Sen. Linares, Latino Lawmakers Discuss Importance of Voting [CT Mirror]

January 8, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Mirror on January 8, 2013

The potential of Latino political power in Connecticut

When the General Assembly is sworn in Wednesday for its new two-year term, its 187 members will include a record dozen Hispanic lawmakers, including Connecticut’s first two Latino state senators, Andres Ayala and Art Linares Jr.

Despite the gains in 2012, the political influence of Latinos in the state the still reflects more promise than power.

In data released Tuesday, Latinos are estimated to comprise 8 percent of registered voters in the state, lagging the overall Hispanic population of nearly 14 percent. The strengthened ranks of Latino lawmakers fill only 6 percent of legislative seats.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Ayala, a state representative from Bridgeport, who won his Senate seat by defeating a black incumbent, Edwin Gomes, in a Democratic primary. “We’re not there yet.”

But demographic trends — the U.S. and Connecticut Hispanic population is young and growing — foretell ever-increasing strength at the polls, which was felt nationally in several swing states in 2012.

In Hartford, where nearly half the city is Hispanic, 45 percent of the population is younger than 25, Mayor Pedro Segarra said.

“It’s no different than a lot of cities,” Segarra said, adding it presents “an idea about what the future has in store in terms of political participation and opportunity.”

Exit polling showed Latinos contributing to the re-election of President Obama, and data compiled by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill shows the majority of Latino voters in Connecticut have registered as Democrats.

By using Hispanic surnames, Merrill’s office identified 157,258 Hispanic voters, including more than 22,000 who registered in 2012.

The breakdown in Latino voters in the state: 51.6 percent Democratic, 39.4 percent unaffiliated and 8.2 percent Republican. Among those who joined one of the two major parties, 85 percent chose the Democrats.

Merrill released the data at an exuberant press conference at the Legislative Office Building, where two guitarists and a singer played Spanish songs and newly elected Latino legislators and their supporters filled the conference room.

“This is by far the coolest press conference I’ve ever been to,” said Linares, the 24-year-old grandson of a Cuban dissident once jailed by the regime of Fidel Castro.

Linares is unique among the Hispanics to win 10 House and two Senate seats: He is Republican, Cuban and from the shoreline suburb Westbrook. The others are Democrats, Puerto Rican and from urban districts.

His election was something of a surprise: With just 48 percent of the vote, Linares won an open seat long held by a Democrat, aided by the presence of a Green Party candidate who won nearly 9 percent of the vote.

His ethnicity was not seen as a major factor in his win, while the election of others reflected census and voter-registration trends.

Ayala’s new Senate district covers the eastern two-thirds of Bridgeport, which has more Latino voters than any other city in Connecticut, and section of Stratford, a suburb that ranks 12th in Latino voters.

Rep.-elect Hilda Santiago won an open seat in Meriden, where there are 6,712 Latino voters, ranking the city sixth. She succeeds House Speaker Christopher Donovan, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress instead of re-election.

Santiago will be one of two freshman Latinas. Andres Ayala’s cousin, Christina Ayala, won his House seat.

“It is encouraging to see the numbers, and they are going to get bigger,” Santiago said.

Victor Cuevas, the director of a recreation center in Waterbury, the city with the third-most Latino voters, said he won by registering 2,800 young voters. The vote in his district was 4,200, up from 1,600 in 2008, he said.

“Latinos do vote,” he said.

But the turnout was only 34 percent in his district, less than half the statewide turnout.

Political scientists generally view education and income as the two strongest predictors of voter turnout, and most of the Hispanic legislators represent districts that lag the rest of the state on both measures.

Cuevas said he won because he is an educator and community worker, not a politician.

Merrill, who was the state House majority leader when she was elected secretary of the state in 2010, gently corrected him and any of the other newly elected legislators who seem themselves as outside politics:

“If you weren’t a politician before, you are now.”