individuals and officials about what is available through Blumenthal’s state office.
The case workers are organized by issue areas. One person might be assigned to immigration, postal services and education, while another might focus on gender and environmental concerns.
Other constituent services include consumer protection, disaster assistance, health insurance, homeland security, housing, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, armed services, mortgage and loans, passports student loans, taxes, wages and benefits and workers compensation.
“We have a very diverse staff,” Rodriguez said, noting that some are bilingual which helps in some cases involving Latinos.
Blumenthal’s Connecticut organization also is responsible for an array of specialized services which include two areas that Rodriguez said are very important to himself, internships and service academy nomination, because they impact young people.
The state staff also acts as a liaison between organizations and members of the public who seek the support of Blumenthal or the state congressional delegation on a particular issue. Rodriguez recently met with Ingrid Alvarez-Dimarzo, Connecticut state director for the Hispanic Federation, to discuss opposition to the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for U.S. attorney general. A couple of days later, Blumenthal who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced he should not support the Sessions nomination.
“We our willing to roll up our sleeves and work with various groups,” Rodriguez said. This includes serving on boards and being active with various coalitions.
Another area in which the state office connects Connecticut municipalities and organizations with federal agencies is on projects that are requesting funding. “We provide grant support here,” Rodriguez said. “We also help new nonprofits learn how to apply for grants,” he said.
Rodriguez said his first year in the Hartford office has been busy with filling staff vacancies, a software change and moving the office in Bridgeport. He noted that he has benefited from strong relationships from “his first go-around” with the state office.
Another relationship that Rodriguez appreciates is between the senator and his Connecticut team. “I did not realize how much access the staff has to Blumenthal and how he encourages their input,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone has face time with the senator,” he said.
Rodriguez continues to maintain his connection with Latino organizations and has been an advocate for improving economic conditions in Puerto Rico, which he visits annually. His grandmother has made him sort of a local celebrity there, he noted.
Rodriguez explained that he stepped down as chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus because politics can be time consuming, especially when it is combined with working on local cultural projects such as launching a Puerto Rican festival in New Haven. “My first priority is to be a great father to my daughter,” he said.
When Rodriguez joined Blumenthal’s office, he continued to work with the caucus, he said, to ensure a smooth transition to a new chairperson, which turned out to be Norma Rodriguez. He still is heavily involved with the group and is part of the executive committee as a past chairman.
Rodriguez has received a variety of accolades for his work. These include being chosen in 2014 as a “Champion of Change” by CTLatinoNews.com.
He also was accorded a very special honor in his hometown on Three Kings Day. He was one of three prominent local men chosen to don the traditional royal regalia and sport a full beard as one of the kings when the New Haven Hispanic Firefighters Association celebrated that holiday by handing out toys to children at the Christopher Columbus Family Center.