Tuesday’s Democratic Primary will either send Hartford’s Minnie Gonzalez well on her way to her twelfth term in the state legislature or, her critics hope, could prove to be that one election too many that ends the victory streak of the 67-year-old outspoken Democrat.
Usually, the Puerto Rico-born Gonzalez has breezed through a rare primary and a walkover in the general election in her overwhelmingly Democratic Third House. This is the way it has been for the past twenty-two years in a constituency of heavily Latino Frog Hollow and Parkville communities.
And in mid-May, after the district convention, it looked like another easy campaign for Gonzalez, who has developed a reputation as an advocate for the Hispanic population, as a watchdog for the Family Court system, who occasionally may say the wrong thing and is willing to break with her own party on issues such as same-sex marriage and judicial appointments.
However, soon thereafter a major plot twist occurred to make this primary season different for the self-described”24/7″ legislator who “sometimes stirs the pot” at the state Capitol. That is the day that 35-year-old Gannon Long decided to prove that you can go home again, most recently after a stint in the Boston area, and against high odds step forward to help her new Frog Hollow neighborhood where, she said, widespread poverty, housing ills, lack of jobs and other problems had worsened in the 20 years since she attended Hartford High School. Worse yet, she said, “People haven’t had someone fighting for them.”
On May 25, Long, who describes herself as cheese lover and community organizer, began a campaign aimed at playing a major role as an advocate of change by launching a petition drive to get on the Aug. 14 ballot to contest the Democratic Third District nomination and run for the office Gonzalez had held since 1997. “People are looking for change,” she added.
The quest that Long is pursuing is daunting. Gonzalez has a strong grip on the district’s Democratic leadership, is way ahead in name recognition, and as a Puerto Rican shares the heritage of most of the district’s voters. There have also been allegations of Gonzalez supporters harassing Long and her volunteers as they canvass the neighborhoods in the district.
Gonzalez’s supporters include the statewide Hispanic Democratic Caucus, whose expressed mission is to identify and assist Latinos interested in running for political offices, boards and commissions
“We strongly support her (Gonzalez), especially given her track record and history providing services to all of her constituents,” said Norma Rodriguez, caucus chairperson. “She works passionately and tirelessly for all those who come to her with a need regardless of race, income, age, religious beliefs, etc.,” Rodriguez said, adding that “Minnie has been a voice for the people in the legislature for 22 years; she has served us well.”
Still, there were early indicators that not everyone is happy with Gonzalez in the Third District. In less than four weeks, Long was able to gather more than 600 signatures to secure a place on the primary ballot. She also raised enough money in small donations from Hartford residents to qualify for public funding through the Citizens Election Program.
In addition, Long, the daughter of two Hartford teachers, has gained endorsements from pro-labor groups such as the Hartford Federation of Teachers and the Connecticut Working Families Party.
However, while Long is fluent in Spanish, she is a non-Hispanic, a point Gonzalez exploits. The state representative said her opponent does not know the district, which is “80-85 percent Latino,” having recently moved there, and that Warrenton Avenue, where Long grew up, is part of the West End. “Also check her donations, they came from the West End,” Gonzalez said.
“I love white people,” Gonzalez said, “but why are they trying to take power away from Latino people?”
A factor that has galvanized some opposition to Gonzalez is her outspoken positions on various social and economic issues. “People are frustrated with her anti-inclusive, anti-LGBTQ agenda,” said Lindsay Farrell, director of the CTWFP, which had endorsed Gonzalez in 2006 but supports Long now. Gonzalez has voted with the WFP on some issues, Gonzalez “but she could do better,” Farrell said, citing the incumbent’s opposition to collective bargaining for child and home care workers.
Long also has the support of some local Hispanic leaders, with among the most visible being Ilia Castro, who held the Third District seat until Gonzalez took over in 1996-97 and she began a long period of political inactivity that ended in 2016 when she helped organize local Latina resistance to President Trump’s policies. Now she is “100 percent behind Gannon” and frequently accompanies Long as she goes door-to-door meeting residents.
Castro said, “The community is going down the tubes” and “has been disenfranchised for too many years.” The Puerto Rican retiree said that the only time the people see politicians like Gonzalez is when “it is time to vote.” Some residents said they have never met Gonzalez.
Farrell expressed a similar viewpoint. “Minnie has been around forever,” she said, “but voters only hear from her when there is a challenger.”
Gonzalez rails at this type of criticism. “I listen to people, I go to local stores, people know me, I am not out of touch,” said Gonzalez. The legislator added that she came to Hartford more than 35 years ago with $20 and three children” and needing cancer surgery. She added that during recovery, she had to rely on welfare for a time. “I know what people have to go through,” she said.
The 11-term legislator expresses pride in having brought funds into the district to build a ballfield and community center with a computer facility in Pope Park. “I am always fighting for the rights of seniors,” she said, and helping small business while working the Hispanic merchants association.
Gonzalez said many of her constituents do not know their rights or lack the resources, for example, to deal with institutions such as the family courts. “As an elected official, they expect you to help,” she said.
Some critics have labeled Gonzalez anti-LGBTQ by citing several key votes and her being endorsed in the past by the socially conservative Family Institute of America. In 2009, she voted against same-sex marriage and two years later joined the entire Republican delegation and 13 other Democrats in opposing a 2011 bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. She also was one of five Democrats to reject Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s nomination of openly gay Andrew McDonald as chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
However, Gonzalez rebuts these critics by stating she voted for marriage equality and hate crime bills and supported prohibiting gay conversion therapy. “I love everybody,” she said, noting she has a niece who has gay and the first blanket she received when arriving in Hartford was from a gay person.
Her vote against McDonald, Gonzalez said, goes back to her experience with him when as a state senator he served on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “His attitude and temperament don’t go with me,” she said.
Long suggests that the LGBTQ issue does not resonate strongly with Third District residents. “They are not worrying what is happening in someone else’s home; they worry more about what is happening in their house,” she said.
What Long also found is a community where she hopes to get people engaged and active in civic life. As a community organizer, she said, she can provide leadership that brings people together. She noted a lot of people are already doing “great work,” such as city council member Wildaliz Bermudez and Ilia Castro, but more is needed.
Long cited Park Street, a main thoroughfare through the district, as always having been a center of diversity and as a productive area of the city for a long time. But now the street is lined by many empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings. “One person is not going to clean Park Street by themselves.”
Castro said that many of the Hispanics don’t participate in the political process because they don’t understand it and are discouraged. Moreover, this community does look at the records of its representatives, she said. When she and Long talk to residents they often find they don’t know their rights and even are intimidated to the point that they are scared to go to the Capitol. “They think the building is a monster.”
As part of the process of bringing needed changes to their community, Long wants residents to feel they can “descend on the Capitol” to demand that their issues are addressed.
“I have been telling them,” she said, “that voting is not the end of the road.”