By Rod Carveth
The contest for the Democratic nomination for the 23rd District Senate seat is shaping up to be Connecticut’s most hard-fought and interesting with a challenger who seeks to be the first Latino in the seat, an incumbent perceived as ailing who was denied the nomination, and the former officeholder, a convicted felon who seeks political redemption.
The nomination battle is the local version of a national trend of “black vs. brown” political fights where African Americans and Latinos are vying for political power in areas with heavy, yet diverse, minority populations. According to Nicolas Vaca, author of The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America, African Americans have generally represented “communities of color” (African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, etc.) in political office. As its population has grown over the past decade, many Latino leaders are demanding their “turn” as political representatives.
The two key factors in such contests nationally is that often Latino political leaders had already aligned themselves with the Africa American incumbent as part of the “persons of color” voting bloc. Second, though the Latino population is growing, and the African American population is dwindling in many of these voting districts, low Latino voter turnout is hurting Latino candidates.
Three candidates are seeking the nomination in a district that includes most of Bridgeport and the western section of Stratford, a predominantly white suburb. The incumbent, Ed Gomes, is facing a challenge from state Rep. Andres Ayala, (D-128th), and former state Sen. Ernie Newton. Newton won the plurality of support during the May Democratic district convention, but both Ayala and Gomes received enough support to force a primary.
Newton, 51, a colorful African American politician from Bridgeport’s east side, served in the legislature from 1989 to 2006, and earned a reputation as a passionate community advocate. In 1997, Newton confessed to a crack-cocaine addiction, entered drug rehabilitation and says he has been drug-free since. Then in 2006 he started a four-year prison sentence for taking a $5000 bribe, using campaign donations to pay his own expenses and evading federal income taxes.
Gomes subsequently assumed Newton’s seat. Newton decided to run for the seat back in January because, he believes, the “district doesn’t have a fighter for the community.”
Gomes, 76, has suffered from health problems recently. In the fall of last year, Gomes underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery. Gomes dismisses any potential issues about his age and health, stating, “There’s not 10% of the people up in Hartford who have a better voting record or attendance record.”
Ayala, 42, an educator in Bridgeport, is a former Bridgeport city council president. He was elected to the State House in 2006. Ayala is a strong advocate of education reform, an issue he plans to focus on as state senator to provide “the best opportunity for our children to succeed.”
Race is a factor in the campaign, according to Sacred Heart University political science professor Gary Rose. If nothing else, Rose stated, the Ayala vote “will give a signal as to how mobilized the Latino vote can be.” Rose also proposed that many Newton supporters feel his jail term was an “extremely harsh penalty” compared to that given to other non-African American Connecticut politicians convicted of crimes, such as former Gov. John Rowland, who received less than the minimum sentencing guidelines when convicted of corruption in federal court.
Gomes also agreed that race has played a role. He stated, “I think that’s why Ayala is running. Some people in the Latino community put him up for it. They figure the black vote will be split between myself and Newton, and Ayala can split down the middle.”
Both Ayala and Newton downplayed the race issue. Newton claimed that the election is about the people of Bridgeport wanting to have someone “running for redemption and opportunity.” Ayala stated his being Latino is “not what my campaign is about. It’s about my experience in getting things done.” Ayala campaign chairperson Americo Santiago notes that the Latino community “is very proud” of Ayala, but warns if he doesn’t get the job done “we [the Bridgeport Latino community] will get him out.”
The Democratic primary will be held on Tuesday, August 14. People not registered to vote have until noon on Aug. 13 to register in person to vote in the primary.