Latinos still face challenges to achieve political equality


By Bill Sarno,

A campaign on improving education and bringing communities together fell short for former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez.

Perez lost a three-way democratic primary to current Mayor Luke Bronin that also included four term state representative Brandon McGee.

Perez does have enough signatures to be on the ballot in November, but hasn’t said whether or not he will run.

Eddie Perez Mayor Candidacy Announcement
April 2019

In less than four decades, Hispanics have risen from virtual nonstarters in Connecticut’s political arena to winning more than a dozen General Assembly seats in recent elections.

Also of significance, Latinos have gained what one veteran legislator described “really powerful leadership positions,” especially in the 151-member House, including major committee chairmanships.

State Capitol, Hartford

“This is really important and a credit to the leaders of the legislative branch,” said  Rep. Jason Rojas, a Democrat who is chairman of the influential Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

“This increased Puerto Rican and Latino participation and prominence at the state level is one the most positive aspects of the evolving Hispanic political heritage in Connecticut”, said Werner Oyanadel, the Latino and Puerto Rican policy director at the state Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity.

On the local, Latinos also have enjoyed success and they are charged up to gain more seats in November’s municipal elections, especially in Danbury where both parties have diverse slates running for council.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano
R-North Haven

While most Latino politicians are Democrats, the Republicans have not abandoned the  battlefield. Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano on September 11 stated: “I encourage and hope more Hispanic candidates will run for office at all levels as Republicans because our party offers a great platform for candidates from all backgrounds to truly make a difference in our state.”

Meanwhile, in taking stock of the Hispanic experience in Connecticut politics there remains the  inability to achieve equality at a level which for some leaders is the holy grail: election to the six statewide constitutional offices.

Latinos have run for offices such as lieutenant governor, secretary of the state, treasurer and even governor in 2010, but have been stymied by lack of support from their party’s leadership. 

 CHDC Chair Miguel Castro

“Hispanics are about an election away from a Latino constitutional officer,” said an optimistic  Miguel Castro, chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, a statewide grassroots organization, which he said has been working for several years toward developing candidates with the “skill set to advance our message for higher office.”

“We can’t get statewide offices until we strategically position ourselves to change the direction,” Castro said, “and we have done this.”

Castro said the Hispanic leaders are looking for allies and partners. “They don’t necessarily look like us, but their message, trajectories best benefit our community.”

In this regard, Castro said the Hispanic Caucus also is meeting and endorsing  non-Latino candidates, such as Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. The deciding factor, Castro said,  is who  “best could represent the voice of our people.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin speaks to supporters at the Polish National Home after his Primary Election victory Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019
Photo Credit: CT News Junkie

Still, the Democratic Party’s leadership is conservative and concentrates on seniority when picking statewide candidates, said Charles R. Venator-Santiago, a member of the Department of Political Science and El Instituto: Institute for Latina/o, Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Last year, the  Democratic machinery fielded and elect a statewide slate including an African-American and an Asian-American. Hispanics were left to “wait their turn, ” which “may be the next statewide election,” Castro said.

Venator said Hispanics need to become more involved in the party machinery, a process that Castro said is well underway. The Meriden Democrat noted that 24-year-old Norwalk City councilwoman Eloisa Melendez became party treasurer, three Latinos are state commissioners and Chris Soto is Governor Ned Lamont’s legislative liaison.

“We have a longtime admiration for our party’s leadership,” Castro said, “but we are now at the table” and able to change the course of the conversation when issues of concern to the Hispanic community are discussed.

This status,  Castro said, was achieved by building strength from “communities to the Capitol.”

SUGGESTION: Record Number Of Hispanic Voters In 2020

In addition, Castro said, the Democratic Party “understands that without the Latino vote they would face big challenges.”

Not to be overlooked in Latinos’ quest for political equality, however, are socio-economic issues,  lack of statewide recognition and low voter participation.

For many Latinos, “a legitimate concern” is first how to put food on the table, said Rojas who has represented an East Hartford and Manchester district since 2009.

Another factor that has inhibited voter participation, according to Venator, is that Connecticut is “not electing the right kind of people.”

Still, the gains in the state legislature have been impressive in the 37 years since Democrat Jose Lugo of Bridgeport was elected as the state’s first Puerto Rican state representative. Lugo served three terms with Americo Santiago taking over his 130th District seat for another four terms.

Oyanadel said that John Martinez, who was elected to four terms from New Haven, might have risen to speaker of the House had he not died as the result of an automobile accident in 2002 when he was deputy speaker.

Through the decades, the Hispanic representation in the state House of Representatives has creeped ahead as the state’s Puerto Rican and Latino population has boomed and spread. But until recently the Hispanic delegation was concentrated in a few seats from heavily Hispanic districts in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.

Today,  Latinos hold 14 seats in the legislature including an unprecedented three in the  Senate. Moreover, their constituencies cover all or part of two dozen towns and cities. Puerto Ricans still dominate, but this lineup has diversified to include people whose ancestry is traced to Central and South America and the Caribbean.

In addition to Rojas, several other Latino Democrats hold significant legislative posts. Robert Sanchez of New Britain heads the Education Committee, Edwin Vargas of Hartford is chairman of the Executive and Legislature Nomination Committee.

Moreover, several Hispanics are deputy speakers and majority leaders including Juan Candelaria of New Haven, Chris Rosario of Bridgeport, Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford, Geraldo Reyes of Waterbury and Hilda Santiago of Meriden.

In the 38-member Senate, Democrats Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport and Matthew Lesser of Middletown are both deputy majority leader, with the former chairman of public safety and security and the latter heading the Insurance and Real Estate Committee. The lone Republican senator of Hispanic descent, George Logan of Ansonia is an assistant minority leader.

The first Latino state senators did not come until 2013 when Andres Ayala Jr. was elected from the Bridgeport and Art Linares, the grandson of a Cuban refugee won in a  district comprised of lower Connecticut Valley and shore towns with relatively low Hispanic populations.

The victory of the 24-year-old Linares, Oyanadel recalled, “was not expected and “quite an accomplishment.” Party leaders in Connecticut and nationally viewed the new senator as a rising star.

Yet,  Linares, after two victories in a diverse district, “couldn’t move up much within the Republican Party, Venator said.

Abandoning his Senate seat, Linares lost in last summer’s GOP primary for state treasurer, winning  44 percent of the vote against the leadership endorsed Thad Gray.

Also, last year,  Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a Hartford native living in Newtown, could not overcome the big insider edge held by Susan Bysiewicz in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Bysiewicz, the former secretary of state and a possible candidate for governor, who was anointed by gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont and party insiders.

Bermudez won 38 percent of the vote and did well in heavily Hispanic Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven, and Windham, but not in suburbs, smaller cities, and rural areas, except for tiny Eastford.

In 2010, Juan Figueroa “did not go far” in when he was the first Puerto Rican to run for governor, Venator said. The former legislator and head of the Universal Health Foundation dropped his Democratic primary bid, blaming the difficulty in raising enough money for a potential battle against millionaires.

Other Hispanics who made unsuccessful bids for the top of the November ballot are Gerald Garcia and Norma Rodriguez of New Haven Evelyn Mantilla of Hartford.

Castro also is watching council and school board races in Ansonia, North Haven, and Manchester, as well as Meriden where councilor Mike Cardona is up for re-election and Yvonne Jimenez, seeks to become the city’s first Latino city clerk.

Hartford has been a bastion of political success for Hispanic Democrats who in recent elections have produced three state representatives including Gonzalez having held her seat since 1997.

The capital city also boasted one of the nation’s first Latino mayors, with Eddie Perez serving from 2001 to 2010. When Perez ran into legal troubles Pedro Segarra took over for another five years before being abandoned by party insiders in favor of Bronin.

On September 10, Perez attempted a comeback and was involved in a three-way Democratic primary. He could not muster enough support and money to topple Bronin and finished a distant second.

In Bridgeport, the Republican town committee’s choice John Rodriguez won the primary and faces an uphill battle to unseat incumbent Democrat Joseph Ganim in November since Democrats hold a 10-1 edge in voter registration.

Latino  Republicans have recently eyed the Fifth District congressional seat which did not have an incumbent in 2018 and is now held by Democrat Jahana Hayes, a political novice.

Ruby-Corby O’Neill, a native of Honduras, challenged the party machine’s choice Manny Santos in the most western and central Connecticut district and finished second in a three-way race with 26.2 percent of the votes.  in the general election.

For 2020, Ruben Rodriguez, who has political experience in Puerto Rico and Waterbury, has launched an early campaign for the Republican nomination and has a key backer in New Britain, Carmelo Rodriguez.

“In the Connecticut Republican Party, Fasano said, “all voices are welcomed and respected. I would love to see more Hispanic candidates champion these goals and I encourage anyone who wants to run for office at any level to consider how the Connecticut Republican vision for opportunity and the American dream can help them advance their own values.”

In 2020, one of the biggest challenges facing Latino political leaders is getting an accurate count in the Census. Latinos comprise about 15 percent of the population, according to government estimates, but that number may be bigger.

“We are curious to see what happens,” Oyanadel said, referring to the impact of Hurricane Maria on the Puerto Rican population and that Latinos are increasing at twelve times faster than the general population.