As state Representatives Chris Rosario, Edwin Vargas and other urban-based Hispanic legislators begin the 2017-18 General Assembly session, the challenges they face to stabilize finances for the state and its cities are as daunting as ever.
However, the twelve Latinos who are part of the Democrats current 78-72 majority in the House also find themselves in a better position to pursue their priorities having secured prominent and influential roles, “like never before,” Rosario said.
Rosario has emerged as a key player in more than one position. The Bridgeport Democrat has moved to a top rung of the House leadership chart as the ruling party’s chief majority whip. He also has been elected chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, whose bipartisan ranks include members of both chambers.
Vargas is one of three Latino representatives that have been assigned committee chairmanships by Speaker of the House Joseph Aresimowicz. The Hartford legislator moves up from vice chairman of Executive and Legislative Nominations to chairman.
For Vargas, the budget, once again beset by a huge deficit and long-term financial stability for the state and its urban areas, is a top concern.
Aresimowicz has appointed two other Latinos to lead committees. Matthew Lesser of Middletown remains as chair of Banking and Jason Rojas of East Hartford now heads Finance, Revenue and Bonding.
Committee vice chairmen include Waterbury’s Geraldo Reyes for Commerce, Bobby Sanchez of New Britain for Education and Angel Arce of Hartford for transportation.
In the 36-member Senate, where there is an even split between Republicans and Democrats, the lone Latino is Art Linares, a Republican from Westbrook. In his third term, he is vice chairman of Commerce and co-chairman of Higher Education.
Linares also has been named assistant Senate Republican majority leader and will serve on the Transportation Committee and the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee.
Rosario is not the only Latino with a prominent role in the House leadership. Juan Candelaria of New Haven, who previously was a deputy majority leader, now is a deputy speaker. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford and Hilda Santiago of Meriden are new deputy majority leaders. Angel Arce of Hartford and Geraldo Reyes of Waterbury are assistant majority leaders.
While Latinos remained under-represented in the 151-seat House compared to their portion of the state population, they will have a greater presence on the Appropriations Committee. This standing committee controls the budgets of state agencies and has jurisdiction over human relations matters, including state employee salary and benefits.
Of the 24 House Democrats assigned to Appropriations, seven, or nearly one-third, are Latinos. Moreover, Ezequiel Santiago of Bridgeport and newcomer Chris Soto of New London have been appointed vice chairmen. Rosario, Reyes and Ezequiel Santiago will head Appropriation subcommittees. Candelaria and Gonzalez are committee members.
Rosario will be one of the busiest legislators. As chief majority whip, he essentially serves as the party’s enforcer, making sure party members are present and understand the party position when key measures come up for votes. Party discipline becomes particularly sensitive since the Democrats enjoy a much slimmer House majority than in previous sessions.
In addition, Rosario is chairman of the Appropriations Committee elementary education subcommittee and a member of three committees, Education, Labor and Public Employees and Transportation.
Rosario said he is working on “issues that impact Bridgeport and other urban areas.”
The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Rosario reported, has been drafting its 2017 legislative priorities working collaboratively with Subira Gordon, who heads the new Commission on Equity and Opportunity, and Ingrid Alvarez, Connecticut director of the Hispanic Federation. “We are hoping to finalize soon,” Rosario said.
Among the areas the caucus is targeting are economic development, quality education, budget stability and criminal justice areas.
The caucus consists of 22 House members, all Democrats, and six senators, including two Republicans, Linares and George Logan of Ansonia. Vargas is the group’s parliamentarian and Lesser is secretary.
In addition to their leadership posts and serving on the Appropriation Committee, Latino legislators start the new session with a variety of committee assignments.
Vargas is a member of two committees, Environment and Labor and Public employees.
Gonzalez, who as been a House member since 1997, serves on Legislative Management, and Public Safety and Security.
“Minnie is an experienced and battle-tested veteran of the House of Representatives … and will continue to serve in the best interests of her constituents as she takes on her new leadership assignment and committee appointments,” Aresimowicz said in a press release.
Candelaria is a member of the Appropriations and Education committees.
Sanchez is a member of three committees: Finance, Revenue and Bonding, Higher Education and Employment Advancement, Labor and Public Employees.
Ezequiel Santiago is a member the Environment Committee.
Hilda Santiago serves on Finance, Revenue and Bonding, Government Administration and Elections, and Human Services
Reyes is a member of the Regulation Review Committee.
Lesser sits on Government Administration and Elections and the Insurance and Real Estate committees.
Rojas is a member of Planning and Development.
Arce serves on Finance, Revenue and Bonding.
Soto has been appointed to Higher Education and Employment Advancement, Housing, and Executive and Legislative Nominations.
The newest member of the Latino contingent, Soto said his No. 1 priority is to ensure the New London magnet school project goes through. He also will focus on lessening restrictions around bilingual teacher certification. “We have a crisis and need more of them.”
Soto also has an interest of pursuing housing projects in his district. “The first bill I introduced was around accountability for recovery house (sober houses),” he noted.