Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
When Republicans in Waterbury asked Jose Morales, a former Democrat, to be their candidate for mayor, he quickly seized the opportunity and became the first Hispanic to seek this post in the city’s history.
” I did not hesitate to say yes, it was very natural,” said the Puerto Rico-born Morales. “I believe God put me there,” he said of his being tagged less than a day before the local Republicans convention to pick up the baton dropped suddenly by the expected nominee.
Morales, who has lived in the same downtown apartment since he came to Waterbury, expressed pride in being a Waterbury resident and is confident he is the right person to help revitalize a city burdened with economic difficulties and one of the highest tax rates in the state, while still wearing the scars of a troubled political history. “I want to show people that here is a guy you can trust,” said Morales, who is a state court marshal in Litchfield County and operates a music promotion company.
Morales, who left Puerto Rico when he was 15, said he happy to be the first Latino to run for mayor, but hesitates to label himself a pioneer. Moreover, he does not want to assume “the Hispanic candidate” label exclusively. “I intend to reach out to everybody, not just Latinos,” he states.
Still, even the Democratic candidate, incumbent Mayor Neil O’Leary, has said in a television interview that having a Hispanic run for mayor in a city of growing diversity is a good thing and should improve involvement in politics for many residents.
Since Morales moved to the city, the Latino population has significantly grown in numbers and in diversity, with newcomers arriving from a multiplicity of Caribbean and Latin American homelands. According to recent Census statistics, more than 34,000 residents, or about a third of the population, identify themselves as Hispanic. This represents a 47 percent increase since 2000. Moreover, half the enrollment in the public schools is Hispanic. “It is time for Latinos to have a position of prominence,” said Isaias Diaz, a U.S.-born attorney who is a member of the state’s chapter of the conservative-based Latino National Republican Coalition of Connecticut and also served as chairman of the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
Diaz, whose parents were among the first Puerto Ricans to arrive in Waterbury, describes the city’s Republican Party as the party of minority reopportunity. The local ticket includes Hispanics Ruben Rodriquez and Jay Gonzalez and an African-American Bernard Bailey running for alderman.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are not ready to assume a secondary position in Waterbury in regard to Latino representation. They boast that among their ranks are several prominent Hispanic politicians, such as two-term state Rep. Victory Cuevas and Alderman Victor Cruz Jr.
While the November vote will determine how much of a game changer having a Hispanic at the head of the ticket is, Morales already represents a game-saver for the city’s Republicans leadership. Their expected candidate, Alderman Jerry Padula, had bailed out of the mayor’s race on the eve of the party’s nominating convention. The publicly stated reason was Padula’s transfer by his state employer, but according to Waterbury Observer, a local news source, he did not relish going up against Neil M. O’Leary, a two-term incumbent Democrat who had thrashed his Republican opponent two years ago. To fill this last minute gap in their ticket, the Republicans turned to Morales who had made a positive impression on party leaders when he had convinced them to back his candidacy for the city’s Board of Alderman for the Fifth District. Consequently, Morales has the party’s endorsement to run for both offices, although should he have to eventually choose his priority is the full-time mayoral position.
In addition to the contest for mayor, the election of the Board of Alderman also has historic implications for Waterbury. The city recently threw off its system of choosing the 15 members of its governing body at large and the November vote will be the first using a set up in which each of five districts will elect three aldermen.
Whether Morales is well enough known throughout the city has been cited by some politicians as a factor in the upcoming campaign. The Republican mayoral hopeful will be making only his second foray onto the city ballot. In 2009, with no government experience, he captured a four-year term for the city board of education as a Democrat. “I won the primary and the general election,” he said of his experience running for citywide office. Morales also notes that his political resume includes working behind the scenes for several years for candidates such as former Mayor Michael Jarjura and for David Aldarondo, who served four terms in the state House of Representatives. It was Aldarondo, a longtime friend, who initially got Morales involved in politics.
Another friend who helped lay the ground work for Morales seeking office as a Republican is Rodriquez, who heads the Latino National Republican Coalition of Connecticut and at one time had been a Democrat. Party jumping is not uncommon in what the Waterbury Observer calls the theater of Waterbury politics. For example, Jarjura ran as a Republican in 2011 and drew about a third of the votes in a three-way race won by O’Leary. That Morales has had his feet in both camps may have an upside. “He is really liked by both Democrats and Republicans,” said Rodriguez, adding that Morales is “humble and doesn’t get in arguments.”
Morales is aware that over the past 25 years two of the city’s mayors have been thrown in prison and a third was indicted but not convicted. The freshly minted mayoral candidate recalled telling his wife Judit that if another mayor goes to prison “that is it for the city, it cannot survive. What is particularly sad, Morales said, is that not only did these mayors get arrested but they also left the city with deep financial deficits, which led to the state appointing a financial oversight board to temporarily oversee city business in 2001.
Morales credits Jarjura, mayor from 2002 to 2011, with trying to keep the city alive, but said due to high taxes the city is just surviving. He says that one reason that the city’s Puerto Ricans, despite coming from an island where politics is a passion in voter registration and voting, are not engaged is that they do not relate to the local politicians. “What people are waiting for is somebody to run that they know and trust,” he suggests.
Trust is a big issue for Morales who explains that it was a factor in his decision to leave the Democratic fold after three years on the school board. “It has always been about trust and about friendship,” he said of his running for office.
Morales describes himself as a conservative, a label shared by another friend, Diaz. Part of this shared political perspective, Morales said, is that the two are both “religious guys.” Religious and social issues, along with an emphasis on family values, said Diaz, have contributed to making Waterbury very conservative, except on labor issues. In addition to Republicans like himself, he said, there are many conservative Democrats and independents.
Unlike other cities with large Latino populations, such as New Haven, Diaz said, Waterbury did not give Democrat Dannel Malloy large majorities in his two runs for governor and might have gone Republican with a different candidate on the top of the ticket. Among the reasons for Waterbury being less enthusiastic about Malloy, Diaz said, is that the city, with many Catholics and a strong evangelical base, the governor is seen as “anti-Christian, ultra-progressive” and that “his politics are very polarizing.”
On the local level, Diaz said, what is important in Waterbury is reducing taxes and building an environment that is business and family friendly by reducing crime and providing a decent education system.
As what his campaign focus will be, Morales said the Republican platform is still being assembled and that he needs to look deeper into the city budget for savings. However, he said a major priority will be reducing taxes, which will benefit residents as well as help attract businesses. He also sees a need to improve morale among the police and other city employees.
So far, Morales is unopposed for the Republican mayoral nomination. However, local minority activist Jimmie Griffin has suggested he might run as a petitioning candidate in the party’s primary. As for the general election, in addition to challenging the Democratic mayor, Morales also may face an independent candidate.
Whoever is on the ballot, Morales expects his decade of experience of promoting the “megastars” of Latino music will help his campaign and his efforts to move the city forward. “I know how to get people involved,” he said.