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Pandemic poses challenges for Latino legislative candidates

The 2020 election season has emerged as one that will be long remembered for its highly contentious and historic battle for the presidency and forcing a significant transformation in how political campaigns and voting are conducted.

The primary catalyst altering the electoral process is the insidious COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of this disease is expected to impact campaigning on the local level and trigger a significant upsurge in the use of absentee ballots in Connecticut thanks to the addition of a  “no excuse” check off on applications.

Although most voters are fixated by the no-holds-barred presidential race, which has been low-key in Connecticut, and somewhat less on the five congressional contests, the new normal for elections could significantly impact contests for the state General Assembly where every seat in the House and Senate are at stake.

Many legislative candidates are increasing their reliance on digital media, say, campaign managers, as previous tactics such as going door-to-door raise concerns due to the highly contagious COVID-19.

Moreover, with more voters likely to turn for the first time to use mail-in ballots due to the state’s liberalized absentee voting requirements, another pandemic impact, campaign strategists are sensitive to the impact on turnout and recognize the need to educate voters about this process.

“We have to make sure people understand what to do,” said Dhrupad Nag, the campaign manager for Democratic state senate candidate Jorge Cabrera in Senate District 17, which covers Woodbridge, Bethany, and Hamden, and four Naugatuck Valley towns, Derby, Ansonia, Naugatuck and Beacon Falls. He added that the Cabrera campaign is upping its use of digital media.

Jorge Cabrera (left), George Logan (right)

The race between Cabrera and incumbent Senator George Logan, who both have Latino backgrounds and faced off in 2018, is one of the most competitive and closely watched of the more than two dozen legislative contests involving candidates identified as Latino.

Two years ago, Logan edged Cabrera, a labor activist from Hamden, by 77 votes and was not declared the winner until eight days after the election and after some 37,000 ballots were recounted.

Logan, a utility executive from Ansonia, discounts the importance of bolstering a slim electoral margin in 2018. Instead, in seeking his third Senate term, he states his focus as “being accessible, addressing constituent needs in these very challenging times and promoting legislation to make Connecticut more affordable for families.”

Another concern that the Republican senator cites is that there could be “insufficient minority (Republican) representation to keep the governor and his far-left legislators from making Connecticut less affordable for families.”

Currently, Democrats have the majority in both the Legislature chambers, with Latino party members holding eleven seats in the House and two in the Senate. Logan now is the lone Republican Latino in the Legislature.

Depending on other outcomes, a Cabrera victory could give Democrats a veto-proof majority in the upper chamber, Nag said. Currently, the Democrats dominate 22-14.

In most races involving Latinos, deeply entrenched Democratic incumbents appear to have a relatively clear path to re-election.

Several are unopposed – state Representatives Minnie Gonzalez and Edwin Vargas in Hartford, Geraldo Reyes in Waterbury, and Juan Candelaria in New Haven.

(Clockwise from the top: Minnie Gonzalez, Edwin Vargas, Geraldo Reyes, Juan Candelaria)

Others are in districts with a history of overwhelming support for Democrats or where they have been successful in more than one election. These “favorites” include Reps. Chris Rosario and Antonio Felipe in Bridgeport and Reps. Julio Concepcion in Hartford, Hilda Santiago in Meriden, Joe de la Cruz in Groton and Jason Rojas in East Hartford, and state Senators Dennis Bradley in Bridgeport and Matthew Lesser in Middletown.

(Top row left to right: Chris Rosario, Antonio Felipe, Julio Concepcion, Hilda Santiago)
(Bottom row left to right: Joe de la Cruz, Jason Rojas, Dennis Bradley,Matthew Lesser)

Still, there are several districts where Latinos, both Democrats, and Republicans, are running longshot campaigns against well-established non-Latino incumbents.

Such is the case in Stamford, where Republican Juan Ospina, a Colombian educator who was a combat medic in the U.S. Army, is challenging Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, who was first elected in 2008.

Juan Ospina (left), Patricia Billie Miller (right)

Both parties hope to pick up a seat in the 24th House District, which includes parts of New Britain and Newington, where the incumbent elected to run for the Senate.

In this race, Democrat Emmanuel “Manny” Sanchez, who is Puerto Rican, is running against Republican Alden Russell. Both are longtime New Britain residents with experience in local government.

Emmanuel “Manny” Sanchez (left), Alden Russell (right)

The 31-year-old Sanchez currently is minority leader of the New Britain Board of Alders and the nephew of state Rep. Robert Sanchez who has held the adjoining District 25 seat since 2011. Russell, 57, is a Board of Assessment Appeals commissioner.

Another interesting contest is shaping up in Greenwich, where the incumbent, Republican Harry Arora, has only held the District 151 House seat since Jan. 21, 2020, when he won a special election for the vacated seat.

Harry Arora (left), Cheryl Trepp Moss (right)

Arora, who was born in India, defeated Democrat Cheryl Trepp Moss with 54 percent of the vote, 2,345 to 1,965, in what has been a traditional Republican stronghold.

Democrats hope the Argentina-born Hector Arzeno will breakthrough based on the fact that Republican registration has fallen and that President Donald Trump heads the GOP ticket. In 2018, anti-Trump sentiment helped Democrats gain a Senate and a House seat in the Greenwich area.

Hector Arzeno

According to both candidates, Trump’s historic slugfest with Democrat Joe Biden is likely to impact District 17 primarily in terms of turnout.

“My last two elections show that presidential races do have an impact, they bring out more voters, which is a good thing,” Logan said. But he adds, “My opponent and I should be judged on how we have helped the people in our communities and our vision for Connecticut, not our presidential preferences.”

Cabrera referred CT Latino News inquiries to Nag, who said he expected the presidential race to drive the majority of the turnout on Nov. 3. He said his campaign’s job is to “fill in the gaps” by attracting voters who are disillusioned by the presidential race or might not plan to vote.

Regarding demographic changes, Nag said, “There are more Latinos, but there has not been a big uptick in voter registration.” He added, “it is our job to make sure more register” and to “organize more of the Latino population.”

Logan said, “While the demographics of our district may be changing, I encourage everyone to respond to the 2020 Census in order for Connecticut families and communities to receive their fair share of federal dollars and services.”

Looking ahead to the 2021 legislative session, Logan said his priorities include reducing healthcare costs, creating more better-paying jobs and making education a priority for Connecticut.

Cabrera, Nag said, would also focus on health care, especially the need to ensure everyone has access to health insurance. Also, the Democratic candidate, according to his campaign manager, wants to address educational equity in terms of funding and to push infrastructure improvements, including both Route 30 and the Waterbury railroad branch in the Naugatuck Valley.

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