New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and several other local and state leaders addressed mourners last night at a memorial service for state Rep. John Martinez.
Martinez, a deputy majority leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives and an emerging force in Hispanic politics nationwide, was killed in a car accident early Friday morning. He was 48.
The Democrat was heavily favored to win a fifth term representing the 95th House District, which includes the Fair Haven, Hill and Wooster Square neighborhoods.
About 300 people filled Second Star of Jacob Church Monday night as friends, family members and colleagues paid tribute to a man New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo called “one of the good guys.”
In an impassioned speech, DeStefano said that Martinez’s legacy of helping the underprivileged would long endure in the Elm City.
“Johnny’s alive — he’s the warmth homeowners will feel when they can’t always come up with money for heating oil, he’s the satisfaction of a warm meal, a roof over your head,” DeStefano said.
In addition to serving as a state legislator, Martinez was chief executive officer of the anti-poverty organization Community Action Agency. During the early 1990s, he headed the Hill Health Center/Grant Street Partnership, a group helping victims of drug and alcohol abuse.
Throughout the evening, speakers praised Martinez’s ability to pass legislation to help rehabilitate substance abusers, alleviate poverty in Connecticut, and fight for the rights of minorities.
DeStefano said Martinez’s commitment to serving the unfortunate in the New Haven community was tireless, as he had “zero tolerance for leaving anyone behind.”
“In all our political fights, Johnny believed in the possible,” DeStefano said.
Mayo, who taught Martinez’s eighth-grade earth science class, described the representative’s transformation from an inquisitive middle schooler to a powerful advocate in the New Haven community.
“Johnny was the kind of man who treated people with respect and people responded with respect,” Mayo said.
DeLauro said Martinez’s personal warmth and success in fighting for the less fortunate helped the legislator gain a national audience.
“With John, it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from — he made you feel like his best friend,” DeLauro said. “He was the essence of what it means to be a statesman.”
Martinez served as president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, a position that brought him in contact with members of all 50 of the nation’s state houses, said New York State Sen. Efrain Gonzalez Jr., chairman emeritus of NHCSL.
Speaker of the House Moira Lyons said Martinez combined determination and charm in his efforts to provide “economic opportunity and social justice for all of us.”
“He is the only person I’ve ever known in my life who could bother me and drive me crazy and I’d feel good about it,” Lyons said.
The circumstances surrounding Martinez’s death remain somewhat uncertain. The legislator, whose car was struck by a tractor-trailer while driving northbound on Interstate 91, did not have a valid driver’s license. Investigators determined Martinez’s license had been suspended at least six times since 1996, most recently for failing to appear in court on charges of driving drunk.
State police did not respond Monday to inquiries concerning Martinez’s death.