This photo says a lot about Chris Soto’s political campaign. Described as a ‘community-pushed’ candidate in New London, he and his supporters posed for this “selfie” photograph the night he announced his candidacy. It has now become the iconic image of their campaign as they collectively try to wrest the Democratic nomination for a state legislature seat from a six-term incumbent with a quarter century of experience in government and politics by challenging the local democratic party structure.
Ordinarily, as a first-time candidate without strong links to the political establishment, Chris Soto would be a decided underdog, however this may not be a case of a Don Quixote jousting with windmills. In the few weeks since Soto threw his hat into the ring, there has been an emerging awareness that something new is brewing in New London politics and that the former Coast Guard officer’s grassroots drive for the 39th District House seat held since 2005 by Rep. Ernest Hewett, is gaining traction, that the race could be tight and that it would not be a surprise if he won the nomination.
Soto possesses a record of community involvement – especially among the city’s large Hispanic population, leadership skills and what one local journalist calls “impeccable credentials.” A graduate of the U.S. Guard Academy in New London, he is well known locally for his leadership of Higher Edge, a nonprofit organization which helps disadvantaged students, including many Latinos, obtain a college education.
“Soto is an exciting new voice on the political scene with a strong resume and strong background which includes leading a nonprofit that helps the city’s young people get to college,” said David Collins, a veteran city reporter, columnist and blogger for The Day, the city’s daily newspaper.
Collins observed in a recent column that the former Coast Guard officer’s campaign and its direct appeal to the people rather than party leaders is being viewed by some supporters as the start of a movement, even a revolution, against what the journalist calls the “cronyville” tag placed on local government.
Soto has said he does not want to cause a rift in the local Democratic organization and his campaign is not about dislodging Hewett, but to empower people now outside the political process. “My main goal is to turn out people who have not come out before,” he said in a recent interview. “I am confident they are going to come out,” he added.
Campaign manager Jason Ortiz said much of this support is coming from New London’s Latinos, who are seen as a “sleeping giant” politically. However, non-Latinos are also showing an interest in Soto, attracted by his credentials and his focus on education as the key to job creation in Southeastern Connecticut, an area still beset by recession.
Soto, who is of Cuban descent and bilingual, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 2003. After five years of active duty, he returned to his alma mater as assistant director of diversity. He also helped coach the academy’s boxing team, which he helped launch in 2002. He also holds a master’s degree in public affairs, awarded in 2011, from Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Five years ago, Soto returned to New London to launch Higher Edge, an education-oriented endeavor, which started with no staff, but now has five employees. The growth of this program, which is being considered in Willimantic, provides an example of what Ortiz said is Soto’s “ability to navigate difficult waters and get results” and “to hold himself to a higher standard of competency.” One of the sponsors of Higher Edge is the largely Hispanic and influential Baptist Church of the City whose Pastor, Daniel Martino, is a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Soto also has some familiarity with how things are done at the state Capitol. He is a member of the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and has participated in events to advocate the interests and concerns of the state’s Latino population.
Still, Soto knows it will not be easy to dislodge Hewitt from the Democratic slate. The former Electric Boat welder has a long history of community activism and before becoming state representative served three terms on the city council. In 2000 , he became the city’s fourth African-American mayor, then a largely ceremonial position.
In addition, Hewitt has easily won re-election to the legislature in the past by wide margins over Republican opponents. His legislative accomplishments, including helping usher through the legislature and working to secure funding for the city’s transformation into an all-magnet school district.
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Kevin Cavanagh recently was quoted in The Day commenting that Hewitt has done an “outstanding job as a representative of the city and the people of New London.”
However, Hewett may need to be at the top of his game to survive this intra-party challenge. The state representative recently was embarrassed by the revelation that he pushed through legislation affecting New London about which he know little as a favor to a lobbyist. Also, he received national notoriety in 2013 for an allegedly lewd comment about a “snake” under his desk to a teenage girl at a legislative hearing. He was easily re-elected the following year, but by a narrower margin than two years earlier.
Soto said he is “not going to touch any of that (negative) stuff. It is not my place.” He added, “I know and respect Ernie.” Instead, he said in a recent interview that his focus is on what he can do for New London and not on Hewett. “I will my put resume out, he can put his resume out and the people will decide.”
A big part of Soto’s strategy is energizing the city’s growing Latino population, which now represents 35 percent of the population and possibly even more in the sections that comprise the 39th District since the southern part of New London, with a larger non-Latino population, is in the 41st District.
Soto plans to start with a series of house parties, small group meetings with the public, and then he will begin going door-to-door.
There also is a need to train some volunteers in the basics of political engagement and even to educate people about what a state representative does, Ortiz said.
This type of challenge fits well with what Soto says is his biggest attributes as a potential legislator. “The strongest thing I have to offer is being a collaborating force and someone who is able to marshal resources,” he said. “I know how to solve problems.”
His campaign manager added, “Chris has a record of helping find access to the opportunities that exist in this state” for students.
The first major political test for Soto will come May 24 when the Democratic Town Committee meets to endorse a candidate. Two years ago, the party big wigs passed over him when he sought to run for City Council.
Soto said he has a shot at getting the committee’s state representative nomination. Those members who are already committed, he said, are evenly spread between himself and Hewett, but there also are people who are undecided.
Both Soto and Ortiz said the endorsement of the town committee is winnable, but his campaign manager also expects there will be a primary at the end of the summer.
The broad appeal that Soto already has generated was evident when he officially kicked off his campaign March 21. Collins, in his recent posting for The Day website said, “I attended the celebration in the ballroom at the Holiday Inn and marveled at the big and eager and diverse crowd, young, old, black, white and Hispanic.”
Soto, who grew up in a New Jersey area known as “Little Havana” because of its large Cuban population, spoke to his supporters in English and Spanish. This display of “overwhelming support” for Soto was especially encouraging for Ortiz, a veteran of several campaigns elsewhere in Connecticut and who most recently managed Wildalid Bermudez, who won a council seat, and the rest of the Working Family Party ticket in Hartford. Ortiz, a University of Connecticut graduate from Norwich, said they signed up 100 volunteers that day.
Now, it is up to Soto and campaign staff, described by Ortiz as a team of “smart, young Latinos,” to decide what is the best way to deploy these volunteers and to get out the Latino vote.