As the 2016 election season winds up, Republican Emanuela Palmares has pounced on an issue that she hopes will resonate with the large Latino population in central Danbury where she is running for the state House of Representatives.
Her Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Robert Godfrey (D-110), at a mid-October debate said, “We need to take care of cities and stop using them as dumping grounds for poor people and ethnic minorities and bring them up to the level that attracts businesses.”
Palmares, who hopes to be the first Brazilian-American elected to the legislature, pounced on this statement, producing campaign materials and circulating a video critizing Godfrey for insulting Danbury’s large ethnic population, which she says is not the problem, but the answer for driving the city forward.
Godfrey has responded that his statement indicates he objects to urban residents getting less attention than more affluent towns and that Palmares was part of a national Republican campaign of negativity and cynicism. His campaign manager, in a comment to the News-Times newspaper on Oct. 31 said that the statement was taken out of context Palmares “cherry-picked and selectively edited to make it sound like something it isn’t.”
Palmares, who earlier had expressed disappointment about the lack of coverage of the dumping ground issue in the Danbury newspaper for two weeks, responded to Godfrey by disseminating on social a media a 35-second clip containing the incumbent’s comment. An immigrant herself, she said, “We (Danbury’s ethnic population) are not the reason we can’t attract businesses.”
The Palmares Godfrey duel in District 110 is one of two contests involving Republican Latinos in Connecticut that are on national “watch” lists because of their significance in the battle for control of the state legislature. The other key race is in District 41 where freshman Rep. Aundre Baumgardner is trying to retain the Groton-New London seat he won by 39 votes two years ago.
The Republicans need a net gain of 12 seats to take over the House for the first time since 1974 and would score a major victory if Palmares can dislodge Godfrey, who has the held the central Danbury seat since 1988 and is deputy speaker of the House.
Ousting the 12-term incumbent is a tall order but the 33-year-old Palmares is giving the once “unbeatable” Godfrey “the race of his life,” said Trumbull First Selectman Timothy Herbst, a potential candidate for statewide office in 2018, in a recent Facebook posting.
With less than a week ago, Palmares was spotlighted by Refinery29, an international website billed as a “woman’s destination,” as one of “35 women running for office you should know about” under the heading “Clinton isn’t the only woman making history. Others singled out by the fashion and style website include Catherine Cortez Mastro of Nevada, who could be the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, Misty Plowright, a transgender Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives and Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, running for the Connecticut legislature in Newtown (Sandy Hook).
Another race involving a Latino Republican that has attracted a lot of statewide attention pits Sen. Art Linares, the son of a Cuban immigrant, against Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman in the 33rd Senate District.
Linares, a two-term incumbent who had been a supporter of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential primaries, was later chosen by Republican nominees Donald Trump’s organization to be a delegate for the New York City billionaire at the Republican National Convention.
Republicans also are running candidates for House seats in districts where Democrats have a history of dominance.
In New Britain, a political newcomer, Desiree Agosto, is carrying the Republican banner against incumbent Rep. Peter Tercyak (D-26). The 25-year-old city native is a manager at the New Britain YMCA.
In Bridgeport, Jose Quiroga, a Republican who was born in Lima, Peru, is challenging freshman Rep. Andre Baker (D-124), who was unopposed two years ago. Quiroga, who has run for state office unsuccessfully in 2002 and 2012, is a justice of the peace.
For the eleven Hispanic Democrats in the House, the path to re-election is more secure, say party leaders. Most of the incumbents are in uncontested races or face third-party candidates in heavily Hispanic constituencies. There is a strong likelihood that this group could grow to at least a dozen with newcomer Chris Soto having built a strong following in a historically pro-Democratic district in New London.
However, in the southern part of that southeastern city and in its neighbor across the Thames River, Groton, voters are witnessing what appears to be a much tougher choice between a popular freshman representative and a well-known local figure.
Rep. Aundre Bumgardner (R-41) has bounced back from a medical setback last winter and is busy campaigning to keep the seat he won two years ago by 39 votes. Bumgardner, who is part Puerto Rican, Panamanian and African-American, is being challenged by Joe De la Cruz, a member of the Groton Town Council who was born in Germany and describes his heritage as “Filipino, Irish and probably a bunch of other mixes along the way.”
Both the District 41 and District 110 contests have been identified by Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan, online compendium of election information, as among the four races to watch in Connecticut.
Moreover, the national Republican State Leadership Committee has tabbed the 110th District election as one its “16 races to watch in ’16” nationally with Palmares considered one of the party’s future stars.
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, focusing on candidates it sees as business friendly and fostering economic growth, has designated the re-election of Bumgardner a priority. The 22-year-old legislator is among 11 candidates, nine Republicans and two Democrats, for whom the business organization has allocated about $400,000 for advertising and mailings.
In the Senate, Republicans need a switch of four seats to seize majority status for the first time in 20 years as well as hold onto their current seats, including the one held by Linares, a Westwood resident.
The son of a Cuban immigrant, Linares was one of two Latinos elected to the Senate in 2014, the first time this has happened. The other winner was Andres Ayala of Bridgeport, who gave up his seat to serve as state motor vehicle commissioner for a controversy-plagued year.
Linares, whose father immigrated from Cuba, is seeking his third term in District 33 that covers several coastal towns and the lower Connecticut River Valley. In 2012, the solar energy company co-owner, then 24 years old, won a three-way contest for a vacant seat and two years ago he beat a political neophyte.
This year, Linares challenger is Norman Needleman, a 65-year-old two-term first selectman in Essex and a successful manufacturing entrepreneur. There also is a Green Party candidate Colin Bennett and Linares has been cross-endorsed by the Independent Party.
Republicans are counting on the unpopularity of the Democratic governor Dannel Malloy after the state budget trauma having a greater impact on local contests than the presidential contest between Democrat Clinton and Republican Trump or the strength of well-financed Democratic incumbents for Congress, lead by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.
However, Linares has had to deal with the Trump factor more than most Republican local candidates, because he was chosen by the billionaire New Yorker’s organization to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Linares, who focuses on meeting his constituents in person at fairs, festivals and going door-to-door, has attempted to deflect questions about backing Trump and focus on state and district issues. He also observed recently, “While our opponent makes YouTube videos about Donald Trump, our campaign keeps it local.”
During a recent debate, Linares explained that Hillary Clinton favors more money for gas and oil but he favors a more comprehensive energy policy. He also said that Trump would reduce corporate taxes, but added, “the candidates for president are not perfect.”
In the District 41 contest between Bumgardner and De la Cruz, according to a reporter for The Day newspaper in New London, speaking off the record, “both candidates bring very different, yet admirable things to the table.” The reporter added, “It’s also not an ugly race.”
The contest is between an “everyman,” De la Cruz “who came from lower means, like many in the district,” who is tireless in fighting drug addiction, according to the journalist, and a Republican “who is more “focused on the taxes and spending that have driven industry out of the state.”
Before Bumgardner won in 2014, the district had been Democratic for a long time, but a local columnist observed, “Aundre is quite popular and and has knocked on every door.”
Both candidates have had to fight hard, but in different ways, reporter Deborah Straszheim observed in an Oct. 13 article in The Day, New London’s daily newspaper.
Last year, Bumgardner discovered he had a tumor under his skull. He told almost no one, the article said, underwent surgery, had it removed and maintained a perfect voting attendance record.
De la Cruz “started at the bottom, going from welder to manager of a sheet metal company. He and his wife also had to deal with a son who had an addiction when led them to found an organization that helped more than 100 people get into substance abuse treatment.”
In Danbury, Palmares has the tall order of trying to unseat the 68-year-old Godfrey, an attorney who was first elected in 1988 and currently is deputy speaker of the House. A 12-term incumbent, the Democrat holds senior positions on several key committees including Judiciary and Legislative Management.
The District 110 vote will provide a test of whether Danbury’s changing demographics and this year’s surge of voter registration by immigrants, has reached the tipping point politically.
When Godfrey was first elected, about 7.5 percent of the Danbury’s population was Hispanic and mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican. This situation has changed dramatically with a large influx of people from Brazil and other Latin American countries.
When two candidates recently met with the editorial board of The News-Times newspaper. Godfrey said that Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking residents comprise 42 percent of the district’s population, a figure derived from the 2010 Census. Palmares said the percentage is closer to 50 percent based on her work with the Latino community.
Godfrey has said in previous campaigns that the secret to longevity is knocking on doors, and meeting people in his downtown district. He takes credit for improvements to Main Street, the schools including Western Connecticut State University and to transportation, roads and bridges.
Palmares, who has been highly visible at local events and on neighborhood visits, said that as many as half the district’s residents do not know Godfrey and that his voting record is out of touch with the ethnic, economic and educational diversity of his constituents. This includes voting against several measures related to undocumented immigrants that the Republican said are important to the community.
One of these measures is the now implemented measure to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses. Godfrey said he opposed this bill because he and other members of the Danbury delegation, believed these licenses would be used to register to vote illegally.
In addition to her public activities, Palmares is the editor of a multi-language newspaper and the parent of a four-year old son, Caio. In regard to her ability to fulfill several roles, Palmares said in March, “I have been active in community for so long, it’s a lot of fun and it has a purpose.” She added, “I am doing it for Caio, so it’s not so tough to balance. His future in the state is at stake.”