Three Connecticut cities with large Latino populations, three primary races and three prominent Latino officeholders, all Democrats, challenging candidates who bear the local party machinery’s seal of approval that they were denied.
That is the situation for Mayor Pedro Segarra in Hartford, for Town Clerk Alma Maya in Bridgeport and for Common Council member Eloisa Melendez in Norwalk. Each is running as a petitioning candidate and will need to rally the party’s rank and file in the Sept. 16 primary to gain the Democratic party line in the November election.
Their fight against the party machine, highlights two issues. The Democratic Party, which touts itself as the party of the nation’s growing Hispanic voter base, has seemingly rejected three Latino incumbents in favor of non-Latinos, as well as the incumbents’ ability be able to rev up support and votes among what many call “the sleeping giant,” the potential Latino voting bloc.
Many are now wondering if this might be a defining moment for the state’s Latino political power or a setback? Is the rejection of Latino incumbents enough to finally mobilize voters who have historically had relatively poor voting records in general elections let alone in primaries where turnout is limited to registered party members?
While it is widely accepted that having a Latino on the ticket increases can positively impact turnout. “It certainly stirs interest if Latinos see somebody running who they can identify with themselves,” says Joseph Rodriguez, chairman of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Cause. However, this connection does not guarantee support. “At the end of the day, we look at the issues” and whether that candidate is qualified, said Rodriguez who leads the statewide organization of Latino officeholders and political activists.
The Hartford mayoral contest is the highest profile race on Sept. 16 and also might be the most telling of Latino political fortunes in the state. More than 43 percent of the city’s overall population is Latino and the concentration of Puerto Ricans, who as U.S. citizens automatically are eligible to vote, is the highest of any mainland city.
“If Segarra loses, the city’s “Latino community will be disempowered for ten years,” warns state Rep. Edwin Vargas, who along with another Hartford state representative, Minnie Gonzalez, is campaigning for the incumbent.
Aware of the need to get Latino engaged and voting for him, the Puerto Rico-born Segarra, is running a “100 percent bilingual campaign and that makes a difference,” said Maria Lino, a Hispanic marketing consultant working with the mayor’s team.
On the other hand, Segarra’s party-endorsed opponent, Luke Bronin has seemingly had the backing of many of the city’s and state-wide long-time democratic operators since he first expressed interest in running for mayor of the capital city.
As a result, Bronin is waging a well-financed campaign and has made some well-publicized inroads among the local Hispanic leadership, including the endorsement of state Rep. Angel Arce. There even is a Spanish language “Luke Bronin para alcalde” page on Facebook.
“We’re going after every vote, in every community, through voter outreach that includes traditional direct contact and paid media,” said Andrew Doba, a communications consultant with the Bronin campaign.
The Hartford race has become somewhat of a ‘drawing line in the sand’ moment for the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus. “One of our key priorities,” Rodriguez said, “is electing Pedro.”
The caucus has endorsed Segarra and like many other Latino political leaders around the state, Rodriquez who is from New Haven has spent time in the capital city campaigning for the mayor door-to-door and at events such as the Puerto Rican Festival parade where the CHDC leader said the mayor was well-received by the crowds.
The leadership of the Connecticut Democratic Party declined to comment on whether there was any significance of three Latino incumbents having to run against organization endorsed candidates in a primary. Leigh Appleby, communications director, said, “The State Party isn’t going to comment on the decisions of local Democratic Town Committees.”
What has gone into these local decisions exemplifies the “all politics is local” principle which was famously exploited by Tip O’Neil, the Massachusetts politician who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987.
This view is shared by Rodriquez who says the political scenarios at centerstage in Hartford, Bridgeport and Norwalk are “three unique situations.” In Norwalk, he says, a party insider orchestrated the nomination. In Hartford, the party leaders made it rather clear early on that it liked Bronin, and in Bridgeport, Maya was put into a situation where she would have to decline the nomination if it was offered.
Segarra initially solicited the support of the city’s Democratic Town Committee, which had backed him in the past, but by spring it was clear the organization’s leaders apparently had shifted to Bronin, a relative newcomer who had been the governor’s general counsel. The night of the local convention, the mayor theatrically spurned the DTC’s support and walked out before the committee voted to endorse Bronin.
In Bridgeport, the political scenario seems a bit more murky. The Democratic Town Committee endorsed incumbent Bill Finch over former Mayor Joe Ganim, who had served time in prison for public corruption. Maya had rejected overtures from Finch and had already joined the Ganim’s slate before the local party’s endorsement convention and if she were to receive the organization’s endorsement she would have to become part of the Finch slate.
However, there had been talk this spring that Maya, who generally has not been particularly subservient to the Democratic establishment and had vacillated on seeking a third term, might be dumped by party leaders, according to Only in Bridgeport blogger Lennie Grimaldi.
However, the ultimate deciding factor in the end was the DTC mayoral nomination. If Ganim had not run, Grimaldi said, she would have sought the town clerk endorsement.
Now, the question in the Park City is whether, Maya, well-known as a city official and as a civil rights and Hispanic education activist, will get the votes while she is on Ganim’s ballot line. Her opponent, Don Clemons, stepped aside last year after 10 years as a state representative, position which had gained him mention as one of the most influential African-Americans in the state.
In Norwalk, Melendez, age 21 had been seen as one of the rising Latina stars of the Democratic Party. However, she and two other candidates who previously had been endorsed unofficially at a meeting of registered Democrats were rejected by the seven-person DTC in District A in favor of an all African-American slate. This vote apparently orchestrated by district chairman David Watts, an African American councilman who has been mulling over the possibility of running as a write-in candidate for mayor.
Subsequently, Melendez became part of what is being described according to the Nancy on Norwalk blog as a “super slate” with Serasis, who is of Greek descent, and Yvel Crevecoeur, a native of Haiti who is a college professor in special education, who is seeking the district’s Board of Education seat.
Having secured a place on the primary ballot by petition, Melendez has been out courting the district’s rank and file. In addition, her slate has prepared campaign literature covering all three candidates and is now working on fundraising,
As the time winds down before the crucial Hartford primary, among state Latino political leaders such as Rodriguez and Vargas the push is on, and they are using numerous platforms to energize Latino voters. Essentially, the outcome of the Hartford primary will depend on turnout. If the turnout gets into the 15-20 percent range at least, the mayor has the upper hand, Vargas said. “If it is small, like 12 percent, and mostly party insiders vote, Pedro is in trouble,” the state representative said.
Social media in particular has been an intense focus. One Facebook posting, which apparently is intended to appeal to Latino pride to energize Latino voters, referred nostalgically to a hard fought Hartford race in 1988 comparing it to the battle Segarra faces now. At the time, the city’s growing Latino population helped create a third party, People For A Change to challenge the non-Latino Democratic endorsed candidate who many claimed was out of touch with the largely Latino district which includes Park Street.
Interestingly, Juan A Figueroa, then a community activist and now Segarra’s chief of staff at City Hall, successfully won the primary to become a state legislator. The posting reminds everyone that back then as now, it was a “Fierce primary. And just like in this year’s democratic primary for Mayor, we were fighting the entrenched democratic machine.”