By Wayne Jebian
For the Connecticut General Assembly, 2013 will be remembered as the year legislators tackled both the budget and the aftermath of the Newtown massacre while still managing to adjourn on schedule. And for Latinos, the session saw their political representation at a new high, while state and national events put Latino legislators in the center of the session’s last-minute dramas.
The most significant eleventh-hour development came when the Black and Latino Caucus successfully intervened to modify a bill advanced by Newtown families to keep photos and other crime scene documents out of the public domain. “The Black and Latino Caucus brought into the open the need to include everybody, not just the Newtown families, in the legislation that protected the families of homicide victims,” Larry Perosino, spokesman for the House Democratic Majority, said.
This was also the year that the Puerto Rican caucus became the Latino caucus, representing a new level of diversity. The year began with 12 Latino legislators, including two senators: former Representative Andres Ayala (D-Bridgeport) and 24-year-old newcomer Art Linares (R-Westbrook). Cuban on his father’s side, Linares became the only non-Puerto Rican, non-Democrat in the caucus. However, the group was diversified even further when it formally accepted the request to join from Matthew Lesser (D-Middletown), whose mother came from Argentina, bringing the number to 13.
In its political agendas, the group demonstrated tremendous diversity, fanning out to separately tackle a wide range of projects, and coming together for a small number issues of mutual concern. Proposals ranged from immigration-related issues, minimum wage, human trafficking, victims’ rights, to mixed martial arts, all of which met with success in the legislature. However, sentencing reform was left on the back burner in spite of the efforts of the Black and Latino Caucus.
An attempt to regulate alternative schools, an area of near unanimous concern for Latinos, was not passed as its own bill, but did survive in a broader education bill as an area of further study by the Department of Education. “We’re trying to get the state department of education to define what an alternative school is, because there is no definition,” Jason Rojas (D-Hartford) said. “There’s a real lack of clarity about what those schools mean — what kind of programs are they? Are they appropriately funded? Are their curriculums rigorous?”
Angel Arce (D-Hartford) was noted by House Majority Spokesman Larry Perisino for his very moving presentation before the legislature during the last minute push to block the public release of crime-scene photos and videos of the children killed at Newtown. “No families in the state of Connecticut are going to go through what my family went through,” he said. Arce’s father was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Hartford, motivating him to expand the legislation to protect families of future crime victims, a move predicted to be unpopular with the media. Arce also helped pass successful legislation on blighted properties, immigration, sexual assault and more.
Although Andres Ayala (D-Bridgeport) had the early spotlight for his election to the Senate, he settled into quiet and serious work, pointing with particular pride to his work on gun control and legislation requiring cultural competency training for mental health professionals. For his constituents, the most tangible benefit would come from raising the minimum wage. “What’s better than that?” he asked “Putting money into the pockets of my constituents, folks who unfortunately end up as low wage earners. I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
Representative Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) came out of the session with the highest profile, having won over the House leadership with his deft handling of a long-shot issue: Drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. This bill, along with another law that set procedures for dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), put Connecticut ahead of the rest of the nation in tackling immigration issues.
“I have to take pride in our Chairman’s [Candelaria] efforts for immigration. I think it was a wonderful, and deserved, goal that was accomplished,” first-term Representative Christina Ayala (D-Bridgeport) said. While her work focused mostly on children and families, she helped successfully increase benefits for emergency workers as well. Alluding to Newtown, she said, “We’ve been able to take some preventative measures back in our urban communities. The leadership has worked with us, has allotted some funding, and we’re looking to see how to keep our youth a little bit safer and away from the streets.”
In the aftermath of frenzied end-of-term legislative sessions in which hundreds of bills were passed and countless others died, a surprising fact emerged: Representative Hilda Santiago (D-Meriden) introduced or co-sponsored 169 bills in virtually every category, and most of them passed. Her track record made the first-term legislator either the most effective legislator in the state or someone with an knack for picking winners.
Along with Santiago, Representative Robert Sanchez (D-New Britain) was honored as a “Children’s Champion” by the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance. “What’s very important to me, and dear to my heart is education,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we fund education appropriately and fairly.”
Sanchez also co-sponsored successful bills dealing with a wide range of concerns, including several on veterans’ issues and mental health.
Senator Art Linares (R-Westbrook) voted against drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, citing inadequate safeguards against fraud, while co-sponsoring legislation against sexual assault and human trafficking. He also co-sponsored a successful bill allowing school children to opt out of frog dissection, and he joined Reps. Lesser and Hilda Santiago in prohibiting state business contracts with Iran.
Matthew Lesser allied with Candelaria to help pass legislation setting statewide goals for clean and renewable energy. While citing the 75 cent minimum wage increase as the most important single bill, he said that “the budget will be the real legacy of this session.”
Representative Ezequiel Santiago (D-Bridgeport) made his mark through his efforts on behalf of the minimum wage increase, while also working on another important issue for Latinos: Notaries practicing law without proper credentials. Other successes included working with Senator Ayala on a mattress stewardship bill and several pieces of pro-business legislation.
Representative Jason Rojas (D-Hartford), while on the one hand focused on education, on the other led a drive for a mini economic stimulus, advancing bills to stimulate home construction and small distilleries. When asked what he thought the highlight of the session was, he pointed to the elephant in the room, saying, “Of course, we were concerned with the gun debate for the first three months of the session, but ever since then, we’ve been trying to catch up with everything else that’s been a priority.”
Victor Cuevas (D-Waterbury) co-sponsored many bills early in the session with an eye toward bringing funding back to his district. “For my constituents, we had quite a bit of money going through DECD [Department of Economic and Community Development], plus bonding into the district for our Boys and Girls Club. That was huge for my district.”
Cuevas also had praise for the overall budget. “We got it through with some sound decisions on the leadership side. We held the cities harmless; that was important.”
One of Minnie Gonzalez’ (D-Hartford) main focuses this session was on public safety. While she expressed frustration about proposal that were not passed, like her push to raise the speed limit while increasing fines, she did help with successful measures on swimming pool safety and ice removal from vehicles, along with a wide range of issues from education to consumer protection. One of the more innovative laws Gonzalez was connected to allows for inmates scheduled for release into rehabilitative care to voluntarily extend their incarceration if the post-jail accommodation is not ready. She also co-sponsored the bill mandating that parents be informed within one day if their child has been placed in psychiatric care.
“I think we have accomplished a lot in this session, considering that it was a tough session with the whole Newtown tragedy and the $1.1 billion deficit,” said Representative Edwin Vargas (D-Hartford). “The original budget deficit that Governor Malloy presented needed a lot of work.” Vargas highlighted legislation requiring background checks on people buying guns, “so that they don’t fall into the hands of criminals or people who are unstable. That was very important.”
So what does next year hold? “We’re trying to look ahead,” Vargas said. “Looking at manufacturing, trying to increase our share of manufacturing, which is something that Senator [Chris] Murphy is interested in, too. We’ve got a future committee that’s looking at how to convert military manufacturing to peacetime manufacturing.
Every legislator is looking to stimulate economic recovery in order to fund previously reforms in areas like social services, and education in particular. “When things get better down the road, we can put some more money into that,” Robert Sanchez said, echoing a sentiment almost universally shared by his fellow legislators.