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Former GOP rising star hopes to be state’s lone Latino mayor as a Democrat

As crisp breezes whipped up flurries of brilliantly hued leaves in the autumn of 2014. 19-year-old Aundré Bumgardner was in the midst of a whirlwind of political activity in Groton and New London.

The son of Latino and black parents, the young Republican was going door-to-door almost daily in his quest to represent the 41st House District in the state’s General Assembly.

Effusive and enthusiastic about the future of southeastern Connecticut, Bumgardner impressed many voters, enough so that in January 2015, now 20, he was off to Hartford as the newly elected state representative.

Bumgardner had become the youngest person to serve in any state legislature and was cast as one of the Republican Party’s rising stars, a status that slipped in 2016 when he was not re-elected.

Moving forward to the winter and spring of 2021 and Bumgardner, now 26, is again showing up on doorsteps, specifically in the City of Groton. This time he has his sights set on being elected today the state’s only Latino and youngest mayor.

However, there is a significant difference between this year’s run and his two campaigns for state representative.

Bumgardner is running as a Democrat. He left the GOP in the wake of the August 12, 2017 a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which he said was a “dark point” in U.S. history.

Bumgardner said what he found especially disturbing about the Charlottesville riot was that President Trump said there were “very fine people” among both the alt-right demonstrators and the counter protesters. Moreover, he disliked that many Republican leaders were silent about the racial and religious hate exposed at the rally.

“I made this change of affiliation very quietly”, Bumgardner said. “It took only a few minutes using my computer.”

With his political ambitions unsatisfied, it was not long before he became highly visible in local politics. He joined the Groton Democratic town committee, was “fully focused on the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg, and even served as a campaign volunteer for Democrat state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, who had defeated the young Republican in  2016.

Bumgardner was chosen to fill a vacancy on the Groton Town Council and subsequently won the seat on his own right in the 2019 election in which he was the second-highest vote-getter.

Bumgardner is a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and has worked for the state Treasurer Shawn Wooden as an outreach representative for the CHET college savings program.

During the recent winter, Bumgardner mounted a primary challenge against two-term incumbent Mayor Keith Hedrick, who had the support of the party organization, in the City of Groton, which is a dependent enclave within the Town of Groton, but has its own fire and police departments and elects its own governing body.

With 29 percent of eligible voters turning out, Bumgardner won his party’s nomination by just five votes. As a personal aside, he notes, “This was the first time my 18-year-old sister Lourdes was able to vote for me and she learned that her vote counts.”

With city Republicans not fielding a candidate in what has long been a Democratic stronghold, Bumgardner should have enjoyed clear sailing in the general election and could begin working on the transition at City Hall which begins a week after the local election.

However, things didn’t turn out as Bumgardner anticipated. Hedrick has launched a write-in campaign, looking to attract votes from Republicans and independents as well as the vast majority of Democrats who did not vote in the primary.

Bumgardner said he is “taking this write-in very seriously.”

He also is not taking any chances with the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, he endured a bout with the dreaded coronavirus. “It knocked the wind out of my sails for a few days, he said.

On the campaign trail, Bumgardner wears a safety mask and protective gloves. He also strictly adheres to social distancing rules.

“There were days when the temperature was ten degrees,” Bumgardner said, and people invited him into their homes but I had to say no.”

Hedrick, in an interview with the online Connecticut Examiner, criticized Bumgardner for focusing on identity politics by citing his age and Latino heritage.

The mayor, who had a long career with the U.S. Navy, also questioned his opponent’s impatience to use the mayoral job as a gateway to his state and national political ambitions.

“He could have been on the city council here,” Hedrick said. “I’ve had several positions open up, and he could have sat on the council, rode out for two more years as councilor, and then I could have trained him on what it is to be the mayor, and then turned over the mayor position to him,’

Bumgardner said he had entered the Democratic primary because he wanted city voters to have a choice at least in the Democratic primary. He also said that the local government should better reflect the city’s racially diverse and younger demographics. He notes that 22 percent of the town’s public school students are Latino and “the lion’s share” live in the city.

Hedrick, who like his opponent is a former Republican, framed his campaign with a similar theme, that the majority Democrats who did not vote March 7 as well as Republicans and Independents should have a choice. He also states, “People are happy with what we have done.”

Bumgardner is full of ideas for how life in the city of Groton can be improved. He wants to set up summer youth programs and reinvigorate Thames Street, the city’s primary downtown thoroughfare. He also wants to “leverage” the economic opportunities centering around the expanding Electric Boat shipyard and the Pfizer laboratories in Groton.

Both Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, have endorsed Bumgardner as has the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus which also backed him the primary.

Bumgardner praised Caucus chairman Miguel Castro who has made the hour trip from his hometown Meriden to Groton “to put his money where his mouth is.”

More recently, in addition to campaigning and his busy civic schedule, which includes four budget meetings in one week, his focus has been on helping his family which includes a younger brother on the autism spectrum.

The mayoral candidate said it is “humbling” that as he goes door-to-door that people recognize him for his work on the town council and planning and zoning.

“People know who you are,” he said. “I am still the same young man who knocked on their doors running for state representative.”

Publisher’s Note: in the unofficial results, incumbent Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick’s write-in campaign carried him to victory over Democratic primary winner Aundré Bumgardner in Monday’s (May 3) mayoral election 952 votes to 811.

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