Manny Santos, a former Marine and the state Republican party’s choice to break the Democratic deadlock on Connecticut’s representation in Congress, hopes to win Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s seat with a traditional GOP message of lower taxes and fewer regulations.
Like most of the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, Santos is also a supporter of President Donald Trump and most of his policies.
“I’m not shying away from the successful policies of this administration,” he said.
That includes cutting taxes and rolling back what the GOP considers burdensome regulations on businesses imposed by the Obama administration.
Santos, 49, is also a strong supporter of Trump’s decision to withdraw from President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the president’s diplomatic initiative with North Korea.
“I’m a proponent of a majority of [Trump’s] policies, but any policy that he puts forward that I disagree with, I’ll voice that opinion,” he said.
One difference Santos said he has with Trump is the president’s position of raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21 after the Parkland, Fla. high school massacre.
“That makes no sense to me,” Santos said.
A former mayor of Meriden and an immigrant from Portugal, Santos entered the race before the political upheaval caused when Esty announced she would not run for re-election following criticisms of how she handled a sexual harassment issue in her office.
Esty’s announcement opened the floodgates for other candidates, both Republican and Democratic, who are eager to run for the open seat — a rarity in congressional politics.
Santos doesn’t know who his Democratic rival will be, since that will be decided in the August 14 primary election. He must also defeat a handful of other GOP candidates in that primary to continue his campaign.
Although Santos became the party’s choice in the state Republican convention, Ruby O’Neill, a retired psychology professor from Southbury, and Rich DuPont, a manufacturing consultant from Watertown, also won enough support to be on the primary ballot. In addition, John Pistone of Brookfield is petitioning for a place on that ballot.
Despite having to run against Republicans instead of an incumbent Democrat right now, Santos said he will stick to his message.
“The issues haven’t changed, it’s just that the audience is a little bit different now,” he said.
The congressional district he hopes to represent is located in the northwestern part of the state, running form Meriden and New Britain in central Connecticut westward to Danbury and the surrounding Housatonic Valley and also encompassing the Farmington Valley, Upper Naugatuck River Valley and Litchfield Hills.
The cities and larger towns in the district lean Democratic while the district’s smaller towns lean Republican.
It has the highest number of unaffiliated voters in the state, and is often considered a Republican target. But a Democrat has held the seat since 2006, when former Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson lost to now-U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. Esty has held the seat since 2013 and all of the other members of Connecticut’s delegation to the U.S. House are Democrats, as are the state’s two U.S. senators.
Gary Rose, the head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Santos has and advantage over his GOP rivals because “he’s the endorsed party candidate.”
But if he wins the primary, Santos will head into a tough political contest in which may be joined by the national Democratic and Republican parties.
National political analysts say Democrats have the edge in keeping the 5th District seat “blue.” So does Rose.
“Santos has an uphill climb, it’s not impossible by any means,” he said.
One reason Democrats may have an advantage, Rose said, is that Sen. Chris Murphy, who once represented that district, is running for re-election and will be at the top of the ballot, drawings 5th District Democratic supporters to the polls.
Santos concedes it will be a hard-fought race, but said Connecticut’s sluggish economic recovery and other local issues have voters looking for a change.
“When you look at the conditions of Connecticut’s economy or things in general, its clear there a need for better representation in Congress,” Santos said.
Supporting gun rights, opposing Obamacare
A staunch gun rights supporter, Santos posted on his Facebook page “the Bill of Rights (2nd Amendment is part of) has never been held with such disdain, than it is right now by the powerful progressive wing of the Democrat Party.”
That position on guns is diametrically opposed to Esty’s, who is vice chair of the U.S. House Gun Prevention Task force and a staunch gun control advocate since the massacre in Newtown, a town in the 5th District.
Like most congressional Republicans, Santos also opposes the Affordable Care Act and supports a strong military.
As an immigrant from Portugal who came with his parents and siblings to Connecticut when he was 5 years old, Santos supports strong border security but would like to see a compromise on immigration in Congress.
“I appreciate the struggles of people who want a better life here,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that politicians have not gotten together and we haven’t got a solution.”
Santos also supports term limits for members of the U.S. House and Senate, but is open to discuss how what those limits should be. He discounts the value of experience in congressional politics.
“There have been plenty of experienced politicians who have wrecked the country,” Santos said.
When was elected the mayor of Meriden in 2013, Santos was the first Republican to win the seat 30 years.
But his management style caused controversy and he was ousted after one term by a Republican-turned unaffiliated member of the city council. Santos also lost a bid for a city council seat last year.
Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who won his election against Santos by fewer than 100 votes, said that as a former city council member he differed with Santos on a number of issues, including budget cuts the mayor wanted to make.
Scarpati said Santos often made decisions without consulting Republican city council members.
“I didn’t think he was doing the city any justice without having those conversations,” he said.
His differences with Santos “snowballed,” Scarpati said, until local GOP leaders told him to stop fighting the mayor or leave the party. Scarpati chose to leave the party. His campaign against Santos included a call for “restoring civility to city hall.”
Robert Kosienski, Meriden’s director of constituent services, was appointed by Santos and now serves in Scarpati’s administration.
He said Santos is “extremely detail oriented,” and “a person who follows the rules,” characteristics that put him in conflict with the city council who argued against changing the way some things had been done for years.
“He found so many things the council did wrong,” Kosienski said. “He shook up city hall.”
One fight, over who has the right to appoint the corporation counsel, the city’s lawyer, went to the Superior Court.
“[Santos] said ‘it’s my job to appoint boards and corporation councils,” Kosienski said. The court agreed.
Kosienski said Santos “brought knowledge and common sense” to the mayor’s office.
Kosienski is also a senior member of the board of education. In that position, he often disagreed with Santos. “But we never walked out of the room angry,” he said.
Santos is an analyst for UnitedHealth Group who attended high school in Hartford and has an engineering degree from the University of Connecticut. He served as a Marine in in the first Gulf War. He and his wife Maryanne have two children, one in high school and the other in college.