5 candidates battle for Santiago’s seat
BRIDGEPORT — Voters have five choices Tuesday to replace the late state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago in the 131st legislative district, which includes the South and West ends and downtown.
The perceived front-runner, endorsed Democrat Antonio Felipe, is a family friend who, at 23, would become one of the youngest legislators and is half Santiago’s age. Santiago died suddenly March 15 at 45.
Felipe is being aided by dad Ruben Felipe, a former aide to ex-Mayor Bill Finch, state Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, City Council President Aidee Nieves, and Councilman Marcus Brown, head of the Greater Bridgeport Young Democrats.
His youth, coupled with having to rent an apartment in the district because his family moved to Stratford, have caused resentment.
“We have a candidate who’s being pushed upon the people,” one of Felipe’s four opponents, ex-state Rep. Hector Diaz, told the small crowd at a downtown candidate forum Tuesday night. “He’s not of us (and) he’s not here.”
Felipe skipped the event, organized by civic group Bridgeport Generation Now and recorded and posted online, to campaign. Diaz, 58, Christina Ayala, 36, and Kate Rivera, 41, all Democrats who petitioned onto Tuesday’s special election ballot, attended with Republican Joshua Parrow, 29.
Rivera, an activist and former school board member, also alluded to Felipe when one of the questions at the forum was about democracy. She touted her independence from the city’s so-called Democratic machine and said, “Democracy means to me we are picking the person who is going to represent us. That there is not a separate entity behind the scenes, manipulating.”
In an interview Wednesday, Felipe told Hearst Connecticut Media, “When Hector says ‘I’m not of us’ — I was raised in the district. I grew up on Laurel Avenue. ... This is where I’m from. I’m not just coming in as a transplant. This is my home. I’m coming home.”
Felipe also said he does not view any one of his opponents as his main threat — “I’m trying to get 50 percent of the vote” — but admitted he was impressed with Rivera’s fundraising.
She and Felipe qualified for $21,112 campaign grants under Connecticut’s clean elections program. And while Rivera, Ayala and Diaz only needed 36 voter signatures to petition onto Tuesday’s ballot, Rivera collected nearly 800 signatures and over $6,000 in small donations to obtain the state dollars.
Money versus familiar names
Based on their campaign filings with the state, Diaz raised $750 while Ayala as of Wednesday had not reported any contributions.
Although Republicans are historically at a disadvantage in deep Democrat blue Bridgeport, Parrow came close to getting a state grant. He raised $5,002, but said in an interview he had some paperwork issues that were not worth a fight with the state.
“I didn’t think we were going to need the money, anyway,” Parrow said Wednesday.
Both Diaz and Ayala seem to be relying on personal name recognition.
Diaz was a legislator in the 1990s and his late father was Town Clerk. Ayala was a recent one-term state representative and her mother is the city’s Democratic Registrar of Voters.
Diaz at Tuesday’s forum scoffed at the idea that state grants were needed to compete “in a poor district,” while Ayala told the audience, “I have a small campaign, but everyone is in it because they believe in me.”
But Diaz’s name recognition did not help him win campaigns for the City Council and the General Assembly in recent years.
And Ayala, who was elected in 2012, two years later lost her bid for a sophomore term while under investigation for using a false address when voting, campaigning and participating in the public campaign finance system. In 2015 she was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to state election law violations.
“I’m very human (and) I am relentless,” Ayala said Tuesday. “I’ve been through days when it would have been very easy (to) just give up. ... Push against me, I push harder.”
Both she and Diaz said their prior experience in the General Assembly would be useful given the legislative session ends June 5.
Rivera argued as an activist she is very familiar with the legislative process and will easily hit the ground running.
Felipe told Hearst, “I’ve been involved in one way or another (in politics) for the last seven years. People don’t understand that. People take my youth as inexperience, but I’ve been around.”
Parrow, assistant director of development at the University of Bridgeport, pleaded Tuesday to give a Republican a shot: “You keep doing the same thing — voting for Democrats and getting the same results” of high taxes and a slow growing local economy.
Pot, tolls, charter schools
Based on their answers at the Generation Now event, Rivera and Parrow displayed the best knowledge of pending state legislation while Ayala and Diaz offered less specific responses.
“Any bills that have to do with getting money back to Bridgeport,” Diaz said.
Rivera supports paid family medical leave, a $15 minimum wage, tougher gun measures and will “raise Hell” for more state aid for Bridgeport’s troubled public schools. She opposes Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s push for highway tolls to increase revenues for transportation projects and, referring to the governor’s wealthy hometown, added, “Tax Ned’s friends down in Greenwich.
Parrow too said he is against tolls and “the disproportionate way that’s going to effect” inner city residents who commute from Bridgeport to work. He said a higher minimum wage will hurt small businesses and the city’s ability to employ summer workers.
The Republican also said he is for legalized recreational marijuana because Connecticut is losing that revenue to other states.
Parrow and Diaz both said they support building a gaming casino in Bridgeport. Santiago was a vocal casino proponent.
Felipe on Wednesday told Hearst a casino, $15 minimum wage and paid family medical leave are priorities for him, as well as recreational marijuana — if the final bill expunges criminal records. He is for tolls “as long as there’s conversations surrounding lowering or eliminating the car tax for residents.”
On Tuesday the four candidates present were asked about their support for the sometimes controversial charter schools — state-funded facilities independent of local control. Ruben Felipe is the state director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network and Antonio was treasurer for the charter school-linked Build CT Political Action Committee.
“All the money and resources we have available need to go to our public schools,” Rivera said.
“Charter schools should be private schools,” Diaz said. “All our money should go to public schools.”
Ayala admitted her daughter attends a charter school. She said they should be better regulated but “they’re not going anywhere.”
“Let’s be honest, a lot of us cannot afford a private school,” Ayala added.