Historic breakthrough part of Latinos gain in state legislature



Amid the life-changing COVID-19 pandemic and the tumult of the presidential contest, a blue wave rolled through in Connecticut that carried a larger role for Democrats of Latino descent in the state Legislature.

The Nov. 3 election was dominated by Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump and the re-election of five Democrats to Congress in Connecticut.

The Democrats also were dominant in the General Assembly races, gaining six seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. Democrat’s new majorities will be 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate.

The new faces in the House will include Emmanuel Sanchez, who won the District 24 House seat covering parts of New Britain and Newington, and Jorge Cabrera of Hamden, a winner in Senate District 17, which also encompasses Woodbridge and part of the Naugatuck Valley.

(Rep. Manny Sanchez, Sen. Jorge Cabrera)

Sanchez’s victory with about 64 percent of the votes, combined with the re-election of eleven incumbents, expanded the Latino contingent in the House to a dozen members.

Cabrera was one of three Latinos, including two incumbent Democrats, to win Senate contests. The Hamden resident unseated George Logan, who also is of Latino extraction, by more than 2,000 votes. In 2018 Logan defeated Cabrera by less than 100 votes.

Sanchez and Cabrera’s election was hailed by Miguel Castro, chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Coalition as “a great outcome.”

A few days after the election, the House Democratic caucus produced a historic breakthrough for Latinos, unanimously designating Rep. Jason Rojas of East Hartford to be the next majority leader in the House and the first Latino to hold a top legislative office.

Majority leader Jason Rojas

Rojas, the son of parents who migrated to Connecticut from Puerto Rico,  also noted with pride that he would be the first person of color to be chosen majority leader.

The majority leader position opened up when its current holder, Rep. Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, was chosen speaker-designate of the House to succeed Rep. Joseph Aresimowicz — who is retiring.

Ritter recently comment: “I am excited to work closely with Jason over our next two years in leadership. Jason is a very close friend, and I have tremendous respect for him.”

Rojas, who won re-election from District 9, which encompasses his hometown and part of Manchester, downplayed his ethnic heritage in his selection to this highly influential majority leader post, citing his legislative and career background as major causative factors.

Ritter observed, “My experience as Majority Leader over the past four years illustrated the importance of teamwork in legislative leadership. I worked collaboratively with Speaker Aresimowicz, and I expect the same dynamic with Jason.”

During this ten-year tenure, Rojas has established himself as a hard worker, most recently as a deputy majority leader and as co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, a role he will now relinquish in the upcoming General Assembly session.

Another attribute Rojas brings to his new assignment is his experience as a college administrator. He currently is chief of staff and assistant vice president for external affairs at Trinity College, where he earned a master’s degree in 2012.

Rojas said his background would be useful in his new position, which he says deals with the legislative process’s logistics. “My job also includes ironing out any disagreements,” he said.

The majority leader’s role also involves collaborating with the speaker on various legislative appointments. On Nov. 15, Ritter and Rojas announced that Rep. Bobby Sanchez would serve as House chair of the General Assembly’s Education Committee for a third term.

“Bobby’s passion for education makes him the perfect fit to lead the state through the challenges brought by the pandemic,” said Speaker-designate Ritter about the District 25 representative.

Rojas said, “Rep. Sanchez brings experience and leadership to the Committee and legislature. His education commitment is well documented as our schools have improved since Rep. Sanchez assumed the chairperson role. Bobby has earned the respect of legislators on both sides of the aisle, and that’s why he’s been able to get legislation passed.”

Bobby Sanchez is Manny Sanchez’s uncle. The latter, a 44-year-old New Britain native and longtime City Council veteran, garnered 64 percent of the votes cast to win a seat now held by Democrat Rick Lopes, who was elected to the Senate.

Both Manny Sanchez and Cabrera built their victories through attention to a dramatic change in campaigning dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sanchez said, “I made a personal decision not to knock on any doors this year due to the pandemic and focused my efforts on calling folks. I talked to thousands of residents in the 24th district. Starting back in May before my primary in August and made calls into the district on Election Day to remind folks about getting to the polls.”

According to campaign manager Dhrupad Nag, the Cabrera campaign turned a 77-vote deficit in 2018 to a 2,000 vote victory relying on absentee votes to make up ground.

This time, Cabrera, a union leader endorsed by the Working Families Party, reduced his vote deficit in Ansonia and Derby while driving up Hamden’s margin by nearly 2,000 votes.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said he was “deeply saddened” by Logan’s loss. He said the utility company executive was “one of the best candidates we have ever had” and “performed remarkably well” in his district, “but the heavily blue political makeup of this district in a presidential year was insurmountable.”