DANBURY — More than half the students in the high school civics class raised their hands when asked how many live in immigrant households, a question posed before the introduction of Roberto Alves, the Democratic nominee for mayor.

“This room, this is the future of America,” Alves told the kids, students at a high school where 50 languages are spoken. “This is what every big city is going to look like — or even small cities.”

Nearly one-third of Danbury is foreign-born, Alves among them. A list-making web site, WalletHub, says Danbury’s ever-changing demographics make it the 10th-most diverse city in the United States, tied with Chicago.

On Tuesday, when voters go to the polls in most of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, the election here will offer its own measure of what that diversity means to the political identity of Danbury, where Republican Mark Boughton won’t be on the ballot in a mayoral election for the first time in 20 years.

“You have a generation of voters, maybe more, they know nothing different,” said Alves, who was a senior at Danbury High in 2001, when Boughton left the faculty to become mayor. “These kids have never seen a Democratic mayor.”

And in a city where immigration status periodically has been a source of conflict, they’ve never seen a mayoral nominee like Alves.

Now 38, he arrived here in 1989 as a five-year-old from Brazil, a son of parents who overstayed a tourist visa. 

That left him undocumented, a biographical fact he neither hides nor promotes.

“I’m hesitant to use it politically, and I don’t talk about it politically, because people are conservative and it [rubs] on some people the wrong way,” Alves said.

Alves became a U.S. citizen in 2017. The same year he ran his first race for an at-large seat on the city council, finishing third on the slate of seven Democrats in a year when only one Democrat won. A fellow Brazilian, Farley Santos, was elected to the Board of Education, and in 2019 Alves would win an at large seat and Santo a district seat on the council.. 

The elections marked the arrival of newcomers in a city that has thrived on multi-generational politics. Boughton’s father was mayor, and ballots here seldom lack for familiar surnames.

Dean Esposito speaks last May after being endorsed for mayor by Mayor Joseph Cavo, who announced he would not seek the seat after completing the term of Mark Boughton.

The Republican mayoral nominee is Dean Esposito, not to be confused with his cousin, Michael J. Esposito, the at-large councilman, or Mike’s nephew, John Esposito III, the 4th Ward 4 councilman who had his own mayoral hopes this year.

Dean’s father was a state representative and his grandfather was a Hatters Union president who ran for mayor in the 1950s, when hat-making still defined Danbury’s economy.

“Yep. I got a family affair,” Esposito said, laughing. “You know, they call us the Kennedys around here.”

The Kennedys, however, still are Democrats. By and large, the Espositos are not.

Dean was the Democratic nominee who ran against Boughton in 2005, then became the Republican mayor’s chief of staff in January 2016, a job he still holds. John III was a Democrat until this year, when the party rebuffed him in favor of Alves.

Invited by Dean, the younger Esposito is now seeking re-election to one of the two 4th Ward council seats as a Republican.

Democrats have been weakened here by infighting in recent years, but the party rallied in 2018, picking up state legislative seats. Julie Kushner, a Democrat and retired UAW leader, unseated Sen. Michael McLachlan, a five-term Republican, and now represents Danbury and its surrounding towns in the state Senate.

Aside from the great political differences, McLachlan was old Danbury — a Danburian. His family once owned a hat factory, McLachlan & Co., and his father ran the last hat shop in the city.

“It was almost a shock for Danburians, because McLachlan’s another Danbury name,” Esposito said. “A huge name.”

File photo. Former GOP Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, left, and former Democratic mayoral candidate Dean Esposito during an 2005 mayoral debate. Esposito went on to become Boughton’s chief of staff, switched parties, and is now the GOP candidate for mayor. Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Boughton resigned 10 months ago to become the commissioner of revenue services in the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat. The move not only keeps Boughton off the ballot, but keeps him from campaigning for Esposito.

The turnout is lower in municipal election years, and conventional wisdom says that favors old Danbury — and Republicans.

“Within that lower turnout, we know Republicans tend to come out more. So we are doing a very strong operation reaching out to minority communities, within social clubs, religious communities,” Alves said. “And it’s just not Latino.”

The Latino population of Danbury has doubled over 20 years, from 16% to 33%. (The Census Bureau does not count Portuguese-speaking Brazilians as Hispanic or Latino.)
During the Boughton era, the city grew from 74,825 to 86,518. Three quarters of the population was white when Boughton was first elected. Today, Alves and Esposito are competing to lead a city where 56% are people of color.

Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, whose great uncle, Gino Arconti, was mayor in the late 60s and early 1970s, said he is seeing political change due to decades of immigration and the recent influx of New Yorkers during the pandemic.

Roberto Alves and his family, left, listen to a speech Saturday by Andrea Garner, the Democratic town chair and a candidate for  town clerk. At right are U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and state Sen. Julie Kushner. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

“We have a younger generation of Danbury moving in. It’s families from New York. It’s families from all over,” Arconti said. “The Danbury race is the perfect case study for political scientists right now to determine how far along we are.”

Arconti said his family came to the U.S. in the 1920s.

“Roberto’s family, my family’s story is pretty much exactly the same,” he said. “It’s just separated by a couple decades.”

That does not mean an easy affinity exists between the generations of immigrants.

Emanuela Palmares, the Brazilian-born entrepreneur and editor of Tribuna, a monthly community newspaper published in English, Spanish and Portuguese, said there is “a disconnect from the older generations of immigrants and the new ones.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the immigration to Danbury primarily was from South and Central America, much of it by people who arrived without legal status. Palmares’ family came to get medical treatment for her mother and stayed.

“I was undocumented for 12 years. It took me 17 years to become a citizen,” Palmares said.

Palmares is a contemporary of Alves who became a Republican. She served a term on the Board of Education and ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly in 2016. But, as does Alves, she sees the census data as defining a new Danbury.

“In Danbury, there’s this struggle,” she said. “And I think that a lot of people have a hard time accepting that you need to stop being the town that we were and really fall into the identity of the city that we’ve become.”

Angela Hylenski, a Republican candidate running for the zoning commission, welcomes visitors at a Halloween event in Danbury.

Danbury was one of just two cities responsible for nearly 60% of the modest population growth of 31,847 in Connecticut over the past decade. The other was Stamford, now the state’s second largest city.

The mayoral campaigns in both cities expose the generational and ethnic tensions that can come with change, with subtle and overt claims about roots, identity and ownership.

In Stamford, the race is between 71-year-old Bobby Valentine, the baseball star who grew up there and is running without a political affiliation, and 35-year-old Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford.

Valentine has displayed a discomfort with changing Stamford, a city that’s added thousands of units of rental housing. And he’s repeatedly made an issue of Simmons birthplace, suggesting it makes her somehow suspect.

She grew up in Greenwich, next to Stamford.

“I was born and raised here,” Esposito mentioned in an interview.

But he and his wife and their two children left 10 years ago for the suburb of Brookfield. Now empty nesters, he said, they are ready sell the Brookfield home for a condo in Danbury. Esposito already has relocated to Danbury.

Alves, a technical sales engineer who is married and the father of two school-age children, said he is as deeply vested in the city as anyone.

While Esposito said he is committed to continuing the success of Boughton, who managed to keep taxes low as the city ranked high in livability surveys, Alves said there are unmet needs.

“I think Danbury is very good right now for some people,” Alves said.

Half of the households in Danbury are deemed to be the working poor by the United Way’s ALICE measure of people who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Alves was first elected in 2019.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.