NORWALK, Conn. – As if Eloisa Melendez didn’t have homework enough, she’s now expecting a thick packet of information every two weeks from Norwalk’s city clerk, as well as regular reams of paperwork stuffed with statistics.
Melendez, just 19 years old, is scheduled to be sworn in Tuesday to the Common Council after handily winning election in District A. She will be the youngest council member in 36 years, and one of only two Latino elected officials in this diverse city.
Not bad for a Norwalk Community College student.
“It was like running for president,” said Melendez, a Democrat. “My friends were just so proud of me.”
“I’m real excited there is a 19-year-old person on the council,” said Town Clerk Rick McQuaid, who began a life in politics by passing out leaflets as a teenager. “That shows that the town isn’t going to grow old and not be able to handle things. I hope she sticks with it.”
Melendez said she ran because she loves Norwalk as much as anyone.
“It’s where I want to live,” she said. “So even though I am young, I know that in 10 to 15 years, when I want to raise a family, I want to raise it here. So I got involved because I want to make sure that I can.”
The teen, who thinks she might study communications at the University of Connecticut in Stamford after graduating from NCC, got into politics through a family friend, Warren Peña, who was elected to the council in 2011. Peña introduced her to fellow Democrat David Watts, District A chairman.
“A lot of people were a little skeptical at first, but when they meet her they are pretty amazed that, at 19, she has a good head on her shoulders,” Watts said. “She is ready to roll. This is someone that Warren and I both recruited and worked on for a year to mentor. So she has been in the background for a year.”
Peña didn’t win re-election this year, and two Latino Board of Education candidates fell short, leaving BOE member Migdalia Rivas and the not-yet-20-year-old Melendez – who counts sledding at West Rocks Middle School as one of her favorite things about Norwalk – as far as Latinos are concerned.
Many people see her as a representative of Norwalk’s youth as well.
“In all honesty, I represent District A,” she said. “I represent red, blue, young and old. … Being Latina is very important to have on council because there’s so many Hispanics here. So obviously other Hispanics don’t even speak English that well, they’d feel more comfortable speaking with me about an issue, which is important because there are so many here. I know who I represent, but obviously as a Latina they feel more comfortable speaking with me about certain things.”
A Hartford political operative said this could be the beginning of a bright career in government for the young Norwalker.
Sean Arena grew up in Norwalk and was elected to the Common Council in 1977 as a 19-year-old, swept in with Mayor Bill Collins and an “incredible group of people” that included Donna King, now nominated to be city clerk.
“It actually changed my entire life because I got thrown in with a mix of people who were anywhere between 20 to 50 years older than me and it was a major learning experience,” Arena said. “… There’s no reason she can’t work her way to the top position.”
Arena moved to Hartford from Norwalk 13 years ago and served on the Democratic Town Committee there from 2005 to 2012. He is a member of the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee.
Melendez said people are asking her if she’s working to become a state representative or a senator.
“I really have no idea, because right now my focus is Norwalk. That’s what I want to do,” she said. “So people are like, well, what’s your dream? To become president? I mean, you’re starting so young. I’m like no, my dream is to have my own talk show.”
Watts said she is a credit to Norwalk.
“I think people are going to be shocked when she gets into her committee meetings and when she gets on the council floor,” he said. “I think they’re going to say, ‘You know what? This is Norwalk and this is a product of the Norwalk school system. We should be proud.’ I am. I am going to be rooting for her like I would be rooting for anybody to succeed.”