While Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant outbursts have ignited a firestorm of Hispanic political activism nationally, energetic young candidates such as Chris Soto in New London are helping Latinos expand their influence on the local level.
Thanks to his landmark and overwhelming victory over a six-term incumbent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Soto, a 35-year-old former Coast Guard officer, is well on his way toward becoming the first Latino to represent the 39th House District in the state legislature.
The ability of Soto, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, to win an uphill battle also is a major step forward in Latinos gaining influence at the state Capitol commensurate with their growing population and reflective of their diversity and increased prominence beyond their historic strongholds in cities such as Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.
Other young Latino candidates who did not face primary contests are hoping for similar breakthroughs at November’s general election in districts representing Danbury and Newtown.
By securing the Democratic nomination, Soto is seen as an almost certain winner in the November general election. His primary opponent, state Rep. Ernest Hewitt, has held this seat since 2005, winning re-election six times, sometimes with more than 80 percent of the vote.
“This was the biggest hurdle,” said Soto, a Coast Guard Academy graduate who relied on a strong grassroots campaign to defeat a seasoned opponent who been endorsed by Democratic Town Committee. “There is still more work to do; we need to solidify this in November,” he said.
New London has started to emerge as a center of Latino political activism with this growing community now comprising about one-third of the city’s 27,000 residents.
There currently are Hispanics on the city council and board of education, and the small section of the southeastern Connecticut city not in Soto’s district is already represented by Republican Aundre Bumgardner, a Groton resident whose heritage is largely Latino.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, the 35-year-old Soto spoke in both English and Spanish, emphasizing the diversity of his supporters, noting that he could not have won by a nearly 2-1 ratio, unofficially 994-513, if it was only Latinos voting for him.
Shortly after the primary’s outcome became apparent, Soto received dozens of congratulations and hundreds of “likes” on Facebook from Latino leaders, Democrats and Republicans, from across the state.
The well wishers included state Rep. Angel Arce of Hartford; Wildaliz Bermudez, a Hartford city council member; New Britain Alderman Emmanuel Sanchez; Emanuela Palmares, a Republican legislative candidate in Danbury; Pablo Soto, a state Republican leader from Meriden; Norwalk city council member Eloisa Melendez, and community activists Ingrid Alvarez-Dimarzo and Yanil Teron.
Currently, all thirteen Latino members of the legislature are seeking re-election, with most either unopposed or facing long-shot candidates. The vast majority of these legislators are Democrats of Puerto Rican descent and represent heavily Hispanic communities in the Hartford-East Hartford area, New Haven, Bridgeport, New Britain, Meriden and Waterbury.
The most notable exceptions in the House are Matthew Lesser, a Middletown Democrat who is of Argentine descent, and 22-year-old Bumgardner, whose heritage is Panamanian, Puerto Rican and African-American. The latter is being challenged by a Democrat, Joe de la Cruz, who was born in Germany and whose heritage is Filipino and Irish.
The lone Latino in the state Senate is Art Linares, a Cuban-American Republican from Westbrook, who is seeking a third term.
There was a chance that a second Latino might be elected to the Senate from Bridgeport, but incumbent Ed Gomes appears to have defeated school board chairman Dennis Bradley, whose is part Dominican, in the Democratic primary.
Soto is a New Jersey native who returned about four years ago to the city where he had studied and worked at the Coast Guard Academy to found and direct Higher Edge, a nonprofit program that has helped dozens of low-income students get to college and stay there.
Soto, who holds a master’s degree from Brown University, said that three years ago he had wanted to run for City Council, “but small group of people did not think it was the right time. He added, “Tonight the people thought it was the right time.
He continued thanking everyone who worked his campaign and his parents who came up from New Jersey. “It was always Team Soto and never about Chris Soto, he said.
Soto specifically praised Jason Ortiz, his campaign manager, and field director Leo Navarro, “a young man who is the future of our community.”
Ortiz, who has been involved in several campaigns previously including that of the Working Families Party in Hartford in 2015, said Tuesday night that in a couple of week he “would love to discuss (how Soto won) in detail, but for now we celebrate.”
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