The New Haven community mourned the death this weekend of state Rep. John S. Martinez, a deputy majority leader of the House of Representatives and an emerging figure in Connecticut and national Hispanic politics.
Martinez, 48, was killed early Friday morning on Interstate 91 after skidding on wet pavement and colliding with a tractor-trailer. He was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Martinez was driving without a valid license at the time of the crash, investigators discovered. The lawmaker’s license had been suspended for at least the sixth time since 1996, after he failed to appear at an August hearing on charges of driving under the influence.
State police have yet to determine whether the accident Friday was alcohol-related.
Martinez was widely expected to win a fifth term this November as representative of New Haven’s 95th House District, which includes the city’s Fair Haven, Hill and Wooster Square neighborhoods.
In addition to holding a leadership position in the House of Representatives, Martinez was active in Hispanic advocacy groups, serving as president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.
Martinez’s career in and out of politics centered around “compassion for the underprivileged,” a statement released by his legislative office said.
As a member of the state Judiciary Committee, Martinez devoted much of his time in Hartford to fighting for the poor and for racial minorities. In particular, he promoted the nomination of black and Hispanic judges to the state bench.
In addition to serving as a legislator, Martinez was chief executive officer of the Community Action Agency, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty in New Haven.
Julio Gonzalez ’99, executive assistant to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said Martinez was a “rising star” in local politics.
“His loss is tragic because he was a great person, but also because he was becoming a predominant leader not only in New Haven, but statewide and nationally,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also said Martinez was widely respected for his ability “to pragmatically represent those who are very marginal in society,” especially citizens suffering from substance abuse, homelessness and poverty.
Martinez had long worked to help New Haven citizens battling drug and alcohol addictions, leading the Hill Health Center/Grant Street Partnership in the early 1990s.
A member of the Governor’s Drug Policy Council, Martinez was a passionate supporter of the now-defunct New Haven drug court, a program designed to allow nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders to rehabilitate themselves outside a prison setting.
Ward 16 Alderman Raul Avila, who ran against Martinez in a contentious primary race this September, expressed his condolences to Martinez’s family and friends.
“I pray that their faith and their happy memories of him will be sources of strength during this difficult time,” Avila said in a statement released by his office.
Martinez defeated Avila by an almost two-to-one margin in a contest that saw both candidates accused of unethical activities.
Martinez was slated to run against Republican Duffy Acevedo in the Nov. 5 general election. The New Haven Town Democratic Committee may nominate a candidate to replace Martinez as late as one week before the election.
Jorge Perez, president of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, said Martinez’s death will leave a void in the New Haven community.
“I don’t think anybody is going to try to replace Johnny but simply try to continue his work,” Perez said.
DeStefano, Speaker of the House Moira Lyons, and several other local political leaders will speak at a memorial service tonight at Second Star of Jacob Church at 201 Chapel St.