Sen. Andres Ayala Jr., D-Bridgeport, who declined an administration post in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s first term, was named Monday as the next commissioner of motor vehicles, giving Malloy his first Hispanic department head.
“We have been in conversation with the governor about that a long time. Gov. Malloy has told us he has attempted to get other Latino leaders to top positions. Unfortunately, the persons he has recommended have turned him down, said Werner Oyanadel, the executive director of the Commission on Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs. “So, we commend him today for his appointment.”
Latino leaders also are heavily lobbying the administration to select Nivea Torres, the superintendent of the 11,200-student State Technical High School system, as the next commissioner of education. After the Ayala announcement Monday, Oyanadel hand-delivered Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, a letter urging Torres’ appointment.
Ayala, 45, a social-studies teacher who was the president of the Bridgeport City Council before winning three terms in the House and two in the Senate, would take over the DMV as it implements a state law authorizing the issuance of special drivers’ licenses to immigrants who have no legal status in the U.S.
“To have that coincide, roughly speaking, with the appointment of a Latino commissioner fluent in Spanish, I think, sends an important message to a large segment of our population, both documented and undocumented, that Connecticut is a state in which we will treat all of our residents fairly,” Malloy said.
Malloy introduced Ayala at a press conference at the State Capitol with Melody Currey, who is resigning as the head of DMV to become commissioner of administrative services. Both appointments are subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.
A special election to fill Ayala’s Senate seat is expected in February.
Ayala defeated Sen. Ed Gomes and former Sen. Ernest Newton, who was trying to recapture his seat after a stint in prison, in a Democratic primary in 2012. He was re-elected to a second term last month from the solidly Democratic district in Connecticut’s most populous city.
His departure means that the Democrats in the 36-member Senate will see their majority temporarily shrink from 21 to 20. With Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury, the Democrats will begin the session Jan. 7 with a working majority of just 19 senators. His timetable for a return to Hartford is uncertain. Republicans hold 15 seats.
The governor has faced growing pressure from Hispanic groups, much of it focused on the vacant education post, about the lack of Latino representation in the top ranks of his administration. More than 20 percent of public school students in Connecticut are Hispanic.
Malloy named Carmen Espinosa as the first Hispanic justice to the Connecticut Supreme Court and Jeanette DeJesus was the administration’s adviser on healthcare reform until late 2012, but he has had no Hispanic in a cabinet-level post.
Oyanadel and other Latino leaders met with Ojakian after the Ayala press conference to make the case for Torres.
“He told us he was interviewing Dr. Torres tonight at 4, so I am sure she is being considered,” he said. “I have heard there are other Latino candidates that are being considered.”
Malloy called Ayala a barrier-breaker.
He’s known Ayala for years, beginning when Malloy was mayor of Stamford and Ayala was a Bridgeport councilman. Malloy said when he first approached Ayala about an administration appointment, Ayala was intent on becoming Connecticut’s first Hispanic state senator.
“He wanted to break that barrier, and he has done it,” Malloy said.
Ayala and Sen. Art Linnares, R-Westbrook, who is of Cuban descent, both were elected in 2012.
“I’m humbled. I’m privileged to be thought about in a such a way,” Ayala said.
Ayala cannot begin the new job, even on an acting basis, until his legislative term expires Jan. 7. Once sworn in, state law bars legislators from joining another branch of state government during a term in which they have been elected.
Once the secretary of the state formally notifies the governor of a legislative vacancy, he must schedule a special election within 46 days.