As the new leader of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, Norma Rodriguez-Reyes is now at the helm of the 90-member organization’s efforts to elect candidates from their party who they believe will best represent the interests of the state’s growing Latino population.
Their first big test for the caucus and Rodriquez’s leadership, are the upcoming state legislative elections in terms of electing the Latino democratic candidates who will be on the ballot in more than a dozen House districts.
However, supporting successful Latino candidates is not the only challenge for the organization, which is comprised of active and former officeholders and other Latino political figures.
To a large extent, the caucus’s relevance and influence and how its role is perceived within the political community will also relate to what resources the organization musters for those people it endorses, such as fundraising and getting out the vote initiatives. The question arises as to whether this organization can give candidates more than a stamp of approval.
In passing the gavel to Rodriguez, other questions are also raised. Members of the caucus point to her her political savvy, attributes derived from more than three decades of involvement as a volunteer, a party leader and a candidate for secretary of the state in 2006 and what they say are her strong business skills, as evidenced by her co-ownership of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, a major Spanish-language newspaper.
Yolanda Castillo, a longtime political figure in Hartford who helped found the caucus in 2004 and was its first chair, noted that Rodriguez has “done well in business and knows politics.”
Joseph Rodriguez, who vacated the caucus chairmanship this spring after serving three years and with a year to serve in his term, also sees his successor’s business experience as a positive. “I also think it’s important to raise funds and this is something that I think Norma can assist with given her background in business,” said Rodriquez, who continues to be an active and visible activist for the Latino community.
At the same time, how the combination of political and media experience plays out also will be watched and perceived, especially in the journalistic community.
The new chair emphasizes that her focus is primarily on the business side and advertising and not the editorial or news content of the weekly publication.
“This is not the first instance in Connecticut or media history where the owner of a newspaper is either in office or engaged in partisan politics,” said Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Qunnipiac University in Hamden.
Hanley suggests that the way to avoid a conflict “is to be transparent about it, noting at the end of every political news story that the co-owner of the site is the chairperson of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus.” He also suggests that the publication’s owner “recuse herself from any editorial decisions regarding political issues covered in news stories.”
Roger Desmond, a journalism professor at the University of Hartford, suggests a straight forward approach to avoiding any potential ethical questions. “The principle, for reporters (and any news employee or owner who writes anything, even an occasional opinion) is ‘Don’t engage in politics,'” he said. “If you participate in political causes at any level, you shouldn’t be writing about it.”
Among those discounting any potential problem with Rodriguez’s political role and La Voz’s coverage is State Rep. Edwin Vargas, who also was active in the founding of the CHDC. “There may be a little bit of a tilt, but they do try to be impartial,” the veteran Hartford politician said.
Norma Rodriquez said, “We don’t claim to be nonpartisan” and that what bias may exist is on the side of the interests of the Latino community. “The mission of our newspaper is to tell our own story,” she said.
“We have to do our own portraying,” Rodriguez said because mainstream media has tended to focus on negative stories about the Latino community.
Generally, Latino political leaders who have known and worked with Norma Rodriguez, who was one of the first Latinos to seek statewide office when she ran for secretary of state in 2006, have expressed optimism and approval in her choice to head an organization.
Gerry Garcia, who served on the New Haven Board of Alders and as a director of the state Department of Consumer Protection, said, “Norma brings a willingness to mentor and open doors for future generations of Latino community political leadership,” he said.
“Norma has dedicated her life to serving the Latino community and has been an outspoken advocate for Latinos and Latino causes for as long as I can remember,” said Garcia, who ran for secretary of the state in 2011. “She’s not shy and won’t hesitate to roll up her sleeves in the fight for progress, access and justice,” the New Haven Democrat said.
David Feliu, the caucus’s parliamentarian, said he is looking forward to Rodriguez’s chairmanship which began in April. “She is her own person,” he said, and although her approach may be different than her predecessor “she will continue to take us in the right direction.”
Rodriguez says her mission and what she hopes will ultimately be achieved, is that “every single politician, anywhere you go in Connecticut, who runs for office or helps them run, is going to represent and think of Hispanics.”
There will be a point, Feliu observed, when a “critical mass” will be achieved and that the number of Latino residents and their potential voting power will force political leaders to pay more attention to this population.
To achieve her goal of greater representation and empowerment for Latinos, more members of this community have to be brought into the political process, particularly among the community’s younger population, said Rodriguez, who came to New Haven from Puerto Rico when she was 5 years old.
In this regard, Rodriguez, who is a University of Connecticut graduate, is reaching out to colleges and universities and to Latino organizations. “We want to provide mentorships and to get more Latino students to start majoring in political science,” said Rodriquez.
Also looking to 2018, Joe Rodriguez said, “Engaging young people and mobilizing (voter registration drives, voter awareness, etc.) for the next statewide election are certainly priorities.”
Feliu, whose political activism started right after he completed law school, agrees with Rodriguez’s emphasis on getting more young people involved and that 2016 also should be a year of planning for the future.
While most of the CHDC’s active members are seasoned politicians, it was the decision by one of the organization’s youngest members, 29-year-old Joseph Rodriguez, to step down from the chairmanship that led to the caucus unanimously electing Norma Rodriguez to finish his term.
Having just joined the staff of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal in Hartford, Joe Rodriquez, a New Haven resident, cited “time restraints between work and home,” and a desire to spend more time with his 5-year-old daughter. He still plays an active role in caucus.
Eloisa Melendez, a 22-year-old Norwalk Common Council member, had worked closely with Joe Rodriguez since she joined the caucus three years ago, said she was “excited to have Norma as chair,” that it was a “great idea” to attract young people. “Having a lot of college kids would be great for the caucus,” said Melendez, who recently was named a delegate for Bernie Sanders to the National Democratic Convention in July.
Along the way, Rodriguez said, she has learned a lot from “older and wiser” political leaders. “I was mentored by the best,” she said.
According to Garcia, Norma Rodriguez has been a very good student. “She’s expert at navigating complex political structures, including our State Democratic Party, where she’s a veteran and former vice chair.”
In addition to serving on the Democratic State Central Committee for four years, Rodriguez attended the party’s 1992 convention as a delegate for Bill Clinton. In 2003 she was appointed to the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and a candidate for secretary of state in 2006, in which her bid for the Democratic nomination was thwarted at the party’s state convention by incumbent Susan Bysiewicz.
Norma Rodriguez’s political roots are in the Hill section which has evolved demographically through the decades but where her mother still lives in the same house where she raised thirteen children.
The new chair’s parents, Noemi and Hermenegildo Rodriguez, were farmers from Lares in Puerto Rico. While her father worked for relatively low wages, 40 cents an hour in agriculture, her mother took on a variety of jobs such as crocheting handkerchiefs to make money. It only took a few years for them to become one of the first homeowners in the Hill.
Norma Rodriguez was the first young women from her Pentecostal church to go away to college. She noted an older sister, Ruth, was the first from the church to graduate high school, when her mother disregarded this group’s prohibition on young women wearing pants, which was a necessity to pass the physical education requirement to earn a diploma.
The Rodriguez family’s neighbors, Norma recalled, were Herman and Dolly “Mama” Garcia, Puerto Ricans who came from Brooklyn and were politically active.
While Rodriguez was at Richard Lee High School, Herman Garcia asked her to take town clerk candidate Steve Mednick door to door in the neighborhood. “I like drinking coffee,” she said, noting the hospitality usually offered at that time.
Mednick did not win, but Rodriguez continued to get involved in several local campaigns and took a lot of people door to door in the Hill community.
It was actually a desire for balanced coverage that lead to Norma Rodriguez’s relationship with La Voz Hispana during the publication’s early days in the 1990s. Her then husband Tomas Reyes, a longtime alderman, was running for mayor of New Haven and was regularly taking a beating in La Voz.
Rodriguez, then in the midst of a 24-year career as director of the Atwater Senior Center, questioned why a newspaper serving the Hispanic population was “totally against” someone who was the only person from the community qualified to run for mayor.
Rodriguez said her complaint resulted in La Voz “opening up to all sides,” although Reyes was not elected, and eventually produced an invitation to join the publication, where she and and editor Abelardo King now are the principal owners.
Working on Tomas Reyes’ campaigns was one of Rodriquez’s many forays into the political arena as a Democratic leader and as a volunteer in numerous campaigns, knocking on doors and even arranging the flowers at now U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s headquarters.
When Rodriguez ran for secretary of the state, her mother and Dolly Garcia always accompanied her to debates. Her mentors included Nancy Wyman, the current lieutenant governor, and state Treasurer Denise Nappier, the first African American elected to statewide office in Connecticut.
While Rodriguez’s bid for state office fell short it was seen as a harbinger of what might be possible. Garcia said she was “pivotal” to him when he ran for secretary of the state in 2011.
The lack of Latinas in the top slots in state government is something that Norma Rodriguez, and other Latino political leaders hope to address, possibly as soon as 2018, when the governorship and other statewide offices, such as secretary of the state, attorney general and treasurer, will be up for election.
Castillo said its is important that Latinos have leadership roles and that older members of the caucus can serve as valuable mentors. She also noted that there are plans to work with U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy to set up a political leadership program for Latinos.
The possibility of supporting a Latino for the statewide ticket is something that Feliu would like to address soon. “It is never too early,” the Waterbury attorney said of a process that involves building support and campaign funding well in advance.
Among the caucus’s ongoing projects are encouraging political involvement by younger Latinos and developing relationships with local groups, as evidenced by recent meetings with local leaders in southeastern Connecticut and Middletown.
In addition, Joseph Rodriguez said, “As Democrats, I also think we need to strengthen our relationship with the state’s Democratic party to ensure our ideas, concerns, and voice are always represented. We have taken steps and I hope we can continue.”