Local legislators say more people of color needed in government
Local current and former state representatives of color on Monday commended the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities for launching a new program meant to help people from diverse groups break into politics.
The CCM and the Campaign School at Yale are jointly offering a two-day training program in March “designed to assist more people of color — Black, Latino, Asian Americans, Indigenous Americans and others — with the skills needed to run for public office,” according to a Monday news release from the conference. The program’s focus is on state elective office, “serving on state boards and commissions and connecting people to opportunities for civic participation.”
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, called the program an “educational opportunity.”
“With a lot of the disparities going on in the world, people of color have a keener interest in trying to change that disparity. And the best way to do that is to involve more people of color in politics, so we can have a bigger seat at the table,” Nolan said. “It’s just not an even playing field. When we sit in chambers and go back and forth, those who don’t have to deal with that racial disparity don’t have a full understanding of certain issues.”
The program, which is virtual and runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 12 and March 19, is designed to equip would-be candidates with skills to begin a career in politics, such as fundraising, networking, messaging, news and social media training and more. State Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, is one in a lineup of seven panelists participating in a panel called “Lessons Learned/Best Practices for Leadership.”
De la Cruz and Nolan both reflected on how the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus has grown.
“The House overall is 151 members and we have 35 members in our caucus alone right now, which, if you break it down as a Democratic caucus it’s almost a third of all Democrats,” de la Cruz said. “The numbers are pretty striking: One out of every three Democrats is a member of our caucus, so the voice is getting louder.”
De la Cruz also said the strong BPRC is “a direct reflection of some of the bills we’ve been able to work on and pass.”
De la Cruz said that he supports raising pay for state legislators.
“If you’re going to do this job right, you need to commit to it,” said de la Cruz, who is stepping down after this term. “There is a bill, and I think this is going to open it up to everybody, not just Black and brown folks, that will make it more enticing.”
Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner, who is running for de la Cruz’s soon-to-be-vacant seat, serves as chair of the council’s personnel and appointments committee. He said he’s always thinking about racial diversity as he’s vetting applications to be on the town’s boards and commissions, as well as diversity in age and sexual orientation. Bumgardner said there should be a better tracking system of the demographics of Groton’s and other municipalities’ boards and commissions.
Bumgardner was elected to the 41st State House District seat once before, in 2014, and served one term. He said when he first got elected, his race as well as his young age, 20, made him an unlikely politician.
“When there’s no track record or precedent of somebody like you serving in an elected capacity as significant as state representative, you don’t know who to turn to when you have a question or you’re struggling with issues unique to your role,” he said. “Mentorships were so important for me, especially in Hartford cultivating relationships with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. I was fortunate and blessed to have members offer their mentorship in my first term, and that made a world of difference in my ability to get things done and advocate for my district.”
BPRC member Nolan said that while he can’t speak for everybody in the caucus, members have been aware of the issue of representation.
“Since being up in Hartford, that has been the fight to try to involve people of color. If you look at the numbers within the BPRC they’re growing … We want to get more people involved,” Nolan said. “There’s a gap because politicians have failed the Black community and the Latino community, yet when it comes time to vote, everybody wants the Black and the Spanish vote.”
Chris Soto, who held Nolan’s current seat from 2017 to 2019 and has worked in state and national politics since, said he’s happy to see the CCM’s “intentional effort.” But, he wondered about the longevity of the program.
“Too often, we see diversity initiatives being ‘one-off’ efforts,” Soto wrote in an email. “I’d love to see a commitment over the long-term to continue this work so it can develop roots and really bear fruit.”
Soto and the other current and former state representatives agreed, Connecticut can “absolutely” improve its diversity in government.
“Until our federal and state delegations reflect our communities, we can always do better,” Soto wrote. “A good example is Senator Chris Murphy’s Latino Leadership Academy — that is calling out the issue directly and then putting actual resources together to move the needle.”
Bumgardner said Groton and the surrounding area are becoming more diverse, “and it’s important to have more diverse perspectives serving on our boards and commissions and elected office.”
“When I confide in my friend and fellow town councilor Portia Bordelon after a spirited town meeting, she will share these wise words from a Black trailblazer in politics, former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm: ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,’” Bumgardner added.
Put another way, as Soto said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”
“That is what is meant by ‘representation matters.’ Representation from people of color when laws are being drafted and budgets are being created so their voices are heard from directly, not from a surrogate,” Soto continued. “A great example in New London is the recent election of City Councilor Jocelyn Rodriguez from the growing Dominican community and Board of Education Member Bianca Alexis from the city’s Haitian community. Those communities can now feel a sense of authentic representation that previously didn’t exist.”
Nolan noted that getting elected is only the first hurdle.
“Even now once you get into politics, it’s still a fight. When we get elected, we still have to fight. People think we can just go in there and change things to be equal, and it’s very hard to do that,” Nolan said. “But we continue to push. You see how the police accountability bill went and some things related to that went, those were things that were necessary to help deal with the problems that are occurring in our state. It was a hard fight, but it was the right kind of fight.”