MERIDEN — A day after two emergency oral surgeries, Kimberly Duran-Bailey was among about 140 bystanders along West Main Street Wednesday hoping for a glimpse of first lady Jill Biden and newly minted U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
Asthmatic and diabetic, and still bothered by the operations, Duran-Bailey said she simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Biden and celebrate the success of Cardona, a Meriden resident and former state commissioner of education who was sworn in to his new job on Tuesday. Duran-Bailey, a fervent believer in education with eight children and 20 grandchildren, pulled herself out of homelessness by going back to school and becoming a teacher, she said.
“It’s about education. It’s about all of us coming together for a good cause, and to be proud,” Duran-Bailey said. “Unity to me is a big thing. We need to celebrate this. That’s what this is all about.”
Others came for different reasons. Platt High School junior Nicola Straight stood across the street from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, which Biden and Cardona were visiting, in hopes of giving Biden — the honorary leader of the Girls Scouts of America — some boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
“If we can,” said her mother Alice Straight.
Nicola and her parents were among many in the crowd who said Cardona and Biden’s visit was a chance to share some hometown pride. Some were former Meriden Public School students, some were teachers, others just wanted to witness history.
There was plenty of state and national media on site, a rarity in the city, and members of the crowd took turns talking in front of cameras.Support for Cardona
Migdalia Hernandez arrived in Meriden from Aguada, Puerto Rico, where Cardona’s father Hector Cardona Sr. lived with his parents before coming to Meriden in the 1960s.
“The whole city is happy for Miguel,” Hernandez said about Aguada. “I came here to see Miguel. I know the family.”
Her daughter Maria Velez worked for Meriden Public Schools in the bilingual education program when Cardona was assistant superintendent.
“I wanted to support him and see Dr. Biden,” Velez said. “And be happy for all the positives happening in Meriden.”
Alice Straight talked about Cardona’s ability to reopen the state’s schools and how Meriden’s program had worked for their daughter.
“We actually think it’s been highly successful,” Straight said. “The cohorting model helps alleviate our concerns. We have an eighth grade son who was missing the contact and his friends.”
Straight did not know Cardona personally, but worked with his wife Marissa Cardona at Meriden Children’s First Initiative. She said Cardona’s rise through the public schools to college, as an educator in the local schools, leading the state education department as commissioner and now as the nation’s top educator, puts Meriden in the spotlight.
“This will bring good things not only to Meriden but districts like Meriden,” Straight said.
Meriden Board of Education Vice President Kim Carbone-Pandiani strolled through the crowd, and fought back tears when she talked about Cardona.
“It’s a great day for Meriden,” Carbone-Pandiani said. “What you see is what you get with Miguel. He is everything you’d hope for. I can’t tell you how many educators cared enough to get to know every student’s name in the building. He knew their parents, probably their grandparents. He’s the guy who stood outside the door every day, greeting students as they came in ... checking their faces, asking ‘Is everything OK? Are you having a good start to your day?’”Biden protesters
Not everybody was there to celebrate. About a dozen protesters showed up, some with signs carrying the false claim that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. Occasionally both sides argued but so civilly that police at the school never even had to cross the street.
A Meineke muffler shop near Ben Franklin School gently goofed on the event with a Facebook post that featured clips of former President Donald Trump and Biden and video of the crowd.
“The #FirstLady has arrived to little ole #Meriden,” it read.
Dave Katz, a Meriden resident and manufacturer of baseball gloves, said he found the protesters bitter and disliked the use of obscenity in one of their posters. He said they are carrying on the divisiveness that marked Trump’s term.
“Things like this,” he said of Biden’s visit, “are just a pleasure. It’s like the lights are on again.”
Carbone-Pandiani is confident Cardona will practice his own lesson of staying “true to yourself.” She described him as a collaborator who could get all the stakeholders around the table and broker solutions to whatever needed to get accomplished.
“He’s the real deal,” she said.
Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati, delivering remarks during an outdoor press conference, thanked all the city departments, including police, parks and public works, that worked with federal and state officials to ensure a safe and smooth visit.
“We wanted to just thank everyone involved on the city side,” Scarpati said, adding, “The Silver City certainly did shine today.”
That remark echoed another one, made by Cardona earlier that day.
“I think we were able to impress the first lady with the great work happening just behind us at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School,” Scarpati said.