Q & A with… Gerry Garcia
By Judie Jacobson
No, Gerry Garcia is not the reincarnated lead singer from the Grateful Dead – though he frequently wears the ties that bear his name. The 38-year old Garcia, who grew up in New Haven and will face Denise Merrill in the August 10 Democratic primary for the office of Secretary of the State, is a Latino Jew – the product of a father who hails from Puerto Rico and a Jewish mother of Austrian and Romanian descent. He holds both a BA and an MBA from Yale University, where he served as a national board member of the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, which he helped to found at Yale.
After college, Garcia ran diversity education programs for the Anti-Defamation League. He left ADL for private sector banking, and while at People’s Bank ran for New Haven’s Board of Aldermen, where he served for five years. In May 2001, he accepted a position in New York City, but later moved his financial advisory business to Connecticut to enable him to care for his terminally ill mother. Today, Garcia is a financial advisor and strategy consultant to a number of small companies. He recently married his wife Magda, who is from Poland.
The Ledger spoke recently with Garcia about his personal story and his run for the office of Secretary of the State.
Q: Tell us about your interesting background.
A: I’ve been joking that, as a candidate, I wish I was not the best kept Jewish secret in Connecticut. I am halachically Jewish and I’m very proud of my faith. My father grew up in a very poor family and moved to New Haven in the 1950s and it was there that the best thing he ever did happened – he met my mom. Mom was of Austrian Romanian and Jewish descent. My grandparents owned a bar/restaurant called Harry’s Bar and Grill that was on the corner of State and Bradley. It isn’t there anymore. I grew up on an adjacent street and am a proud product of the New Haven public schools. We were members of Congregation Mishkan Israel forever. Rabbi Brockman, who is like another father to me, confirmed me and bar mitzvahed my brother and confirmed him. One of the union heads when he met me said: “I hear you have kahones and chutzpah.”
Q: How did you develop your strong sense of Jewish identity?
A: My life changed in my sophomore year of high school when at Mishkan Israel we had an event with a BBYO group from another synagogue. It gave rise to a long time of activity in BBYO and some of my dearest friends. BBYO was so impactful and it gave rise to founding [the Jewish fraternity] AEPi at Yale. I became the highest ranked undergraduate in AEPi called undergraduate supreme governor. When I was an undergrad, I won scholarships that enabled me to go to Israel where I studied for a year at Hebrew University. I founded an a cappella group there called “Ma Pitom” – Hebrew for something like “what the heck is going on.” We got one of our songs on Israeli radio. It was an amazing year. I didn’t grow up in a family of much means. My father worked in a factory in North Haven until he retired. Israel was the first experience of my life where I got to be whole. I sometimes found myself being the Jew to the Puerto Rican and the Puerto Rican to the Jew. But in Israel you could be a Puerto Rican Jew and they were not at odds with one another. There were Jews from all over the world and it was a fascinating and a phenomenal experience.
Q: You escaped death on 9/11 – literally. Tell us about that.
A: I’m a 9/11 survivor. I had just finished my MBA and had accepted a job that had me in training on the top floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center – the first tower to get hit. We had started there in August and we were to be there through December. Then, on the Friday before 9/11 we got an email that said “beginning on Sept. 10, space has opened across the street at our headquarters…” I joke that corporate cost-cutting saved my life. So, I believe I’m here for a reason and this is the next step in that journey.
Q: Why did you return to Connecticut after working in New York?
A: I worked in banking in New York for several years and it was then that my mom’s breast cancer returned. That brought me back to Connecticut to help her in the fight of her life. She passed 18 days after voting for the last time. It’s something that I take with me as part of this race for Secretary of the State. She was of a generation and a value that said that voting should be done in person. Even though she was in tremendous pain and 18 days from dying of cancer she insisted on voting in person. The kind of voting system that I advocate is one that blends the two.
Q: Why did you decide to run for the office of Secretary of the State?
A: I joke on the campaign trail about names – you’ll notice I’m wearing a Jerry Garcia tie today, and at the convention we had Jerry Garcia ice cream handed out to everybody. When you have a name like mine you have to make fun. But I’m running for the office that is responsible for identity. People ask “what is the Secretary of the State?” It is about identity. It is the office of identity expressed politically in its most basic form – we call that a vote. It is who you are. It’s the one place in the whole state of Connecticut that knows the names and the nature of all 322,000 of our businesses and private organizations. I call it the office of “hineni.” “Hineni” is “here I am” – this is who is here; who has standing to have a voice; who has standing to do business. Those are the two functions that the secretary of the state’s office is responsible for.
I’m running to do the job of secretary of the state – I think I bring something unique to that office – as a Puerto Rican Jew – as someone with the life experience that I’ve had – as someone with a particular eye to what that office could be. I bring an MBA to that office and, again, it’s the business registry. I want to use the data that that office has to export out timely, useful and actionable information to our businesses because one of the things that I do is I consult to small businesses, and I’m trying to get some companies to move to Connecticut.
This is, historically, an activist office – an office where people go to reform. It’s not the place to go at the end of your career to cap off your 20+ years in the General Assembly. It’s a place to go when you’ve got some real excitement to do something. The next logical step in Connecticut’s evolution, in terms of the Secretary of the State’s office, is early voting and same-day registration, and to evolve the business services recording division into something that’s more pro-active and partners with business more than merely collects fees; and serves to help guide business in accessing the resources they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.