Soto defeats Hewett by wide margin in New London

Chris Soto celebrates with supporters at his campaign headquarters in New London after winning the Democratic primary in the 39th state House District over incumbent Rep. Ernest Hewett on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)

New London — Chris Soto soundly defeated longtime incumbent state Rep. Ernest Hewett Tuesday in a hard-fought Democratic primary in the 39th state House District.

Soto beat Hewett by a nearly 2-1 ratio — 994 to 513, according to unofficial results provided by the Democratic registrar of voters.

The win will all but ensure a new representative in Hartford for the first time in 12 years.

Hewett, who has served in the House of Representatives for six terms, said he has no plans to petition his way onto the November ballot and will retire from politics altogether.

Soto, 35, celebrated the victory with fellow supporters, thanking his team at his campaign headquarters on Ocean Avenue as he was doused with champagne.

“Thank you, gracias," Soto told a raucous crowd. "For those that didn't vote for me, I'm going to work hard every day to earn their trust and their vote the next time."

Referring to critics within the Democratic Party who told Soto to wait before running, Soto said, “tonight the people thought it was the right time.”

About 25 percent of the 5,977 eligible voters in Districts 1 and 2 turned out to vote in the primary, much higher than most had forecast and higher than preliminary numbers for other primaries around the state.

Soto said the number of votes cast and the wide margin of victory shattered the notion his support was solely Latinos.

“We wouldn’t have had those numbers if it was just Latinos,” Soto said. “Did we have a strong Latino base — absolutely. It was huge. But this was not just one group of people. It’s about passing the torch. It's time for something new.”

Hewett, who earned his party’s nomination in a 22-18 vote, said he was not completely surprised by the results of Tuesday’s election.

“He was able to motivate a lot of people, a lot of people who have not participated in the political process in a long time,” Hewett said of Soto. “He came along — young, energetic. He was able to get them out of their houses and that’s what happened.”

Hewett, 60, said there were a lot of Democrats in New London, “but those Democrats did not get out and vote.”

“That to me I think is the difference in the race. That’s not an excuse. That’s what happened,” Hewett said. “This race is over and there will be no more politics for Ernie Hewett. I’m done. My wife just retired and I’m retired, too. I’m going to the islands. You’ll see me in St. Martin with a Heineken in my hand.”

Hewett thanked his supporters and even those who did not vote for him.

“I have worked for the last 20 something years for them, too,” he said.

Soto is U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate who served five years in the Coast Guard, earned a master’s degree from Brown University and founded the New London-based nonprofit Higher Edge. The organization guides low-income youth into and through college.

He is also an adjunct faculty member at Connecticut College in the Holleran Center for Public Policy and Community Action.

Tessa Wray shook hands with Soto on her way out of the Harbor School polling place. She said there are three things she cares about in a candidate — how the candidate plans to take care of children, the elderly and veterans.

She said she respected Soto’s service in the Coast Guard and the fact that he returned to New London to serve the community.

“He believes in the future of our children and knows how to keep them off the streets. Educational programs are important to Chris,” Wray said.

Leo Navarro, a supporter and field director for Soto's campaign, said prior to the election results that while Soto enjoyed support from a cross-section of the city, the Latino vote was an important one.

Latinos "feel they’re part of this movement. They want to be a part of history” by sending Soto as the first Latino to represent New London in Hartford, he said.

Navarro helped to organize rides on Tuesday for voters in a mobile lounge from New London-based Luxury Elite Travel — a 3-month-old business whose driver was also a Soto supporter.

Team Soto, as the campaign is called, also used social media to entice voters. In the Team Soto Challenge, voters posted updates announcing they voted and nominating others to vote.

Navarro said that Soto had earned the respect and support of many Hewett voters but that some of them continued to support Hewett out of loyalty.

Soto will face New London Green Party Chairwoman Ronna Stuller in the general election in November.

Stuller, a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, has submitted more than the 34 signatures required to secure a place on the November ballot.

The signatures have not yet been certified at the state level.

Stuller is a retired school teacher and co-founder and treasurer of the Riverside Park Conservancy. She has the endorsement of the state Green Party.

“We don’t believe in people being unopposed,” Stuller said of her decision to run. “As soon as we learned the Republicans would not be fielding a candidate, we decided we needed to take advantage of the opportunity.”

 g.smith@theday.com

Chris Soto, left, and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, challenger and incumbent for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District, flank Hewett supporter Marie Gravell, center, as they  campaign outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chris Soto, left, and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, challenger and incumbent for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District, flank Hewett supporter Marie Gravell, center, as they campaign outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chris Soto, left, and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, in background, challenger and incumbent for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District, chat with supporters outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chris Soto, left, and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, in background, challenger and incumbent for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District, chat with supporters outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
State Rep. Ernest Hewett greets supporters as he and challenger Chris Soto, not pictured, campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
State Rep. Ernest Hewett greets supporters as he and challenger Chris Soto, not pictured, campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District outside the polls at New London High School on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Angela Peralta, right, and Robin Johnson check in primary voters at the 2nd District polls at Harbor School in New London on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. Chris Soto and state Rep. Ernest Hewett are vying for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Angela Peralta, right, and Robin Johnson check in primary voters at the 2nd District polls at Harbor School in New London on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. Chris Soto and state Rep. Ernest Hewett are vying for the Democratic Party nomination for the 39th House District. The winner will face petitioning Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller in the November election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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