When the next session of the General Assembly opens tomorrow there will be more Hispanic state legislators than at any other moment in Connecticut’s history, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Tuesday.
There will be two state Senators and 10 newly elected members of the House of Representatives, increasing the number of Hispanic state legislators from nine to 12.
“I can truly say that the Hispanic citizens of Connecticut have really arrived,” Merrill said at a festive press conference that opened with music from a four-piece band.
She said that as the state becomes more diverse it means anyone who is serious about running in Connecticut must listen to the Latino community.
“We can not overlook the impact the Latino vote had and will have on the political landscape from this point forward,” Isaias Diaz, chairman of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said. “We are now major players who have gained a seat at the state and national political table.”
Voter registration in the Latino community, much of which comes from Puerto Rico, also increased in 2012. More than 22,000 new Hispanic voters registered in 2012. Merrill’s office estimated that there are 157,258 Hispanic voters in Connecticut, and most of them live in the largest cities.
Newly-elected state Rep. Victor Cuevas of Waterbury pointed out that voter registration doesn’t always mean participation. He said that’s something he didn’t take for granted in his race where he unseated four-term state Rep. David Aldarondo in a Democratic primary before going on to win the general election.
“I got tired of people saying Latinos don’t vote,” Cuevas said. “I wanted to prove against all odds that Latinos do vote, if the right person is running.”
He said his district had the lowest voter turnout in Waterbury every year with around 1,600 people coming out to vote. He said this year about 4,200 people came out to vote.
Some of the newly elected lawmakers like Cuevas, who joined Merrill at the press conference Tuesday, hail mostly from big cities or surrounding suburbs. Sen.-elect Andres Ayala is from Bridgeport and Reps.-elect Hilda Santiago and Angel Arce are from Meriden and Hartford respectively.
“This is the American dream. Every immigrant group that has come to this great country has paid their dues. They’ve worked hard. They’ve educated themselves, and then they achieved political power,” Ayala said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not there yet.”
Currently, Latinos comprise 6 percent of the General Assembly, but according to the latest Census data they make up 14 percent of the state’s population.
“Obviously our government has a ways to go to become more diverse,” Merrill said. But the milestone of 12 Latino lawmakers is still something to celebrate.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the numbers are important but so also is the momentum they show.
“Latinos played a decisive role in the 2012 election, shaping the nation’s political landscape both as voters and as candidates,” Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Education Fund for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, said in a press release. “Connecticut achieved a milestone last November with voters electing two Latinos to the Connecticut State Senate for the first time in the state’s history.”
However, being Latino doesn’t mean they share the same ideology or even the same ethnicity.
Unlike his Latino colleagues who are Puerto Rican, Sen.-elect Art Linares is Cuban. He’s also from Westbrook, a shoreline town with private beach communities, not from an urban center.
Linares, who is 24 and has received widespread media attention for winning office at such a young age, said he knows there are differences between him and his colleagues who are all Democrats, but there’s also things they share.
He said he recently met and had lunch with Cuevas and the two share a desire to help small businesses in the state. He said he’s found other Hispanic lawmakers willing to work with him on that issue.
Linares didn’t know if he would become a member of the Black and Latino caucus, which had become the Black and Puerto Rican caucus these past few years since there were no lawmakers of any other ethnicity.
If he does join the caucus, which is one of the more powerful in the General Assembly, he will be its only Republican member.