HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ A redistricting fight is looming for Connecticut’s capital, a city that Hispanic leaders have identified as the place with the most potential to produce the state’s first ever Latino state senator.
Hartford has had two mayors of Puerto Rican origin in a row, but its large and growing Hispanic community does not have as much influence in choosing a state senator, because it shares a voting district with the predominantly white suburb of Wethersfield.
The 1st State Senate district, currently represented by eight-term incumbent Sen. John Fonfara, tops a list of areas where Hispanic advocates see opportunity to boost the voting power of a minority group whose population in the state grew nearly 50 percent over the last decade. Community leaders are planning meetings with church groups, baseball leagues and others in hopes of rallying Latinos to speak up at public hearings on redistricting that begin this week.
“There is a lack of representation and it needs to be increased,” said Americo Santiago, a coordinator who represented the Bridgeport area in the state legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “There is no reason in the state of Connecticut, the Constitution state, for us not to have an opportunity to have at least one or two districts that are majority Latino.”
In a politically delicate process held every 10 years, a legislative committee must submit redrawn congressional, state Senate and state House district lines to adjust to changing populations. It will hold hearings across the state through July before submitting its plans for approval by the General Assembly.
A loosely organized group of Hispanic leaders has begun identifying districts where the shifting of boundaries could allow Hispanics to become the majority, or at least consolidate their numbers. The campaign, assisted by the New York-based LatinoJustice PRLDEF, is similar to efforts ramping up across the country.
In Connecticut, Hispanics now account for 13 percent of the population. Latinos hold eight of 151 seats in the House, or about 5 percent of the chamber, and none of the 36 Senate seats.
Edwin Vargas, a Hartford community activist of Puerto Rican heritage, lost to Fonfara in the Democratic primary for the state Senate seat last year, carrying Hartford but getting beaten badly in Wethersfield. He said it is important for Latinos to be able to elect lawmakers who are sympathetic to the concerns of inner cities.
“It’s important to have people who are elected who do have accountability to those urban issues, rather than just generic regional issues,” said Vargas, who is now running for mayor or Hartford.
Fonfara’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Tomas Reyes, chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said the focus on the Hartford-Wethersfield district has nothing to do with the incumbent, but rather ensuring that Latinos have a majority in at least one district.
“The senator is a good friend of the Latino community, but he is not going to be there forever,” Reyes said.
Over the last decade, Connecticut’s Hispanic population jumped to about 479,000 of the state’s 3.57 million people. In addition to Hartford, advocates see potential to translate that growth into political influence in New Haven, Fairfield, Stamford, Danbury, New Britain and Willimantic.
A Latino senator would be significant as a symbol of acceptance, but Santiago said even a single senator would have significant influence over the legislative process. A senator that answers to a Latino majority, he said, could be an advocate on issues dear to them, such as education and economic development.
A statewide Latino Redistricting Committee has been working on strategy, and local panels in cities across the state are reaching out to communities to stir interest in the process. The state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, which criticized the eight-member Reapportionment Committee for a lack of diversity, also recommended the creation of an ad hoc committee to help guide the process.
Leaders say if they do not like the lines when they are drawn up, they would not rule out a lawsuit challenging the state’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act, a federal law designed to ensure minorities get fair representation in elected offices.
Derek Slap, a spokesman for Senate President Donald Williams Jr., a Reapportionment Committee co-chair, said officials are always looking to add diversity and look forward to working with the Latino commission on the issue.
Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice, said his staff has been discussing mapping scenarios with a handful of leaders in the state and he is impressed by their level of activity. His group is also working on redistricting issues in states including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Rhode Island, and he said Connecticut’s large General Assembly is an advantage because the small districts present more opportunities for minorities.
The biggest challenge for Latinos could be the influence of incumbents and the party machinery.
“To say Latinos haven’t been able to make inroads is tricky, because I don’t think anybody has been able to make inroads,” said Charles Venator, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.