Citing ‘prejudice,’ aldermanic candidate loses

After Santiago Berrios-Bones won Friday’s Ward 14 aldermanic special election by a margin of 46 votes, his opponent, Alberto Bustos, is now claiming the victory is the result of a divisive anti-immigrant message.

The two men were seeking the Fair Haven seat on the New Haven Board of Aldermen vacated in January by the long-absent Gabriel Santiago, who had not shown up to a Board of Aldermen meeting for over five months before his resignation. Berrios-Bones, a 64-year-old teacher at Wilbur Cross High School, and Bustos, a Grand Avenue businessman, ran on similar platforms of traffic calming, heightened security and increased communication with ward residents. Winning 186 votes to Bustos’ 140, Berrios-Bones will serve for the remainder of Santiagio’s unfinished two-year term until the start of 2014.

Reflecting on the race over the weekend, Bustos chalked up his opponent’s victory to a message he called xenophobic. Bustos immigrated to New Haven from Peru in 1981, while Berrios-Bones moved to the city in 1987 from Puerto Rico. Bustos said he lost because Berrios-Bones was able to exploit their difference in origins.

“They were telling people to vote for the Puerto Rican and not the immigrant,” he said. “When you represent people, you have to represent everyone. It’s wrong to say ‘Vote for me because of my race.’ I saw a big prejudice against immigrants in their message.”

Bustos also said his campaign was at a disadvantage in manpower and finances. He was backed by Ward 14 co-chair Rafael Ramos and city resident Nilda Noble, while he said Berrios-Bones had almost 30 people working for him, some of them even in paid positions. Bustos estimated that he spent less than $1,000 in comparison to the $10,000 he said his opponent spent.

Ben Young, Berrios-Bones’ campaign manager and a former staffer for Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s 2011 campaign, said he saw the election very differently. Young said the campaign spent only about $1,000 and did not “highlight the issue of race whatsoever.”

“We communicated our candidate’s vision to the voters very well. It’s that simple. We knocked doors, made phone calls, did a few lit drops and had Santiago out there knocking over 6,000 doors,” he said. “I really wish I knew what Mr. Bustos was talking about. We thought he ran a very good campaign, so it’s sad to hear him saying these things after the fact.”

Berrios-Bones attributed his success to persistence — saying he worked hard to impress upon voters his qualifications for alderman — and to the backing of a number of prominent lawmakers in the city and beyond. Ward 16 Alderman Migdalia Castro, Connecticut State Rep. Juan Candelaria and former Aldermen Tomas Reyes and Joey Rodriguez all worked on behalf of Berrios-Bones and helped pull votes Friday night.

Castro, whose ward is adjacent to Berrios-Bones’, advised the candidate extensively on issues facing Fair Haven residents. Berrios-Bones said he was “grateful for her leadership” and is hoping to work on the board to improve safety for his constituents.

“What I’ve heard is that people don’t feel safe in their homes and on the streets,” he said. “I would like to talk to the police chief and see how we can rehabilitate block watches and get residents involved. We need to know how to protect ourselves — we need to take the streets back.”

Ramos, who said he chose to endorse Bustos because he represents an “immigrant success story,” said the race came down to organization. He called Berrios-Bones’ operation a “well-oiled machine,” with a campaign manager, staff and more money.

In disagreement with his candidate, Ramos said he does not think that race or immigration played a role in voters’ decisions, adding that Bustos won 140 votes in what he called a “majority Puerto Rican neighborhood.”

Still, he said, the backing of the “Latino leadership” — the collection of Fair Haven political leaders — turned out to be “decisive.”

Bustos said the breakdown of votes signaled trouble for that leadership.

“The traditional Spanish leaders who supported the other candidate know now that they have a big opposition,” he said. “It’s clear we’re not all together anymore and that immigrants are being left out. I wanted the immigrants to have one alderman who could be a voice for them. Right now we’re saying, ‘Hello? Where are we?’”

Bustos said he would run again in September in the primary election, setting up a potential rematch between Bustos and Berrios-Bones.

Gabriel Santiago delivered his letter of resignation to the board the first week of January.

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