When former New Haven Alderman Gerald Garcia waged his trailblazing campaign for secretary of the state in 2010, forcing the Democratic machine’s endorsed candidate and eventual winner Denise Merrill into a primary, the door seemed open for other Latinos to seek statewide office in Connecticut.
However, four years ago when the six constitutional offices — which also include governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and comptroller — were again up for election Hispanics were generally not part of Democratic or Republican conversations about potential candidates, particularly with all six incumbents running again.
This year this situation has changed significantly. At least two candidates with Hispanic backgrounds are poised to cross the threshold onto the November ballot. Republican state Sen. Art Linares and Democrat Eva Bermudez Zimmerman have become prominent in discussions of potential statewide candidates.
Linares, descended from Cuban refugees, is aiming for treasurer, a job now held by Denise Nappier who is not seeking re-election. He is completing his second term as state senator from a traditionally Democratic district.
Zimmerman, a labor activist and state party officer whose background is Puerto Rican, is considering a run for secretary of the state, which means challenging her party’s incumbent, Merrill.
So far, the Hartford native and Newtown resident, has set up an exploratory committee. “We are going to see if Eva is a viable statewide candidate,” said state Rep. Chris Soto of New London, the committee’s treasurer.
Moreover, in a variance from past election cycles, a deeper and more diverse “bench” of potential candidates with Latino background who could to step up to the plate to run for statewide office or for state senator, a position only a handful of Latinos ever have held. Several of these rising leaders have demonstrated electoral credibility beyond the urban neighborhoods where most of the Spanish-speaking and, in the case of the growing Brazilian population, Portuguese-speaking residents, are clustered.
“We’ve certainly seen substantive progress in a very short period of time, Garcia said. “It was while I was running,” Garcia recalled, “that President Obama named Sonya Sotomayor as the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court; we then were still several years away from our first Latino on our state Supreme Court, we had no Hispanic state senators in Connecticut from either party and no Latino state representation at all from the eastern part of the state.”
As to what is behind this increased Latino political presence, Garcia suggests that “sometimes change hides in plain sight.” The former state consumer affairs administrator explained, “We’re seeing a rapid broadening of Latino participation across the board. There are more Latino state representatives than ever. We’ve seen people of Hispanic descent elected to office in municipalities beyond our center cities,” he said.” “And we’re seeing Latinos run and win on both sides of the aisle, from more Spanish-speaking countries of origin than ever before.”
Many of the rising stars cited by party leaders are relatively young but already have built notable political resumes. They include Linares, 29; Norwalk Common Council member Eloisa Melendez, 24; state Rep. Soto, 37; Zimmerman, 31; and Joe Rodriguez, 31, deputy state director for U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and a recent addition to the New Haven Board of Education.
Among the other names that Rodriguez and others cite as potential statewide candidates in 2018 and beyond are attorneys Jeanet Figueroa Laskos of Shelton, who is an assistant state attorney general, and Ed Camacho, Norwalk Democratic chairman, who apparently has declined suggestions he run for attorney general. Also mentioned are veteran state representatives Juan Candelaria, Edwin Vargas, Jason Rojas and Chris Rosario; Garcia, and Aidee Nieves, the first Hispanic woman to become the council president in Bridgeport.
Another name tossed in the mix is state banking Commissioner Jorge Perez of New Haven, who reportedly likes his current job too much to seek elected office.
And while most of the Latino political figures are Democrats, Republicans such as Linares and state Sen. George Logan of Ansonia, whose mother is Hispanic, also have had success in state Senate contests, notably in districts outside the urban centers. Several Democrats with Hispanic backgrounds hope to join them this year, including Jorge Cabrera of Hamden, Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport and Matt Lesser of Middletown.
“We are doing what should have been done ten years back,” Rodriguez said. This effort involves increasing voter registration and turnout.
A major thrust, Rodriguez said, has been to make the party membership aware “we are here and to open up doors for us.” Hispanics have to recognize the reality of their numbers. “We are not a majority,” she said, and “unless the majority decides to let us do things, this does not happen.”
A wildcard in the current political situation is the influx of Puerto Ricans who have left their hurricane devastated island and could have an impact on politics in Connecticut. “On the island, they do vote,” she said.
A big part of the caucus’s agenda is to demonstrate that Hispanics are invested in their community and are part of the mainstream by voting. The group’s motto is, “Los Hispanos, si votamos,” or Hispanics, yes we vote.”
“You can’t do it overnight,” said Soto, who energized the local Latino population to win his legislative seat and now is working on building future candidates by increasing Latino membership in the Democratic Town Committee and by winning seats on the local school board and city council.
Soto also is a member of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus, which recently graduated its second Latino Leadership Academy class. This empowerment program is sponsored by U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy and spearheaded by Rodriguez and Yolanda Castillo, the first Latina elected to the Manchester council.
“Sponsoring the Latino Leadership Academy is one of the caucus’s largest contributions,” the former Coast Guard officer said.
The word “electability” has become a major buzzword in the national political conversation with the crucial midterm congressional elections approaching and it also resonates in Connecticut.
Being Latino is not enough, it is about finding people who are going to win, Soto said.
In addition, Garcia said the term “Latino bench” may be a misnomer due to the diversity of a population whose basic common denominator is that their families originally came from lots of different Spanish-speaking places.”
“That said,” Garcia adds, “we are seeing more Latinos with more experience and deeper resumes who live in more parts of the state run and win. I would love to see this number double or triple and I’m generally pleased with our trajectory.
“Running for office is hard,” Garcia said, “But so long as Connecticut is a place where people want to live, where we believe our voice matters and where we believe we can make a difference, there’s every reason to expect more of us from more places will raise our hands, engage the process, run for office.”