MERIDEN — Area 1 may be the part of the city with the most challenges but it also holds the most promise, say the three candidates vying to represent downtown on the City Council.
Democratic incumbent Yvette Cortez was appointed to represent the district in July 2020 to finish the term left vacant when Democrat Miguel Castro resigned. This is Cortez’s first campaign and she says the past year has been an eyeopener.
“Being involved in politics is the last thing I thought I would be part of,” Cortez said. “Some of the most striking things I learned was the council has not been working on social equity, racial or economic justice.”
Cortez, a third-generation Meriden resident, chairs the council’s Finance Committee and is the council’s representative on the American Rescue Plan Act Committee, which has responsibility for distributing $36 million in federal funds designated by the Biden administration to support at-risk communities in the city.
Republican Nolberto Gonzalez and Libertarian Richard Cordero are challenging Cortez for the seat, which represents much of downtown and the inner city.
Much of Area 1 is classified as high risk on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerabilty Index. Using census tracts, the CDC measures characteristics to determine whether they "may weaken a community's ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in a disaster."
The determination of vulnerability is made using U.S. Census data that factors in these characteristics, including household income, density of housing, along with the prevalence of single-parent households, and the primary language spoken in those households.
Seven of Meriden’s 17 tracts rank high in social vulnerability based on one or more of the measured characteristics. Four tracts rank moderate to high on that index. Meanwhile, the remaining six tracts rate as either low vulnerability or low to moderate.
In one such section of Area 1, around where Old Colony Road meets the lower stretches of Cook Avenue and South Colony Street, one in five residents lives below the federal poverty line. Single parent households make up close to 12% of overall households. Around 48% of the 6,700 total residents are non-white.
By contrast, in another area, the southeast corner of Meriden surrounding Research Parkway, a little more than 5% of residents live below the poverty level.
The candidates come at the challenges in Area 1 with different solutions. As a social worker for the state Department of Children and Families and now in its management ranks, Cortez wants the City Council to view its actions through a social equity and justice lens that provides opportunities for children and adults living in poverty who have few role models.
“A whole lot of people of different colors in Meriden have been under represented on the council,” Cortez said. “Area 1 constituents face challenges that are different than the other districts face. I really spend a lot of time trying to bring the issues to the front. The council needs to empathize with and prioritize those needs.”
She points to recent regulations regarding parking cars on lawns. Do the homeowners or tenants have the money or space to pave a wider driveway? she asked. As the chairwoman of the American Rescue Plan steering committee, Cortez is focused on those most impacted by the pandemic— the inner city residents and businesses. She’s been criticized, even called a racist, but is convinced the federal guidelines back her interpretation.
Republican challenger Gonzalez owns Broad Street Pizza and lives nearby with his wife Guadalupe and their three children.
“Being a Meriden resident all my life, I’ve seen a lot of change that’s not so good,” Gonzalez said. “I want to see a change for the better. I see more crime, blight on sidewalks. I see a lot of blight. Owners should be accountable for these houses that are not being taken care of.”
Another priority for Gonzalez would be moving the location of the senior center, now on West Main Street. He says the current location downtown is not safe and would like to see it relocated to a green space with a courtyard for seniors to enjoy the outdoors.
Gonzalez said he’s a new voice with a new vision. He also opposed plans for a cannabis dispensary next to the existing senior center.
“It’s not the right place,’ Gonzalez said. “Who knows what clientele the dispensary is going to bring in?”
Gonzalez’s experience as a business owner puts him in a position to advocate for the many small businesses in the downtown area, he said.
“I’ve seen what’s happening,” he said. “I want to help the small businesses in Meriden. I’ve seen they’re struggling. I don’t want to see them struggle.”
Other priorities include improving city roads, public safety and backing the police, Gonzalez said.
Cordero, the Libertarian candidate, supports cannabis dispensaries and considers retail operations a rare opportunity for the city to draw traffic from neighboring towns that have enacted cannabis prohibitions. Meriden currently has a moratorium on cannabis applications until Nov. 17.
“Moratorium are silly,” Cordero said. “This puts Meriden in a unique position. If you want more businesses raise the average income of the workers. That’s when businesses will say the average person can afford that and want to open here.”
He points out that the budtenders who work the counters in cannabis dispensaries make $20 per hour.
Cordero is a 30-year-old property manager, and official in the state’s Libertarian Party.
He wants to see less red tape and more incentives to open businesses that can thrive and take the tax burden off homeowners.
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