Tough Re-Election Race for Lone Latino Republican Legislator


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Bill Sarno

Connecticut’s lone Latino Republican legislator, State Senator  Art Linares of Westbrook, is facing some challenges and a unique opportunity as he seeks re-election in November in the traditionally Democratic 33rd District.
The 25-year-old son of a Cuban immigrant will need to demonstrate that a Hispanic can win in a district lacking a strong ethnic base and, as a “rising star” in his party, that he can appeal to a broad constituency.
So far, Linares said he is finding support across party lines and is confident that he can win. “Everything is going great,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are optimistic they will regain the lower Connecticut Valley seat they held for decades. One major reason is that there is not a popular Green Party candidate on the ballot to split their vote and allow the Republican to win with 48.3 percent of the vote. The 2012 “spoiler,” Melissa Schlag, is now first selectman in Haddam and is supporting the Democratic candidate, Emily Bjornberg of Lyme.
Another area of potential vulnerability is that as a newcomer and a minority member of the Senate, Linares has not had time to build a highly visible record in Hartford.
Linares said recently he had not seen any signs of the state Democrats pumping up Bjornberg’s candidacy, but he knows it is coming.
Going door-to-door with his brother and campaign manager Ryan, which has been the hallmark of the incumbent’s campaigns, Linares said he has been buoyed by the reaction of non-Republican voters.
“I am finding a lot of support from local Democrats who agree with me on the issues,” he said.
Linares’ primary talking point on the campaign trail, he said, is the need to spur employment growth. The owner of a solar energy business, he supports legislation to help manufacturers and advocates reducing the state’s gasoline and sales taxes to be “more in line with neighboring states.” He also has spoken out against a proposed CL&P rate increase.  “I spent my whole life growing up with small businesses,” the New Jersey-born candidate said.
One aspect of his campaign, which Linares says resonates with Democratic and independent voters is his family’s history of having fled communist Cuba and working their way up the economic ladder.
People gravitate, he said, “to the Latino immigrant message that with hard work you can achieve anything.”
When Linares was elected two years ago he shared the honor of being the first Latino elected to the state senate and took office as a member of the largest group of Hispanics to gain legislative seats in state history. All were Democrats and Puerto Ricans except for Linares.
Hispanics comprise less than 5 percent of the population in most of the 33rd district’s towns compared to more than 13 percent statewide. Even in Clinton which Linares said has a “decent population of Latinos,” that means 7.2 percent Moreover, Hispanics in Connecticut generally have been cast as strongly Democratic. According to the secretary of state’s estimates of registered Latino voters, only 8 percent are Democrats.
Still, Linares said he has a great relationship with the Latino community.
Linares jokes that he is the product of an “I Love Lucy” marriage. His father was born in Havana and his mother is Irish.
While 19 and still in college, Linares started a solar energy company in the basement of his home. That enterprise, Greenskies Renewable Energy is based in Middletown and, Linares said, “has produced 240 jobs for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.”
Bjornberg, 34, is married to an Iraq war veteran, has two children and is director of youth and family ministries at a Deep River church. She has the endorsement of the teachers and service workers unions and is associated with conservation causes.
Linares has a 73 rating Connecticut League of Conservation Voting, which puts him on the low end among state senators. However, the Republican said he is strong on environmental issues, advocating preservation of open spaces and the need for the state to develop a clean water plan. He also notes that his solar energy company is helping generate clean energy.
Bjornberg initially challenged Linares to debate her in each of the district’s 12 towns. The candidate settled on a four debate format. They both have qualified for public campaign funding.
Linares, single, has the backing of the state Realtors group, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the National Rifle Association.
He has voted against raising the minimum wage, giving driver licenses for undocumented immigrants and the tougher ammunition and firearm strictures that were passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre last year.
Two years ago, the Future Majority Project, a national Republican effort to recruit and elect diverse candidates on the state level, identified Linares as one of three candidates to support in Connecticut.
Linares was the only winner and now is listed as being a member of the project’s offspring, the Future Majority Caucus.
Art Mocabee, the state party’s second vice-chairman, and other Republicans describe Linares as the “future of the party.”
“I would not be surprised if he looks at higher offices a few years from now,” Mocabee said.
But first, Linares must win re-election in November.