Despite Some Gains, Latino Representation At Local Level Lags


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Bill Sarno/
Latinos now comprise about 15 percent of Connecticut’s population and in more than a dozen cities and towns, they represent a significant percentage of the residents.   However, the disparity between their growing population and their representation on local councils and other municipal legislative boards is substantial.  
In Hartford, where Hispanics comprise about half the population, they only hold three of the nine Court of Common Council slots. This representation is smaller in Danbury, New London and East Hartford which have sizable Latino populations but only hold one seat on city councils.
With many Connecticut cities and towns holding municipal elections this November, Latinos may  have a chance to cut into under-representation, which has persisted despite efforts by Democratic and Republican Hispanic political leaders and other organizations, to alter this situation.
How change can be accomplished, say Hispanic political activists, is to find and promote candidates who can build support and energize potential voters with whom they share an ethnic and cultural affinity, while also attracting non-Hispanics who still hold the majority in many constituencies.
“If you look at who has been successful so far, you’ll see that they are all proud of their Latino heritage, and the passion that comes with being a Latino, but use that passion to empower members of many backgrounds to take an active role in the decisions that affect us,” said Jason Ortiz, who managed Democrat Chris Soto’s successful primary campaign for the state General Assembly in New London last year and previously was involved in campaigns in other areas including Hartford.
The need for Latino candidates with a wider focus and appeal is shared by Norma Rodriguez, chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, a statewide organization which identifies and assists candidates, even non-Latinos, who “believe in the cause.” She commented, “Candidates cannot just wave the Latino flag.”
Latino political involvement has grown significantly in the 65 years since Emilio Varano became the first Puerto Rican elected to office in Connecticut, winning a seat on Meriden’s Board of Alderman.  Since then, the number of local elected officials have not kept up with the population’s growth rate.
In New Britain for example, where the city’s Hispanic residents make up more than 36 percent of the city’s population,  Latinos currently hold only three, or 20 percent, of the Common Council seats out of the entire 15 seats.  “Sadly, the highest amount has been three,” said Carmelo Rodriguez, a longtime Latino activist and Republican leader in the Hardware City.
 “The only difference during this term with Mayor Erin Stewart is that Latinos have more support and have been given the opportunity to be involved in many decisions made concerning their issues,” Rodriguez said.
Although some Latino leaders are willing to embrace leaders who they may perceive as sympathetic to their concerns and needs, their primary mission remains to have people in the room when local decisions impacting their population are made.
“At the local level we need elected officials who are a reflection of our current demographics,” said Miguel Castro, who is one of two Hispanics on the twelve-member City Council in Meriden, where Latinos comprise at least one-third of the population.
“A number of social and quality of life issues, such as education, public safety, housing and economic development, center around demographics, and Latinos may have no representation in local government,” he said.
This election cycle, the number of seats at stake will vary depending on each city’s setup and most candidates are not expected to formally announce until the spring.
In Bridgeport all 20 council seats will be at stake. A similar situation exists for the 30-member Board of Alders in New Haven. Half the Meriden council is up for election, but in Hartford terms are four years and the next council election is in 2019. Several cities also will elect a mayor, but none are currently Latinos.
In terms of numbers, Latinos have the largest contingents on the Bridgeport council and the New Haven Board of Alders, with five and six members respectively. 
In Meriden, Castro had been the lone Latino on the Meriden council, representing one of four districts. He was appointed to his seat in 2011 when Hilda Santiago, who had served since 1996, was elected to the state legislature, and then was elected in 2013
However, last year Michael Cardona, a member of the local school board since 2005, made local history, not only by becoming the second Latino to the council, but by winning an at-large berth in a strong showing citywide. Subsequently, he added the role of deputy mayor.

Representation by Different Political Parties

While most Hispanics on local legislative councils tend to be Democrats, both the Republican and the Working Families parties have fielded Latino candidates with some success.
In New Britain, a traditional Democratic stronghold,  two of the three Hispanics on the Common Council, Kristian Rosado and Willie Pabon, are Republican, and Manny Sanchez is the lone Democrat. In Hartford, thanks to the minority representation rule , the Working Family Party has been able to seat Wildaliz Bermudez on the council. In Windham, James Flores has been elected as an unaffiliated candidate.
In Danbury, where more than a third of the population is Latino, Republican Elmer Palma, a restaurateur from Guatemala, is the lone Latino on the 21-member council. A contributing factor is that many residents are immigrants from Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Central America and for a variety of reasons have been slow to become citizens. However, there was an uptick in applications for naturalization reported before the last presidential campaign.
Windham has had a large Puerto Rican and Mexican population, for decades mostly concentrated in the Willimantic service district. And while this community comprises about a third of the population, only two Latinos currently are members of the ten-person council, Flores, and Nectalis Martinez, a Democrat.
In 1991, Yolanda Negron, became the first Latino elected to the Windham governing body, then known as the Board of Selectman, and served about 15 years in total with a gap to attend college. “Each time I ran I was elected,” she said.
Negron remains active in the community, describing herself as a “political junkie,” a trait she says is inherited from her father who was “a political buff” in Puerto Rico. She would like to see more Hispanics, including members of a sizable Mexican population, get involved and run for office, but she also acknowledges there are some barriers.
One problem Negron cites is the lack of a Spanish-language newspaper in Willimantic to provide the many Latinos who are less adept at English with local news. She attempts to bridge this gap through frequent posting on Facebook about issues such as the city council declaring Windham as a sanctuary city in reaction to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
Another factor inhibiting greater Latino political activism in Windham  is the frequency of elections, including a recent referendum budget referendum, which she said makes an make the U.S. system difficult to understand especially for Puerto Ricans who are accustomed to elections being held every four years. She said perplexed Hispanics ask her, “Yolanda, how many times do we have to vote here?”
Even when strong candidates are identified, Latinos often must deal with other impediments, especially when at-large seats are at stake. This is the reality that in an entrenched party machinery may resist sharing political power and limit nominations to Hispanics despite demographic changes. This situation is often abetted by how districts are configured or gerrymandered to maintain the status quo, and Latinos have a history of below average political involvement, registration and voting.
Soto demonstrated that these hurdles can be cleared last year in New London. Without the endorsement of the city’s Democratic Township Committee, he won the party the primary over a long-standing incumbent and then easily captured a state General Assembly seat at the general election.
Soto, whose heritage is Cuban and Puerto Rican, energized the local Hispanic population which had grown to about 30 percent, and even higher in the district where he ran, to a level of involvement, which local political observers characterized as unprecedented. He also built a winning coalition by working with other blocks of voters, such as backers of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and teachers, parlaying his local recognition for spearheading a program that has guided scores of less-advantaged New London students into college.

Grooming Potential Latino Candidates

The Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus has been looking for candidates to support in this year’s municipal election and the 2018 statewide contests. To further this goal, CHDC in conjunction with U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy, conducted a leadership academy last fall during which 18 Latinos received training on political  activism and running for office. This program will be repeated, Norma Rodriguez said.
The Connecticut Republican Hispanic Caucus also has played an active role in encouraging candidates, particularly those with conservative leanings. One of its leaders, Ruben Rodriguez ran for city office two years ago in Waterbury, and despite not getting elected, reported that progress had been made.
Looking forward, Ortiz is confident that more Hispanic candidates will emerge  who can “transcend the box others might put them in to be able to offer solutions that help the entire community” and thus appeal to a diverse population.
 “All of our Latino community leaders are much more than their ethnicity,” said Ortiz, “They are all highly active members in their community, with real concerns and plans to make our towns better places.  
Castro’s message to potential Latino candidates is “to be elected as officials of all the people, while keeping in mind the disenfranchised and listening to our current issues to be able to legislate in favor of the community.”