Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
As a man without a party in the Hartford mayoral race, Councilman Joel Cruz Jr. accepts he is an underdog, lacking party support and having less campaign funds and mainstream media exposure than the two high-powered candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.
However, Cruz sees his longshot status as also providing extra motivation and hopes to gain momentum through positive word of mouth and engaging potential voters on social media.
Running unaffiliated, Cruz qualified for the general election as a petitioning candidate on the ballot. Meanwhile, incumbent Mayor Pedro Segarra and Luke Bronin, formerly the governor’s general counsel who has the party organization’s nomination, still must go through the Sept.16 primary to see who heads the Democratic slate in November.
For Cruz, online social networking beckons as a potential game changer in politics and as a major reason that independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has quickly gained credibility in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. “As an independent candidate, social media has created a more even playing field,” said Cruz.
One place where the field appears fairly level so far is on Facebook. As of mid-August, the Joel Cruz Jr. for Mayor page had garnered nearly as many “likes” on the social networking mainstay as the campaign profiles of Segarra and about 200 more than Bronin.
Cruz ranks himself No. 3, in the mayoral race behind the vying Democrats Bronin and Segarra, a position which he comments, “says a lot,” puts him ahead of independent candidate Giselle Jacobs and the endorsed Republican Theodore Cannon.
Cruz said he is excited that he could move up to No. 2 after the primary, depending on who wins. Segarra already has a fall back position as a petitioning candidate if he loses, but Bronin has bet everything on the Sept. 16 vote. “My job then becomes to be No. 1,” the independent candidate said.
Often wearing a lavender bow tie, Cruz has campaigned at large events such as the Puerto Rican Day Parade, however the 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran says he prefers to talk one-to-one with residents, whether it be in someone’s living room or at a small fund-raising reception.
In these more intimate situations, Cruz said his approach is to say, “I am here to introduce myself, to share my heart” and not to press for support but to request that if the listeners feel he has something valid to say that they ask others to at least “hear him out.”
The main thrust of his campaign is that he would bring more accountability and trust to city government and emphasize the potential “beauty” in neighborhoods, aspects of city leadership that he says are greatly lacking now. He also stressed the need to unify all elements in the city through better communication.
What Cruz says he often hears from the public and plans to address is that something should be done for youths and that job creation is a priority. Regarding the latter, the candidate said the city has to have a workforce that is prepared for employment opportunities. “The means we have to talk about education,” he added.
This is only the second time Cruz has run from public office. In 2011, in the race for nine council seats, he finished 10th. A year later, he was appointed to succeed Luis Cotto when his political mentor and friend resigned because he was moving to Massachusetts.
Cruz points out that one leading opponent, Bronin, who had been the governor’s general counsel, never has run for office or served in municipal government.
Another subtle edge Cruz has over both Bronin, whose roots are in Fairfield County, and Segarra, who came from Puerto Rico, is that he was born and educated in Hartford. His parents, who both came from Puerto Rico, still live in the city.
Cruz, who grew up on the North Side and disputes the common criticism that “nothing good comes out of this neighborhood,” now lives with Karla, his wife of 13 years, and two daughters, Lisha and Abigail, in the southwest corner of the city, near where he works as director of the South Side Family Center, a Catholic Charities program.
The fact that Cruz is part of the city’s rising Puerto Rican community has been a mixed blessing in that he recently had to disclaim in English and Spanish postings that he is not in the race to diminish Segarra’s chances. The best place, he said, to split the Hispanic vote, if that was his objective, would be to run in the primary against Segarra, but his focus from day one has been the November election where he will be a petitioning candidate.
Moreover, Cruz said it is disrespectful to Latinos to say they will only vote for one of their own.
Cruz acknowledges that he lacks the name recognition as the sitting mayor, but he also notes that he is fairly well known from his work on the council and from church. He has been a pastor since 2004, he said.
The candidate’s Exeter Street home serves as his campaign headquarters. His wife Karla has relinquished her dining room for the duration. Also, unlike the well-staffed Bronin and Segarra campaigns, Cruz does not have a campaign manager and is relying on volunteer committees for guidance and assistance.
In addition to using Facebook to get the word out on his candidacy, Cruz has a website, www.joelcruzformayor.com, and is active on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, where he regularly posts his own tweets. He utilizes his personal cell phone number for the campaign.
Basically, Cruz knows he has to make his limited campaign money last. As of the July 10 state election commission filings, the independent candidate had about $4,300 in cash on hand and had spent about $5,000 in the previous three months. Bronin reported that he had raised $610,000 and Segarra, who has the advantage as a five-year incumbent of greater recognition, had raised more than $322,000.
Cruz points out that a large majority of the cash accumulated by Segarra and Bronin comes from outside Hartford. More than 50 percent of Cruz!s war chest is from Hartford and that in some cases people who barely have enough money to subsist will contribute ten dollars, the candidate said.
Cruz steered away from running on the Working Families Party, which was his label in council races, although he was interviewed by that group. He said he wants to be the people’s candidate and that he has more freedom and less stress about “payback” than if he is backed by a party.
Cruz said as an independent he is under less pressure from big interest groups that impact city government. He said that a developer, for example, should first have to talk with the communities that would be affected by a project. “If people don’t want it, they need to respect that,” he said, adding that he would suggest going back to the neighborhood to see what might work.
Last year, Cruz voted for the Downtown North Hartford, a privately generated multi-purpose development adjoining a new minor league baseball stadium. He said he was frustrated that the neighborhood was “brought in at the end of the deliberations, but far more people favored the plan than were against it.” The councilman said he still has concerns about DoNo Hartford, which he says can work, but the real test is whether city leaders demand accountability from the developers as the project progresses.
Cruz said Hartford’s political old guard might be surprised by the election’s outcome with two “sleeping giants” being the growing Latino population and the city’s large number of residents aged 15-34.
More than 36 percent of the city’s 125,000 residents fall into the younger age group, compared to 25 percent statewide. Cruz is aware that the young people have a history of being disconnected from politics but as the Sanders campaign has demonstrated this could change.
Currently, with most of the public’s attention focused on the upcoming primary, Cruz said he is going slow on the campaign trail so he won’t run out of steam in the homestretch. He said as a Marine, where he was required to run three miles in under 20 minutes as part of the physical fitness training, that it is important to pace himself.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Cruz said he will not be a loser. “My life in Hartford does not end,” he said, “I will still have my whole family here, including by mom and dad,” he said. “Politics is not a career, it is a path,” he said, explaining that he does not have an agenda and intends to remain a voice and advocate for issues that affect people.