“I told them you just can’t be quiet, you can’t just sit back and not try to intervene politically,” she said. “Because being silent and being absent from the work is just as bad as being the ones who are actively abusing their power.”
Cortez, 42, was born and raised in Meriden and has spent the last 18 years working for the state Department of Children and Families, She never imagined she’d one day hold public office, but when the opportunity opened up following the resignation of Miguel Castro, she was inspired by the national unrest to follow her own advice to her children and step up.
“If you had asked me six months ago if I would be in a position like this, I would have said ‘You got the wrong girl, that’s not really my thing,’” she said.
Cortez, sworn in this past week to serve out the rest of Castro’s term, is “excited and grateful” to be coming on as the council begins discussions about a number of proposed policing and racial equality reforms introduced following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I feel that I’m in a really good position to bring the voice of people who may be underrepresented,” said Cortez, who’s Hispanic. She will be representing Area 1, which covers the inner city, and she wants to engage with minority communities and make sure their voices are heard in discussions about reforms.
“My district has a large population of black and brown people,” she said. “And I think it’s really important that I give them the opportunity to bring their voices to the table.”
Cortez attended a recent rally organized locally by a group of young people in response to Floyd’s killing and hopes to pull in more members of the community to get involved and participate in town meetings as a councilor.
“To be there with them and be a part of that was just incredible,” Cortez said about the rally. “And to be able to offer them support and guidance as they continue to do that work, I can’t imagine a greater honor.”
Working 18 years in child protection, Cortez said she’s seen firsthand the racial disparities that exist among children and families in the system. Cortez started at DCF in 2002 as a social worker and has moved up the ranks to become a children and families program supervisor. Her current job puts her in charge of overseeing budgets and state-funded contracts with mental health providers, experience that she believes aligns well with her three council subcommittee assignments — Human Services, Finance, and Public Safety.
“I think the commonality is understanding the role of government in terms of helping and supporting families, especially those that are impoverished,” she said about how her work at DCF translates.
Cortez, a city native and graduate of Platt High School, pursued a career in social work because she said she excels at connecting and empathizing with people experiencing pain and trauma. “I am a natural-born social worker. It’s kind of just in my blood,” she said.
Protesters against police violence rallied on the Meriden Green earlier this month. | File photo.
Council Majority Leader David Lowell said he was impressed with Cortez’s “sincerity in wanting to become involved in local community issues and serve the community.”
“She approaches it with a genuine interest in community service,” he said.
Because Cortez’s work at DCF has required her to adapt and react to rapidly changing circumstances, Lowell added he’s confident she’ll be a “quick study” and acclimate well.
Cortez was nominated to replace Castro, who resigned this month in light of recent domestic violence charges, by the Democratic Town Committee and the City Council unanimously voted to approve her appointment this week. Under the City Charter, she is allowed to serve out Castro’s term, which expires at the end of 2021.
Unlike other levels of government that require a special election to fill a mid-term vacancy of an elected office, the City Charter puts the City Council in charge of making appointments to fill council vacancies and stipulates the replacement must be from the same political party as the outgoing councilor.
Cortez said she imagines it will take some time to learn the ins and outs of being a councilor, but said she’s most focused on walking the streets and hearing from constituents.
“I have some ideas about some things that could make our district better, but I don’t pretend to know all of them. So that will be the focus of my work in the beginning. If there’s anything I feel a little bit behind on, it’s that,” Cortez said.
She recalled getting her first political experience working on one of former state Rep. Chris Donovan’s old campaigns as a middle schooler growing up in Meriden. Her brother, a 17-year-old high school student at the time, was helping run Donovan’s campaign and recruited some of his peers, including his younger sister, to help out.
“There were probably dozens of us who would get off the bus, get driven and dropped off at (Democratic party headquarters), and we would work there after school and we would knock on doors and make phone calls,” she recalled. Cortez and her friends at the time had “no idea what we were doing,” and now, as a mother, Cortez wants her children to better understand the impact they can have.
“I had this gift and this opportunity at the time that I didn’t appreciate and didn’t realize,” she said. “And I want (my children) to become just as involved, and I’m hoping that they understand the impact that they’re making. So I would say that that experience definitely shaped my understanding of the importance of getting involved in politics. Remembering that, talking to the kids about that, and then being asked to take this position, it just kind of all came together.”