Congress becoming more diverse, but not Connecticut’s delegation

Wayne Winsley is a rarity in Connecticut politics: He’s a minority candidate running for Congress.

Winsley, 48, is a black Republican hoping to unseat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

That’s an uphill battle because the 3rd District leans Democratic, and DeLauro is a member of the Democratic House leadership and can amass a huge amount of campaign cash.

Winsley said race won’t be a factor in his campaign. But he conceded that being black “gives me a better perspective” on the problems of minorities in the 3rd District.

“I can speak to an African-American parent in a way that perhaps other candidates can’t because I have a son, and black boys face unique challenges,” Winsley said. “If there’s a benefit to my ethnicity, that’s probably it.”

Congress becomes more diverse with each round of redistricting, which takes place every 10 years after the constitutionally mandated U.S. Census occurs. But Connecticut’s unique demographics and political culture make it almost impossible for minority candidates to win a seat in Congress — and it may be that way for a while.

The Connecticut delegation is composed of six white males and one white woman, DeLauro, and the state has almost never had minority representation — the exception was when former Republican Rep. Gary Franks represented the 5th District from 1991 to 1997.

“It could be done, but a lot would need to happen,” said retired state Rep. Bill Dyson, an African American, of the chances Connecticut might again send a member of a minority group to Congress.

Dyson: a ‘tough’ challenge

One challenge that minority candidates must overcome is demographic. Connecticut has more white residents per capita — 77.6 percent — than the country as a whole, with 72.4 percent.

The 2010 U.S. Census determined that about 10.1 percent of Connecticut’s residents are black and 13.4 percent Hispanic (many Hispanics identified themselves as white).

Creating a congressional district where a majority of voters are Hispanic, black and Asian American is difficult because the state’s minority voters are dispersed throughout the state and concentrated in Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Hartford and other cities.

The congressional districts with the largest minority populations — with about 30 percent — are Rep. John Larson’s 1st District (Hartford) and Rep. Jim Himes’ 4th District (Bridgeport).

So under the current political map, a minority candidate needs to draw a majority of white votes to win.

That would be tough, Dyson said.

“A candidate has to be liberal enough to win the central city, but that would lose votes in the surrounding (suburbs),” he said.

A majority-minority district

Connecticut’s New England neighbor has found a way to send a minority group member to Congress.

Massachusetts, with an 80 percent white population — a higher percentage than Connecticut’s — has drafted a new majority-minority district in its new congressional district map.

Jeffrey Ladewig, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and an expert in redistricting, said Republicans in the state legislature suggested the creation of a new majority-minority district last year.

“But blacks, Hispanics and white Democrats said they didn’t want it,” Ladewig said.

The reason: Carving out a new majority-minority district would make at least one of the state’s other congressional districts lean Republican.

“It’s hard for race or gender or anything else to trump party right now,” Ladewig said.

Noting that the Connecticut Republican Party had loyally backed Franks, Dyson said the GOP “has demonstrated it is more receptive than the Democratic Party” to supporting minority candidates.

But Rick Torres, a Cuban-American Republican who made an unsuccessful bid for the 4th District seat in 2010, has a different view.

“I’m disappointed in Republicans in the state for not reaching out more to the minority community, and I’m disappointed with the Democratic Party because it doesn’t look for good candidates,” Torres said. “You would think the parties would look ahead and try to capture a growing constituency.”

As always, the money issue

Another challenge for minority candidates, whose supporters tend not to be wealthy, is raising campaign cash.

“It takes a lot of money to run for Congress, and we don’t have a lot of money,” said Rep. Marie Kirkely-Bey, a black lawmaker who represents Hartford in the General Assembly.

Winsley, a motivational speaker and former radio personality, reported $496 in his campaign account at the end of last year. Yet he recently traveled to Washington to try to get his name on the “Young Guns” list, a group of GOP candidates the Republican Party thinks have the best chance of unseating a Democrat or winning an open seat.

Young Guns get party support, but one caveat is that each must raise $250,000 in campaign cash.

“I have to prove that I’m competitive,” Winsley said.

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have minority members in their congressional delegations.

Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said this year’s redistricting is likely to result in more Hispanics — and other minorities — to win seats in Congress.

But for Connecticut to send a Hispanic to Congress, “you have to have significant Latino growth,” and that’s not likely to happen soon, Gold said.

But she said Latinos can make significant gains in the state legislature and municipalities.

“As Latinos grow in political power, they can have more say in who gets elected to Congress,” she said.

In the 187-member Connecticut General Assembly, there are 22 minority lawmakers. One, Democratic Rep. William Tong of Stamford, is running for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat, though he isn’t favored to win the nomination.

Ladewig thinks a couple of more rounds of redistricting will result in opportunities for minorities in Connecticut to run for Congress. Before that, the retirements of older lawmakers like DeLauro or Larson would result in a “strong push for a minority candidate,” Ladewig said.

But Dyson is less optimistic.

“Unless some fluke happens, it’s going to be this way for a long time,” he said.