In 1998, Santa Mendoza turned to the Yale Women’s Campaign School for help in unseating the two-term attorney general, Richard Blumenthal. The advice she was given hit hard: Change your name.
“Get rid of it,” she was told. “Your husband’s name is Shelburne? Use that. Get rid of that Mendoza — get it out of here.”
Mendoza laughs as she tells this story. Sitting in her West Hartford home, she flashes her brown eyes as if to say, “Can you believe it?” The tall, dark-haired 49-year-old with the wholesome appearance and winsome smile went down in history as the first Hispanic to run for state office in Connecticut. She didn’t win — she finished with 26 percent of the vote — but that wasn’t the whole point. “I was doing it to get a message out in the Hispanic community,” she says. “We can accomplish things.”
The message got out. State Rep. Evelyn Mantilla, a Puerto Rican from Hartford and the first Latina to serve as deputy majority leader for the Connecticut House of Representatives, calls her a role model. “Although we do not share party affiliation, I thought she did a courageous thing, ran a strong campaign and broke a lot of ground for Latina women,” Mantilla says.
Mendoza is known as an aggressive lawyer who speaks frankly and extends a hand to fellow Hispanics whenever she can. She translates. She interprets. She goes to court with those needing help navigating the system. “If it’s a case where I can see a result, I’m there,” she says.
When she was a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), Mendoza met a man who was outraged at receiving a state tax bill for $30,000. He ran a mom-and-pop floor-refinishing business. Paying the exorbitant tax would have bankrupted him.
According to Mendoza, the state had interpreted a current law and deemed floor refinishing a taxable service — equivalent to painting. “When is stripping wood and putting a finish and shine on it painting?” asks Mendoza. “The state was going to every floor refinisher thinking, ‘We have a cash cow here. We can go to all of them and collect money.’”
Mendoza convinced the Connecticut Department of Revenue that this wasn’t a taxable service. “That was a triumph,” she says.
Mendoza met her law partner, Frank Liberty, while they both worked at the firm Suisman Shapiro. “We busted loose, me and Frankie,” Mendoza says about the two of them setting up their partnership, Liberty Law Firm, in New London in January 2005. Susan Phillips, another Suisman attorney, joined them. “Liberty is such a cool name,” Mendoza says. “First it’s [Frank’s] name. Then it’s liberty — libertad in Spanish — for our own practice.”
She works on a combination of commercial, corporate and tax cases in addition to championing pro bono causes. Liberty marvels at his colleague’s tenacity in taking on cases that affect the disadvantaged.
“The process of law is always about affecting someone’s rights,” says Liberty. “The problem is when you’re talking about someone who is helpless. I hear people talk about equal access to justice, but it just isn’t true … it takes a certain stomach for this kind of work, which she has.”
Mendoza seems to thrive on difficult cases. She’s reunited a 12-year-old orphan with her stepsister, assisted a Spanish-speaking woman with a divorce from her husband in the Dominican Republic, and represented a baby in court, which was particularly wrenching. In that case an injured infant, a boy less than 6 months old, was removed from his home and placed in the care of a Spanish-speaking foster family. When the parents wanted the boy back, the court appointed Mendoza to speak for the baby. “He’s doing fine now, he’s in a good situation,” Mendoza reports, noting that confidentiality issues preclude her from giving further details. “He doesn’t quite talk yet, and I’m still his lawyer.”
Most of her work is in New London, which is a 50-minute drive from where she lives with her husband and 16-year-old son; she also has a daughter in college. New London has a rapidly growing Hispanic population (20 percent according to the 2000 U.S. census) that looks to Mendoza for leadership. She serves on the board of directors for United Way of Southeast Connecticut and Centro de la Comunidad, a social-service agency that offers education, job assistance and family services.
Born to Ruben and Santa Mendoza — a Mexican-born father and Italian-born mother — Mendoza grew up in Norwalk. From her father, a physician who generously served the Hispanic community, Mendoza learned the rewards of public service. She idolized her dad, but couldn’t envision becoming a physician. “I saw law as a service profession and that appealed to me,” she says.
In 1984, Mendoza graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law and subsequently worked as a tax specialist for what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers. After the birth of her children, Mendoza stayed home and occasionally took on a few legal projects. In 1997, she worked for CBIA, a statewide business association with approximately 10,000 member companies, and joined Suisman Shapiro in 2000.
“I love anything that’s defeating the oppressors,” she says of her crusading spirit, which blends law, human rights and politics. “I’m a Rudy Giuliani type of Republican — a bleeding-heart Republican through and through.”
Bill Clinton’s presidency awakened Mendoza’s political passions. She wasn’t a fan. She began writing letters to the editor against his policies. Lots of them. She wrote so many letters — on school choice, desegregation and Bosnia — that the local newspaper had to limit her to one letter every six months. Not to be stopped, she recruited other moms into signing and submitting her letters. “One day there were three letters written by me in the newspaper,” she says while smiling.
She joined the local Republican Party and ran the West Hartford Board of Education campaign. When she saw Gov. John G. Rowland at public functions, she’d buttonhole him and ask, “Why aren’t you doing something about desegregating Hartford’s schools or offering more school choice?” “I wasn’t much for chit-chat,” she says.
In 1995, when Rowland made appointments to the Education Improvement Panel, he chose Mendoza. The governor formed the panel in response to the Connecticut Supreme Court decision (Sheff v. O’Neil) that Hartford’s schools were too segregated. Panelists set out to find remedies.
“Rowland knew I wasn’t shy about my opinions, and he liked that,” she says. The next thing she knew, the governor asked her to run on the Republican ticket as a candidate for attorney general.
“This was a big decision, because I was afraid I would be humiliated,” says Mendoza. Both she and Rowland knew it would take a miracle for her to beat Blumenthal, “an 800-pound gorilla of an attorney general,” she says. So why do it? “No Hispanic had ever run statewide in Connecticut for anything,” says Mendoza. Her friends at the Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association urged her to run.
But Mendoza worried about being a “token Hispanic.” She talked with Sonia Sotomayor, the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a U.S. Circuit Court judge.
“What do you do when you feel used, but at the same time you want to reflect well on the Spanish community?” Mendoza asked her. Sotomayor told her to grab those opportunities because it’s important for the Hispanic community to see Hispanic judges, attorneys and politicians, to know that they’re part of the legal system.
“She was tremendously helpful to me,” says Mendoza. “I haven’t looked back.”
Campaigning for attorney general, Mendoza pledged to focus on neglected children, unpaid child support and poorly performing schools. Although she lost, she takes pride in voicing her opinions. Looking back on the experience, she says, “I had the time of my life.”
Today she continues to be an outspoken advocate for the causes that are dear to her. One outlet is The Connecticut Law Tribune, in which she writes a column. She also serves on the board of directors for the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and the National Hispanic Bar Association.
Her role in the latter brought her recently to the White House to meet Alberto Gonzales, former special counsel to the president and current attorney general. Mendoza explained to Gonzales that she had clients who wanted to get green cards, and clients who wanted to hire people with green cards, but that the process takes four years. Why so long? “We’ll look into it,” he told her.
Who knows if anything will come from the brief encounter, but what is important to Mendoza is that she was able to communicate her concerns directly to someone in power. That’s how change begins, she says. People can complain that they don’t like politics, but complacency changes nothing. It may sound as if Mendoza is launching her next campaign, but she quickly downplays the notion.
“I’d never say ‘never,’ but if I run again for anything I’ll probably have to move out of Connecticut,” she says, pointing out that she’s red in a blue state. “I don’t know if Connecticut is ready for a Santa Mendoza.”