Bridgeport state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago dies at 45
BRIDGEPORT — Alma Maya has known state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago since he was a little boy.
Like so many other friends, colleagues and family members, Maya, a former town clerk and Latino political leader, was struggling Friday with Santiago’s death overnight from an apparent heart attack. He was 45.
“I’m really devastated. It’s hard for me to talk about,” Maya said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t understand. He seemed really healthy. ... All of a sudden he’s just gone.”
“He was a great guy. An up-and-coming leader in our community,” Maya said.
Santiago served in the House of Representatives for more than a decade. He recently became chairman of the city’s all-Democratic legislative delegation and was helping to lead the ongoing fight to build a casino in town.
His friend and colleague, state Rep. Chris Rosario, considered Santiago a mentor.
“I felt they took the floor from underneath me,” Rosario said after learning the news. “I talk to Zeke two or three times a day. I’m heartbroken.”
From City Hall, where he worked in the Department of Public Facilities, to the state Capitol in Hartford and to federal government, fellow lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — were stunned.
Mayor Joe Ganim called Santiago “a dear man and friend who will be missed by all who knew him. All of us in Bridgeport and across the state will feel the loss.”
There was a moment of silence for Santiago at 4 p.m. at the downtown government center.
Gov. Ned Lamont ordered flags be flown at half-staff in Santiago’s honor.
According to the Secretary of the State, once that office is notified of Santiago’s death in a letter from the Bridgeport Town Clerk, Lamont has 10 days to call for a special election to fill the vacancy. The election will then be scheduled for 46 days later.
State House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, wrote in a joint statement posted on Santiago’s legislative website: “Our hearts are broken. We will miss his strong, quiet leadership. We will miss his friendship.
State Sen. Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Santiago “never let partisan politics get in the way of conversation and progress (and) earned the respect of everyone he crossed paths with.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Santiago had a “great heart” and was “an accomplished public servant of even greater promise.”
Even Rodney Butler and James Gessner, the respective chairmen of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Indian tribes that operate Connecticut’s two casinos in the southeastern section — and who have sometimes been at odds with Bridgeport over building a third gaming destination there — mourned Santiago’s death.
“Time and again he showed just how deep (his) conviction ran by working hard and doing right by his community,” they said.
Born in Camden, N.J., and raised in Bridgeport’s South End, Santiago first served on the City Council before being elected to represent the 130th District in the state House of Representatives. That district is made up of the South End and downtown Bridgeport.
Santiago was related to two influential Bridgeport Democrats — Americo Santiago, his father, who a few years ago retired to Puerto Rico, and stepfather Mitch Robles. In fact, Santiago’s online legislative biography notes “he began his political career as a volunteer on his father’s political campaigns for state Representative and Secretary of State, and assisting his step father with many local campaigns.”
Santiago was one of the quieter representatives from Bridgeport and not one to often make news or seek publicity. But more recently, he had been at the forefront of the battle to win legislative approval for a Bridgeport-based casino on the harbor.
“I like to think of myself as quietly effective,” Santiago told Hearst Connecticut Media in November, after he was chosen by Rosario and the rest of the Bridgeport delegation to lead that group for the current 2019 legislative session.
“One of my tasks is to make sure we work together as a team — that the Senators and House (members) are on the same page and know what each other is doing so we can support each other’s efforts,” Santiago said.
Andres Ayala of Bridgeport, who served in the House of Representatives and the state Senate, said, “It’s not like he would do things, have it trumpeted, pound himself on the chest. He just did the work.”
Former Mayor Bill Finch recalled Santiago as being a strong supporter of his administration’s efforts to turn Bridgeport, a former manufacturing hub, into a leader in the so-called green economy and in conservation efforts.
“With all the things people think about Bridgeport that are not complimentary, he cut through a lot of that and made a lot of friends at the Capitol,” Finch said. “He had a very gentle, unassuming way about him and cared about the outcome of his work — that he could move the football down the field for Bridgeport.”
Santiago was also a chairman of the Banking Committee and sat on the Appropriations and Commerce committees.
Freshman state Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, co-chaired the Banking Committee with Santiago.
“Zeke was the kindest, warmest person I’ve met at the Capitol,” Bergstein said Friday. “He was always calm, considerate and collaborative. He listened to everyone and cared deeply about all human beings. ... On a personal note, he was very supportive of me and pulled me aside on several occasions to say I was doing a great job. I considered him a mentor and friend and will miss him every day.”
State Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, the Banking Committee’s ranking Republican member, said he was “devastated.”
“I found him to be a thoughtful and reasonable man, and a pleasure to work with,” Berthel said. “My prayers are with him, his family, and the people of Bridgeport.”
Bridgeport City Council President Aidee Nieves said, “We’ve lost an advocate, a strong Latino leader for the city, who dedicated much of his life to public service. It is a profound loss to the city — a young man with such great talent and compassion for the residents.”
Nieves added that Santiago and Rosario made a good team in Hartford.
“He helped Chris a lot ... to grow,” Nieves said, since Santiago was a legislator before Rosario. “But Chris helped him grow, reviving his passion, I think. (Santiago has) been there, but he felt more passionate. He had a team to fight with him.”
“I don’t know how many people realize just how effective he and Chris were up in the Capitol,” Finch added.
Ayala said, “I really did see a change in him with the last couple of legislative sessions, moving toward the forefront.”
Besides fighting for a Bridgeport casino, Santiago sponsored several pending bills, including to legalize the sale of marijuana, raise the minimum wage, require employers provide mandatory paid sick leave, and to increase the criminal penalties for street racing.
State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said they spoke Thursday about legislation to aid the University of Bridgeport’s naturopathy programs.
“He has been leading the way on this important issue for over five years and we will continue that fight,” Moore said. “He will be missed.”
Rosario said Santiago was enthusiastic about the current legislative session.
“He was in such good spirits,” he said.