Like the ten other Latino Democrats now in the state House of Representatives, Christopher Rosario has a big edge as he seeks re-election on Nov. 8. His East Bridgeport district, the 128th, is heavily Latino and historically Democratic, and his Republican challenger does not have the recognition or resources available to the incumbent.
While optimistic, Rosario is still running hard and shows up at just about every significant local gathering and is well-known in the city, having visited many of homes.
Overall, re-election appears secure for Rosario and the other Democratic representatives and senators who dominate the 28-member Black and Puerto Rico caucus (BPRC) , according to Rep. Bruce Morris, caucus chairman. Even in New London where a longtime African-American representative, Ernest Hewitt, was ousted in the primary by Hispanic Chris Soto, Soto is expected to win handily.
The Hispanic Democrats are actually hoping for better than status quo. Morris said the caucus is likely to gain another African-American member in Waterbury. In addition, Hispanic Democrats are looking to gain traction outside the cities with candidates in suburban Newtown and the Avon-Canton area.
In Bridgeport, Rosario especially enjoys campaigning door-to-door. He said this practice enables him to learn first-hand what challenges his constituents face and tries to promote legislation that will make their lives better.
This fall, Rosario has found that many people in his district are turned off by the presidential campaign. “People are just tired of the negativity on TV,” he said. “They will be voting Democrat, but everywhere they turn they see a negative ad.”
The combination of disenchantment with national politics and the lack of urgency that comes from strong local contests are factors which Democratic leaders have worked to overcome as they pursue political engagement and getting out the vote.
Morris, who is unopposed in his Norwalk district, expressed concern about what he described as Republican voter suppression in heavily minority districts. By not contesting the legislature seats, the six-term incumbent said, the Republicans are hoping to depress local interest in the election and keep many ethnic voters home.
“It’s become an accepted truth of modern politics that Republican electoral prospects go up as the number of voters goes down,” said the New York Times in an editorial last April.
Among the Latino Democrats, veteran lawmakers Rep. Minnie Gonzalez (D-3) in Hartford and Juan Candelaria (D-95) in New Haven face no opposition.
The Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus has ramped up its efforts to register and get Latinos to vote through its “Los Hispanos: Si votamos” (Yes, we vote) campaign. This effort has included participating in events such as La Feria de la Familia held at the XL Center, said Norma Reyes-Rodriquez, caucus chairperson, where the group enrolled 69 new voters.
The nonpartisan Hispanic Federation, a coalition of nonprofit Latino agencies, also has actively working to increase registration and voting in Connecticut.
Where there are local races, Republicans are counting on the outcome being more impacted by the unpopularity of the Democratic governor Dannel Malloy after the state budget trauma than the emotions unleashed by the contest between Democrat Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
In Bridgeport, Rosario said that this year “everyone will be riding on Senator (Richard) Blumenthal’s coattails.” The incumbent Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, say some Democratic leaders, could out-poll Hillary Clinton in Connecticut. “
“Compared to Obama in 2018,” Rosario said, “this feels like a quiet presidential cycle as far as Bridgeport is concerned.”
Heading into the final stage of New Britain’s campaign season, Carmelo Rodriguez, a longtime Republican activist and chairman of the nonpartisan Latino Coalition, also observes a lack of local political activity. He said the most visible candidate has been Republican William Petit, who is challenging longtime incumbent Rep. Betty Boukus in the 22nd District. This mostly Plainville district includes the western part of New Britain, where many Hispanics live, Rodriguez said.
In New Britain, two Hispanics candidates with Puerto Rican heritages are running for state representative. One is Rep. Robert Sanchez (D-25) who has four opponents including Republican Richard Gadomski. Sanchez is well known in the community and has won handily in the past. Desiree Agosto, is carrying the Republican banner against incumbent Rep. Peter Tercyak (D-26).
A good sign for those hoping for a large turnout Nov. 8 is that Connecticut’s voter registration is at an all-time high with more than 2,115,000 people enrolled already and the usually hectic election day registration is expected to add significantly to the voter ranks.
While the the Secretary of State, who oversees Connecticut elections, has not broken down the new registrants in terms of ethnic and racial background, the numbers being reported nationally indicate a significant upsurge in Hispanics becoming eligible and turning out in states that provide early voting.
In Connecticut, the Danbury area, which has a large and growing immigrant population, has been identified as the scene of a burgeoning interest among Latinos of gaining citizenship and voter eligibility. The catalyst for this influx: the concern about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for restrictions on some immigrant groups, including the erection of wall on the Mexican border.
The Hispanic Federation (HF) reports that its nonpartisan Get Out the Vote campaigns have mobilized hundreds of thousands of individuals in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut. Through print, radio, television advertisements, and PSAs, HF explains the importance of voting and encourages Latinos to head to the polls. In addition, HF has offered more than 100 civic engagement trainings for Latino agencies so they can become community-based centers of voter registration and outreach.
Among the places where the Hispanic Democratic Caucus would like to see Latinos become more politically engaged is Willimantic, Reyes-Rodriguez said, citing the need to help friendly non-Hispanic Democrats and to build a base for future elections.
In Willimantic, Town Council member James Flores recently observed on Facebook that his community has seen 322 Latinos register to vote for the first time in the last two months, with Flores taking personal credit for almost half of the new enrollment. “This is the way to help our community not argue if Hillary is better than Trump,” Flores added.
Edwin Vargas (D-6), a two-term incumbent in south Hartford, is running against Russell Williams, who served as NAACP president for the Hartford chapter at the end of the 20th century. Vargas noted the Williams is a former Democrat and shares some of his progressive positions.
While Vargas is not seen at risk in the heavily Hispanic district, he said he will use the state funds for which he qualified, to run ads in Latino-oriented media, including websites, radio stations and newspapers.
In Waterbury, Geraldo Reyes (D-75) was elected in April at a special election to fill a vacancy when Rep. Victor Cuevas resigned because of a federal investigation into a home loan which he helped his son obtain. Reyes defeated his current Republican opponent Raymond Work by a three-to-one margin in April.
Democrats also are counting on incumbents Rep. Matthew Lesser (D-100) in Middletown and Rep. Angel Arce (D-4) of Hartford to continue their streak of victories. Lesser, who is of Argentine descent on his mother’s side, is seeking his fifth term. Arce, seeking his third term, is opposed by Republican Lloyd Carter, but ran unopposed two years ago. In Bridgeport’s 128th District where incumbent Rep. Ezequiel Santiago (D-130) has a Republican opponent, but in his district the Democratic nomination usually is a harbinger. to election.
Jason Rojas (D-9) is up for re-election unopposed in a vast Hartford-Manchester district where the Latino population is growing but relatively small and he has enjoyed strong support among non-Hispanics.
Soto is given a big edge in New London by virtue of his primary victory over Hewitt, a popular six-term incumbent who as recently as 2012 attracted 82 percent of the vote. The Coast Guard Academy graduate has opened a “whole new chapter for the New London Democratic Party” due to his ability to involve the Latino population, according to a local journalist speaking off the record.
The Democrats are also trying to send a newcomer to the legislature in Newtown where Eva Bermudez Zimmerman is up against a two-term Republican Rep. Mitch Bolinsky (R-106). Four years ago, Bolinsky, a marketing consultant, won by only 15 votes, but did better two years later, taking 54 percent of the vote.
Zimmerman is a Hartford native who was a plaintiff in the landmark 1996 Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation case that established the state’s obligation to provide all children with equal educational opportunities. She has experience as a community organizer for the state employees union and served on the Newtown Legislative Council. She also has been active politically in Hartford.
Zimmerman recently gained recognition outside of Connecticut when a website with a national following, Refinery29, named her as one of “35 women running for office you should know about.” Under the heading “Clinton isn’t the only woman making history, Zimmerman was included with several congressional candidates of diverse ethnic backgrounds including Catherine Cortez Mastro of Nevada, who could be the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.
Also of note to Hispanics is the 125th District, which covers New Canaan and Wilton, where the Green Party has nominated a Puerto Rican-born U.S. Army veteran, Hector Lopez, to run against Republican two-term incumbent Tom O’Dea. The Democrats have not posted a candidate for this seat.
On the Senate side of the Legislature, Latinos have not been represented since Bridgeport’s Andres Ayala Jr. vacated his Bridgeport seat when he was appointed state motor vehicles commissioner, a post he left after serving a year overseeing the problem-plagued agency. His successor Ed Gomes is a Democrat and an African American.
The lone Latino running for the Senate this year is David Peña in the Eighth District which encompasses Avon, Barkhamsted, Canton, Colebrook, Granby, Hartland, Harwinton, New Hartford, Norfolk, Simsbury and part of Torrington. His opponent is Kevin Witkos, a four-term incumbent who is from Canton and a retired police officer.
The 64-year-old Peña, whose paternal grandparents came from Mexico, was born in Houston, Texas and graduated from the University of Houston. A marketing executive, he is a former president of the Avon Chamber of Commerce and has been on the Avon Town Council for nine years and is currently the lone Democrat. In 2004 and 2012, he ran unsuccessfully for the state House in District 17, garnering 40 percent of the vote against incumbent Timothy LeGeyt.
The day after Election Day, Hispanic Democratic will start work on 2018, Reyes-Rodriguez said, with a focus in a Latino breakthrough on the party ticket for the constitutional offices. Elected statewide, these posts are governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, treasurer and secretary of the state.
“We will be looking to identify people who are well qualified for these position,” Reyes-Rodriguez said.
A strong Latino turnout would certainly help get a candidate on the top of the ticket, Rosario said, adding, “But we should be in consideration regardless. I hope that this next legislative session we have members of the BPRC in key leadership positions and chairs of committees.”