Reina Restaurant might be a questionable location for a campaign fund-raiser — $5 buys a substantial meal here — but Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, a Democratic candidate for governor, chose this Mexican restaurant in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood for a February campaign stop.

And when state Rep. Juan Candelaria introduced Stamford’s mayor, he did so twice — once in English, and once in Spanish.

“My vision is that every child, regardless of what language their parents speak, will be successful in this state,” Malloy said in a later speech. “I want every person who lives in Connecticut or who comes from outside Connecticut, perhaps from another country, to be able to be successful in this state.”

Latinos, who have been in the state since Puerto Ricans began arriving 50 years ago, are making their presence felt in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign between New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Malloy with unprecedented intensity. Citing the community’s growing numbers and increasingly sophisticated political organizing efforts, Latino leaders say their community could play a crucial role in determining whether DeStefano or Malloy wins the Democratic nomination and whether the winner of the nomination can get enough votes to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

But Latino leaders must convince the politicians that they can produce the votes to back up their endorsements. Neither campaign expects a high turnout in the primary, which is being held in August for the first time, and the state’s Latino population historically has low turnout rates, particularly when compared with wealthier Connecticut suburbs. Those suburbs sometimes swing Republican, though, and the candidates need to tap into discontent with a governor who continues to hold nearly 80 percent approval ratings. Successful mobilization of the state’s Latino population could make one smart Democratic alcalde into one lucky Democratic gobernador.

Times a-changin’

Though the potential power of Latino voters gained widespread media attention only recently with massive marches against the House bill that would have criminalized illegal immigrants, the Padillas were ahead of the curve.

Frances Padilla and her husband, John, are among the founders of the Progreso Latino Fund, a part of the Greater New Haven Community Foundation that supports the Latino community in the New Haven area. Through the fund, which the Padillas say is nonpartisan, the two have organized a series of debates and panel discussions. And civic engagement, along with voter turnout, were at the top of their list of important issues to hold debates on, Frances Padilla said.

“This seems to be an idea whose time has come,” she said. “Our community has grown. … It’s grown in numbers and in its ability to affect what is happening in the community.”

Between 1990 and 2000, Connecticut’s population grew by only 3.6 percent, or by 118,449 residents, according to a study by the Mauricio Gaston Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which conducts research on the Latino population in America. The number of Latinos in the state, though, grew by 50.3 percent, or 107,207 residents. Latinos now outnumber blacks as the largest minority in Connecticut, by more than 20,000.

“What you’re seeing in the Latino community is what you see in every other group in history,” said Jorge Perez, a former president of the New Haven Board of Aldermen whose family immigrated from Cuba when he was 8. “As they grow in numbers and in economic power, they’ll be more sought-after.”

When the Progreso Latino Fund invited the two gubernatorial candidates to debate at one of its events, the audience of Latino voters filled the ballroom at the North Haven Holiday Inn where the event was held.

The North Haven debate was actually the candidates’ second opportunity to face off at a Latino forum. In January, the two mayors addressed the Connecticut Democratic Hispanic Caucus, a group formed two years ago by 25 politicians from across the state, in an effort to win its endorsement.

“It was important to make sure that the message is sent that we’re all working together,” Yolanda Castillo, the group’s president and a former city councilwoman in Hartford, said. “We want to make sure that whatever town we’re from, we’ll organize in our communities.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and his challenger, Ned Lamont, have also called the CDHC to seek a meeting with them, Castillo said. The tough part, she said, has been mobilizing voters, not politicians.

“We’re going out there registering voters, and besides registering them, we’re really educating them about the candidates and the issues,” she said. “People need to feel like they belong to the process, and we don’t often talk about the issues in a way that hits home.”

Potential still unrealized

The everyday drama of urban life, though crucial to John DeStefano the mayor, is becoming less relevant to DeStefano the gubernatorial candidate.

In early campaign appearances — DeStefano has been campaigning since 2004 — the candidate would describe his background as a New Haven mayor in part by telling anecdotes of urban life, including one about attending the funeral of a 6-month-old baby who had been shot and killed weeks after he became mayor. But today, DeStefano’s campaign is that of a persistent optimist. At the campaign’s official kick-off at City Hall this winter, the refrain of DeStefano’s speech was “Aim Higher,” and his recently-unveiled plan for universal health care in the state is named “Connecticut Cover All Now,” or “Connecticut CAN.”

“If you’re in a rural town, they see a big city mayor and they want to know that you understand them,” DeStefano said. “Stories of urban violence may not be particularly relevant to them.”

With a new slate of policy proposals, including ones addressing universal health care and economic development, the mayor has put forth a vision for the state designed to energize those voters who are not sufficiently inspired by stories of DeStefano’s success working with a poor city whose challenges differ significantly from those of the state’s suburban and rural towns, DeStefano campaign communications director Derek Slap said.

Michele Jacklin, DeStefano’s campaign director of policy and research, who worked for 28 years at the Hartford Courant as a reporter and political columnist and has covered six gubernatorial campaigns, broke down the turnout numbers, explaining why any successful candidate cannot rest on his big city laurels.

“The places with the highest voter turnout on election day are suburban towns,” she said. “Turnout in the cities is usually very low.”

Suburbs like her hometown of Glastonbury, Jacklin said, regularly have campaign turnouts of over 70 percent.

In contrast, turnout of Latino voters, three out of four of whom live in the state’s biggest urban areas, and who make up 6.7 percent of the state’s eligible voting population, has historically been very low in state-wide elections, according to data collected by the Progreso Latino Fund. In 2002, 44 percent of all eligible voters turned out — approximately 1,134,000 citizens — but that figure included only 28.5 percent of all eligible Latino voters, about 50,000 citizens. The percent of Latinos registered to vote in Connecticut is also lower than that of the general population: 65 percent of all eligible voters are registered, but only 56 percent of eligible Latino voters.

“Latinos simply do not vote and participate in electoral politics significantly, and certainly not commensurately with their numbers,” Frances Padilla said. “The progress of the Latino community depends on its ability to influence the political structures, and we need to take on the challenge of increasing that participation.”

The uncertain outcome of that challenge ensures that both politicians’ strategies, for now, remain centered on the traditionally reliable voting populace, as demonstrated by DeStefano’s move away from accounts of city crime. That focus on traditional voters explains in part why Malloy’s primary campaign is sticking to what could seem to be an odd message for a Democrat: Because Republicans approve of Malloy, his campaign manager said, he would not lose dramatically in his home county.

Malloy is from Fairfield County, the state’s Republican stronghold, and the “electability” message of the Malloy campaign centers on his ability to undermine support for the Republican Rell in Fairfield and carry the state.

“That is a message he uses in every audience he speaks to,” said Jacklin, who works for the DeStefano campaign.

Chris Cooney, Malloy’s campaign manager, explained that in 1994, former Republican Gov. John Rowland defeated Democrat Bill Curry with a margin of 40,000 votes — and 27,000 of those votes for Rowland came from Fairfield County, which he carried over Curry, 81,000 to 54,000.

“A Democrat just needs to be able to take a big enough bite out of the base here to deprive the Republican of carrying the rest of the state,” Cooney said.

The ultimate importance of Fairfield County in November’s general election against Rell remains unknown, of course, as does the importance of Malloy’s alleged strength in an area that, Jacklin said, has low primary turnout rates because residents there identify strongly with New York City and tend not to follow Hartford politics.

And, as the census numbers show, Rowland’s 40,000-vote margin is more than overshadowed by the 175,000 potential Latino voters in the state.

The courtship

Sitting on stage at the Progreso Latino debate, Malloy made a confession.

He is part illegal.

His brother, drawing up a family tree, had found that two of his ancestors had come to the United States from Ireland through Canada, meaning, Malloy said, that they probably crossed a border without proper papers.

But, DeStefano countered, he had been the one to promote New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz, the first Latino police chief in the state.

“There are 500 Latinos in our city government, people who are prepared to step up again and again,” DeStefano said.

With August’s turnout expected to be low — the Malloy campaign estimates it will be around 200,000 — the mayors are crisscrossing the state hunting for every vote they can get, and the boom in the state’s Latino population has not escaped their notice, even if it has yet to capture their focus.

“They are a force to be reckoned with, and that force is going to continue to grow as we go on,” Cooney said. “Their impact in the 2006 election has already been history-making in terms of their involvement really early on.”

The two candidates have appeared together before Latino audiences three times already: before the state Democratic Hispanic Caucus, whose endorsement Malloy received; at the debate hosted by the Progreso Latino Fund; and, most recently, at a debate in Hartford sponsored by the Puerto Rican Affairs Commission’s Toastmasters Club. Malloy has also solicited the endorsements of a number of prominent Latino politicians, while DeStefano’s campaign has formed a group named Amigos de DeStefano, whose first house party at the home of Kica Matos, the director of New Haven’s JUNTA for Progressive Action, drew 90 guests.

“I’ve been in politics for 18 years, and this is the first time that I’ve seen any candidate for governor debate in front of three different groups,” Perez said.

At the Progreso Latino debate, the candidates showed their ability to frame their responses in terms of Latino issues, for example, by presenting their plans for complete or partial health care coverage in the state while reminding audiences that Latinos represent 40 percent of those without health insurance, but only 10 percent of Connecticut’s population. When Malloy talked about putting drug offenders into rehab, he said that 90 percent of those who serve time on drug-related charges are minorities, and that if China’s prisoner population were equally racially imbalanced, the United States would call it a human rights violation. DeStefano, for his part, discussed his office’s efforts to help illegal immigrants in New Haven and his role in mediating the dispute over the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center, which will be built in the Hill, a heavily Latino neighborhood.

“I believe in creating outcomes that benefit everyone, even if it is difficult sometimes,” DeStefano said. “It reflects respect for our neighborhoods where this community lives.”

If, as Castillo said, the Latino community’s failure to turn out at a rate equivalent to that of the suburbs is due to candidates’ failure to make Latino voters feel relevant, this year’s election could be a turning point. Both candidates are big-city mayors already adept at discussing the issues of importance to urban residents, including most of the state’s Latino population, and both candidates have made pointed efforts to highlight their respective cities’ work on improving social services and the quality of public schools.

“When you talk about any statistic that [is] a negative statistic,” Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said, “disproportionately the Latino community is represented in the negative statistic.”

‘A bad taste’

Ask DeStefano’s campaign about the mayor’s record on Latino issues, and his response is concrete: The mayor is pioneering an effort to get municipal ID cards for illegal immigrants; he’s the only candidate to propose a plan to provide health insurance for every state resident; as the husband of a kindergarten teacher and an alumnus of Connecticut public schools, he understands the need to improve that system; and so forth.

Ask Malloy’s campaign about his record, and the response is, likewise, concrete: the support and advice of Jorge Perez, Eddie Perez, Castillo and so forth.

Starting with the CDHC, which voted 24-1 to endorse Malloy, Stamford’s mayor has received more endorsements from established Latino politicians than DeStefano. The reason, some say, is DeStefano’s support for Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, who unseated Jorge Perez from the board presidency this January.

“That kind of left a bad taste,” Castillo said. “We don’t have a lot of Latino leaders in really good positions, and when we have them there, we want to keep them there.”

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said the perception that DeStefano had not supported Jorge Perez had been “a factor” in the decision, though he said the deciding factor was Malloy’s grasp of the community’s diversity and his perceived willingness to involve the Latino community in decision-making after the election. Speculations have been circulating that Eddie Perez could be named Malloy’s lieutenant governor, though Perez in an interview denied having discussed that possibility with Malloy.

“In order for us to continue to grow, we need to support people who are already breaking barriers and have already cut their teeth,” Eddie Perez said. “We need to be in power to be contributing members of society.”

But Paul Nunez, a legislative assistant to DeStefano in New Haven’s City Hall and the only member of the Hispanic caucus to vote against endorsing Malloy, said the endorsement debate was thin.

“Nobody really brought up points of the merits of either candidate of programs they had initiated, of track records, of vision — none of that,” he said. “As much as people claim that the Jorge Perez thing wasn’t going to be the basis of a decision, it was kind of evident that it did turn out that way.”

The effectiveness of these endorsements remains unclear, however, because the relative newness of the 2-year-old CDHC means its ability to mobilize the diverse Latino community towards one candidate over the other remains untested.

“Because people like the mayor of Hartford or Jorge Perez endorse a candidate doesn’t necessary mean that other people know about them or are in tune with all of that,” John Padilla said.

On the flip side, Slap of DeStefano’s campaign said, are the endorsements DeStefano has garnered from 30 labor unions representing 100,000 workers. Slap said union members have a track record of serving as effective “foot soldiers” in any campaign.

And although Malloy can tout more endorsements than DeStefano, 8,000 more Latinos live in New Haven than in Stamford, and the DeStefano-led City Hall is generally considered responsive to the needs of the city’s Latino population, Yale professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho said. Camacho, who teaches in the American Studies Department, also serves on the board of Junta, a local Latino service agency.

“New Haven has been a place of tremendous innovation,” she said. “Malloy is being asked to show that he has the depth of experience … that DeStefano claims.”

Camacho said her colleagues at Junta appreciate that the mayor is working on a plan to give municipal identification cards to all city residents. New Haven also launched “Hablamos Espanol” last year, a program that translates city documents into Spanish.

Camacho said the increased focus on Latino immigrants likely represents not just the immediate strategy of winning in August, but a larger attempt by the Democratic Party to gain voters in the long run by catering to a community whose numbers are increasing rapidly.

“People are certainly looking ahead and forecasting what it means for their parties to be confronted with a growing Latino presence,” she said. “If we are to give the millions [of illegal immigrants] legal status, we are putting them on the path to citizenship, so the big hope of the unions, of the Democratic folk … is we’re building a new block of voters.”