On Tuesday, current and former state-of-color local officials congratulated the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities on the launch of a new program to help people of diverse groups get into politics.
CCM and the Yale Country School are jointly offering a two-day training program in March “designed to help more people of color — Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and others — with the skills needed to run for public office,” according to a Monday press release from the conference. The program focuses on elected state office, “serve on state boards and commissions, and connect people to opportunities for civic engagement”.
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, called the program an “educational opportunity.”
“With so many disparities in the world, people of color have a stronger 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 a level playing field. As we sit in chambers and go back and forth, those who do not have to deal with this racial disparity do not 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 19, is designed to equip potential candidates with the skills needed to start 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 of a series of seven panelists participating in a panel titled “Lessons Learned/Best Practices for Leadership.”
Both De la Cruz and Nolan have reflected on the growth of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus.
“The House has a total of 151 members and we have 35 members in our caucus alone right now, which if you break it down as a Democratic caucus, that’s almost a third of all Democrats,” said of the Cruz. “The numbers are pretty stark: one in three Democrats is a member of our caucus, so the voice is getting louder.”
De la Cruz also said the strength of the BPRC is “a direct reflection of some of the bills that we were able to work on and pass.”
De la Cruz said he supports raising the salaries of state lawmakers.
“If you want to do this job well, you have to commit to it,” said de la Cruz, who is stepping down after this term. “There’s a bill, and I think that’s going to open it up to everyone, not just blacks and browns, which will make it more appealing.”
Groton Councilman Aundré Bumgardner, who is running for de la Cruz’s soon-to-be-vacated seat, chairs the council’s personnel and nominating committee. He said he always thinks about racial diversity as he considers applications to serve on city boards and commissions, as well as age and sexual orientation diversity. Bumgardner said there should be a better system for tracking the demographics of councils and commissions in Groton and other municipalities.
Bumgardner was elected to the 41st seat in the State House District once before, in 2014, and served one term. He said that when he was first elected, his race as well as his young age, 20, made him an unlikely politician.
“When there’s no track record or precedent of someone like you serving as an elected official as important as a state representative, you don’t know who to turn to when you have a question or that you’re dealing with issues unique to your role,” he said. “The mentorships were so important to me, especially in Hartford, cultivating relationships with the black and Puerto Rican caucus. I was blessed and blessed with members offering me their mentorship during my first term, and it made all the difference in my ability to get things done and advocate for my District.
BPRC member Nolan said while he cannot speak for everyone in the caucus, members are aware of the issue of representation.
“Since I’ve been in Hartford, it’s been the fight to try to involve people of color. If you look at the numbers within the BPRC, they are increasing… We want to involve more people,” Nolan said. “There’s a gap because politicians let down the black community and the Latino community, but when it comes time to vote, everyone wants the black and Spanish vote.”
Chris Soto, who served in Nolan’s current seat from 2017 to 2019 and has worked in state and national politics since, said he was happy to see the CCM’s “intentional effort”. But he questioned the longevity of the program.
“Too often we see diversity initiatives as ‘one-off’ efforts,” Soto wrote in an email. “I would like to see a long-term commitment to continue this work so that it can take root and really bear fruit.”
Soto and other current and former state officials agreed that 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 – which directly calls out the problem, then brings together real resources to move the needle forward.”
Bumgardner said Groton and the surrounding area are becoming more diverse, “and it’s important to have more diverse perspectives on our councils, commissions and elected officials.”
“When I confide in my friend and fellow city councilor Portia Bordelon after a spirited town meeting, she will share these wise words from a black political pioneer, former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm: ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Bumgardner added.
Simply put, as Soto said, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
“That’s what ‘representation matters’ means. Representing people of color when drafting laws and creating budgets so that their voices are heard directly, not through a surrogate,” Soto continued. “A good example in New London is the recent election of Councilor Jocelyn Rodriguez from the growing Dominican community and Education Council member Bianca Alexis from the city’s Haitian community. These communities can now experience a sense of authentic representation that did not exist before.
Nolan noted that getting elected is only the first hurdle.
“Even now, once you get into politics, it’s still a struggle. When you are elected, you still have to fight. People think we can just go out there and change things to be equal, and that’s very hard to do,” Nolan said. “But we keep pushing. You see how the police accountability bill unfolded and some things related to that unfolded, those are things that were needed to help solve the problems that are happening in our state. It was a tough fight, but it was the right kind of fight.