The Sept. 16 Democratic primary will measure more than the individual vote-getting abilities of three Latino city leaders who are running for re-election without official party endorsement. This election will also test whether the state’s growing Latino population is finally ready to flex its political muscle at the polls, something of which there has been little evidence in the past.
While Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and Norwalk Common Council member Eloisa Melendez are striving to marshal support among their Hispanic constituencies, it is not a do or die situation or a one-time quest for either. The Puerto Rico-born. Segarra has filed a petition to assure himself a spot on the November general election battle as an independent. Melendez, who is of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent, learned Sept. 1, that the Working Families Party had endorsed her for its November slate.
In both cases, the general election could pose an even bigger test of Latino political engagement because they will be looking to attract not just Latinos registered as Democrats, but also the large number who are listed as independents and who sat on the sidelines for the primary.
Segarra and Melendez, were both forced to file petitions to get on the primary ballot when party insiders shoved them aside in favor of non-Hispanic newcomers.
Bridgeport Town Clerk Alma Maya was placed in a similar position when she decided to relinquish any chance of being an organization favored candidate to avoid being slated with a mayor with whom she has significance differences. However, unlike former Mayor Joseph Ganim who leads her slate and has hedged his bet like Segarra, the Puerto Rico-born Maya said she did not file a separate petition to get on the November ballot.
The challenge these three incumbent candidates face Sept. 16 was underscored by a prominent Latino activist in a recent Facebook posting.
Yanil Teron, the director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford and a member of the National Council for La Raza, a national Hispanic advocacy organization, questioned via social media whether the Latino candidates have a constituency that cares and is ready to have an equitable role in driving the political machinery that affects their lives. She concluded, “The only way we will know, is if there is a significant turnout on primary/election day.
There is no guarantee that Latinos will automatically support these candidates because of common heritage.
So far, no clear picture of whether Segarra, running in a city with one the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the mainland, will be swept back into office in a wave of Latino empowerment, or even whether his primary opponent, Luke Bronin, will draw heavily from this population.
Last year, with a hotly contested governor’s race at the top of the ballot, only 30.8 percent of the state’s eligible Hispanics cast ballots as compared to 48.5 percent of whites and 32.9 percent of blacks.
Political analysts have ascribed low voting numbers among the rapidly increasing Hispanic population to a variety of reasons. These include disillusionment with the process, disappointment with Congress and the president, disappointed with how their support has been reciprocated by politicians such as Governor Malloy and the fact that the Hispanic population is relatively young, and may become more involved later.
Another factor depressing turnout, suggested by Werner Oyanadel, director of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, is that many Latinos have needed to hold two jobs to support their families. “They are too busy working,” he said, adding that election day is not a festive institution like it is in Puerto Rico where voting percentages outpace that on the mainland.
Not to be overlooked is that primaries typically attract fewer voters than general elections because voter eligibility is based on party affiliation, and while Connecticut Hispanics have played a major role in electing Democrats in state and national general elections, barely half registered with that party in 2012, according to a 2012 study by the Connecticut secretary of the state.
In the most recent mayoral primaries in 2011, the overall turnouts were 21.3 percent in Bridgeport and 17.8 percent in Hartford. Segarra would most likely require at least a similar or higher level of voter participation to reclaim the party banner in the general election, according to state Rep. Edwin Vargas, who opposed the mayor four years ago, but now is supporting his re-election.
So far, there are signs that the turnout for the Democratic primary in Bridgeport should be good. The Park City Democratic ballot features a high-profile three-way race for mayor along with several other contests, including the town clerk contest that pits longtime rights and education activist Maya against former state Rep. Don Clemons.
According to Sandi Ayala, Bridgeport’s Democratic registrar of voters, there has been a steady flow of new registrants, including many Latinos. Her office was also processing 500-600 registration cards, many provided by campaign workers. In addition, 500 applications for absentee ballots were mailed out last week and Ayala expects more requests “every single day.”
Calls to Hartford’s Democratic registrar’s office were not returned.
In Norwalk, Melendez, who is part of a three-person unendorsed slate in District A, has been registering new voters, including some Latinos. “We also registered a lot of new people during the signature (petition) process,” she said. Also, because she is 21, Melendez knows a lot of young people who recently graduated from high school and wanted to register and help out.
In Hartford, there is no guarantee that Segarra will be the sole beneficiary of a large Latino turnout and there have been suggestions there is some disconnect between the mayor and his community over neighborhood concerns and the recent outbreak of violent crime.
Both Segarra and his endorsed opponent, Luke Bronin, appear to recognize the potential power of energized Latino voters and are courting their support. However, it is widely perceived the incumbent mayor would suffer more if there is not a large and sympathetic Latino participation in the electoral process.
The Segarra campaign says its respect for the Latino population is underscored by the issuance of press releases, social media postings and other communications in both English and Spanish. In addition, there is a “a strong, diverse and multilingual base of volunteers” who are carrying the mayor’s message out door-to-door, according to Maria Lino, a campaign consultant.
Bronin’s campaign also has targeted the Latino community through its focus on issues such as crime, the importance of neighborhoods and youth programs. His backers are also trying to attract Latino support through outreach efforts, social media and by utilizing the endorsement of several prominent Hispanic politicians.
More than 54,000, or 43 percent of Hartford’s more than 125,000 residents, have been categorized as Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, eligible Hispanic voters accounted for about 39 percent of all eligible voters in 2010, and 2013, with the total topping 30,000 in the latter year, according to figures provided by the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
Statewide, a similar picture of low registration emerges. In 2014, about 52 percent of the Hispanic population was eligible to vote, which was a couple points higher than the black population, but was nearly 15 points lower than the percentage for whites.
These numbers are somewhat mitigated by factors, such as the median age for Hispanics in Connecticut is nearly 20 years lower than that for the non-Hispanic population. Also, for many immigrants, gaining citizenship can be a long and expensive endeavor. However, about two-thirds of the state’s Hispanic eligible voters are of Puerto Rican origin, according to the Pew Hispanic Center research, and do not have to deal with the citizenship issue.
In a slightly older study of Hispanic registration, the state secretary of state’s office estimated that for 2012, 18,575 Latinos were registered to vote in Hartford and more than 20,000 in Bridgeports. These figures, however, were based primarily on surnames, which Latino leaders assert underestimate the actual number of registrants, and does not account for the changing demographics over the past three years.
In Norwalk, the Latino population is growing and now exceeds more than 20,000, or nearly a quarter of the city’s residents. However, in 2012 less than 3,700 Latinos were registered to vote in Norwalk according to estimates by the secretary of state’s office.
For Bridgeport, the Hispanic or Latino population represented 38 percent of the city’s 147,000 residents in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
Maya and Melendez would also welcome an electoral boost from their Latino communities. However, their situations are unique, according to Democratic leaders. Maya joined a slate put together Ganim, who is attempting to make a political comeback after serving time for public corruption. Whether voters who might be turned off by the Ganim candidacy will still vote for Maya individually looms as a crucial factor in her quest for a third term as clerk.
Melendez had the support of the party rank and file to pursue a second term, but was compelled to run on a petitioning slate when the controversial district chairman pushed through a different slate at the last minute.
While winning the Democratic primary in cities such as Hartford represents is a huge step toward victory in the general election, the Sept. 16 ballot may not be the definitive showdown.
Segarra has filed a petition to run as an independent candidate for the general election, and Bronin has said he will accept the decision of primary voters.
Bridgeport’s two Democratic mayoral contestants, Joe Ganim and Mayor Bill Finch are likely to continue their City Hall quest in November as unaffiliated petitioning candidates or on a third-party slate.