Santos riding Trumpism in 5th District race
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles of candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District
At an Elks Lodge in Middletown, Manny Santos stood at a small podium and preached to his base.
“We see the progress that our country is making, and it is all due to this president and the Republican-controlled Congress,” Santos told about 50 members of a Second Amendment rights group, mostly men over 60 in blue jeans and T-shirts.
Santos, the Republican endorsed candidate in the 5th U.S. House District race, is very clear: he is team Trump.
The former one-term Meriden mayor supports President Donald Trump’s idea of building a wall along the country’s southern border. He wants to repeal Obamacare. He favors a rollback of business regulations. He loved the federal tax reform adopted in December, dominated by breaks for wealthy people.
The only time Santos, 49, who immigrated with his family from Portugal as a child, has disagreed with Trump was after one comment the commander-in-chief made on gun laws, Santos said.
“When he suggested raising the age of owning long guns to age 21... it’s just, it’s a non-starter for me,” he said.
Santos recognizes that the president’s rhetoric and tweets can be blustering and sometimes offensive, but what he cares about is that, in his view, Trump gets the policies right.
Now, he — and his supporters who hope to flip the seat to Republican — are gambling that enough Democrats and unaffiliated voters will agree to elect him in November even though he lost his last two campaigns in his home city.
The district is about 25 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 45 percent unaffiliated. In 2016, 50 percent of voters went for Democrat Hillary Clinton, 46 percent for Trump, according to political blog Daily Kos.
“I think a lot them understand now what’s at stake and they see the policies do work, Republican policies do work,” Santos said. “The country economically — even the mood — is much, much different now than it was in 2016.”
An immigrant ‘Mr. Smith’
State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, thinks Santos’ “very appealing” background could catapult him to a win.
“Manny is kind of the quintessential American story,” Suzio said. “It’s like a Mr. Smith goes to Washington story.”
At five years old, Santos immigrated to the U.S. from a small village in Portugal, where his parents were subsistence farmers. Santos, his parents and his three siblings moved to Hartford in 1973.
Santos says he’s not bothered by Trump talking about further restrictions on legal immigration even though such limits might have barred his own family. Presidents for decades have adjusted quotas of people coming into the country, he said.
As for “illegals,” as his campaign literature calls undocumented immigrants, more efforts are needed to deter them from coming to the U.S. in the first place, Santos said.
DACA recipients, brought into the U.S. illegally as children, should be ineligible for citizenship, said Santos, who had a green card until age 18. He called no citizenship for DACA recipients “a workable compromise” compared with deportation.
A changed race
The state’s most competitive Congressional district, the 5th is where a Republican has the best chance of being elected to Congress.
A look at the district’s history shows a checkerboard of red and blue. The seat has been held by Democrats — U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, and before her Chris Murphy, now a U.S. senator — since 2007. Murphy unseated former Rep. Nancy Johnson, a more moderate Republican who had held the old 6th District seat, later merged with the 5th, since 1983.
Regardless of whether Santos is right about the national mood, the landscape in the 5th District was markedly different when Santos, a product engineer and former Marine, declared his candidacy back in February. At the time, only Republican Craig Diangelo of New Britain — who has since dropped out of the race — was also opposing Esty.
Then, news of Esty’s mishandling of an office abuse scandal ended her re-election plans, and more candidates came flooding into the race.
“It complicated things,” Santos said.
Santos asserts that voters will see other candidates’ late decisions to run as a sign of weaker commitment, however.
“If they are communicating that they are fighters,” he said, referring his primary challenger Republican Ruby O’Neill, who called herself a “fighter” in a Hearst Connecticut Media story, “they weren’t fighting before Esty decided not to run for re-election.”
“Principled people fight whether it is easy or not,” he said.
He will also face Republican Rich DuPont of Watertown in the primary. Santos has challenged DuPont and O’Neill to debates.
After high school in Hartford, Santos joined the Marines for four years, where his political ideology as a Republican congealed.
“President Reagan had a tremendous impact on me because that’s when I was in the service,” Santos said. “Once again we had a president who communicated convincingly his love for military and for the country... that probably played a role.”
Trained as a fighter jet mechanic and expert rifleman, he served in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. He remembers the sound of missiles flying toward his base at night.
Watching engineers work on jets motivated him to seek a degree in the field from UConn after his service. He spent 15 years employed as a process and products engineer designing goods such as hand tools or airplane systems.
Santos became a member of his local Republican town committee, but was never interested in elected office. Then, in 2013, everything changed when Meriden Republicans needed a placeholder.
As secretary of the town party, Santos allowed his name to be submitted as a candidate for mayor until Republicans could find another candidate.
“I didn’t want to do it to be honest,” said Santos. “I thought I wasn’t ready, but once my name was submitted, people started encouraging me to actually do it.”
Suzio was at a Long Island vineyard, when he got a call from Santos who said he had decided to make a real run for mayor.
“I was totally shocked,” Suzio said. Thinking it was impossible that Santos would change his mind and run, Suzio concluded he must be intoxicated.
“That’s it. I’m not drinking any more,” he told his wife. “I think I had too much.”
Santos defeated incumbent Democrat Michael Rohde to become the first Republican mayor of Meriden since 1983. Two years later, he lost a re-election bid to Kevin Scarpati, who is unaffiliated, by 78 votes.
The experience taught Santos politics is nasty but persistence can get things done. He saw first-hand the challenges poor cities face, he recalls.
In 2017, he ran for a seat on the city council — a mostly Democratic board that he tangled with as Republican mayor — but was not elected. He is now works as a business consultant, analyizing companies’ staffing and production.
Now, seven months after his latest loss, Santos says he’s ready for a November win that will bring him to the federal stage.
At the Elks Lodge Tuesday, he presented the election stakes to Connecticut Citizens Defense League members in apocalyptic terms.
“We have a president who finally supports this military and this country,” he said. “If we lose control of the House or Senate, everything you and I hope for, is gone.”
email@example.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson