Luis Cotto is ending his career as an upstart urban politician in Connecticut.
For the past five years, representing the Working Families Party on the Hartford City Council, Cotto got down and dirty with everything from trying to stop racial profiling by cops to state and local education reform.
"I really love what I do here," the 44-year-old Hartford native says concerning his activist time here and his departure, "so it's bittersweet."
Cotto was first elected in 2007, and his perspective on politics in this state is that of an outsider who sees the need for massive change in the way state and local government works. So we thought we'd ask him for a sort of political exit interview.
But first, here's a little background.
Cotto is going to Boston (which this long-time Yankees fan says has definitely not been his favorite city in the past). His wife just got a job with a student volunteer program at Harvard University, and so Cotto and his two kids are heading for Beantown.
It's going to be a big adjustment, he admits, for someone born and raised in Hartford, even though he's lived in places as diverse as Seattle andWashington, D.C."But I love new adventure, so that part of it's exciting," he says.
Cotto isn't expecting to get into Massachusetts politics, other than knocking on doors for candidates he thinks should be elected. "I didn't think I was going to get involved in politics in Hartford," he explains, adding that he repeatedly turned down friends who tried to recruit him as a candidate.
That changed in large part because he became involved in Ned Lamont's 2006 bid to oust Joe Lieberman from his U.S. Senate seat. Lieberman's often non-Democratic, very conservative positions on issues lost him the party's nomination that year, but he went on to run as an independent and defeated Lamont in the general election.
Cotto says the experience of being part of that campaign convinced him that running for office was the best route to bring about the changes he believes are needed. He considers that his biggest asset as a politician in Hartford was that he was born there "and I know my community intimately."
What impressed him the most about Connecticut's political life was the "rabidness, the doggedness, the intensity" of the activists who fought so hard for things like single-sex marriage rights, paid sick days for people who'd never been able to have them, and abolishment of the death penalty.
His biggest disappointment, he says, was "the downside of political human-ness," the willingness of many politicians to bend with the winds of public opinion.
Cotto says he saw so many politicians "drink the Kool-Aid" on issues like education reform, swallowing whole the anti-teacher rationale that he said soured so much of the debate. "This attack on teachers, it makes no sense."
"The education reform battle tainted me so much," Cotto admits. "People like me were called the 'status quo-ers,'" he says, when the reality was he wanted serious reform as much as anyone.
Cotto has an interesting take on the immigration reform issue and Connecticut's Hispanic community.
He points out that most Connecticut Hispanics are, as he is, of Puerto Rican heritage, and as such have no citizenship issues since Puerto Ricans are automatically U.S. citizens. Cotto says that has meant that the Latino community in this state hasn't really "been on the front lines" of the immigration reform fight.
"This is the civil rights issue of our time," Cotto insists, "and we need to be on that front line."
During his time on the Hartford City Council, Cotto urged passage of a local ordinance to ban racial profiling by local police. It failed, he says, because a flawed and impotent state anti-racial profiling law was already in effect and took precedent.
Cotto still shakes his head when he recalls a report by a top Hartford police official that only three incidents of racial profiling had taken place during one 12-month period in the city.
It wasn't until a massive racial profiling and police abuse scandal broke in East Haven, including federal criminal indictments and a scathing civil rights report, that the state legislature finally took action to reform the 12-year-old anti-racial profiling law.