For Republican Jack Martins, an Immigrant Story Worth Telling

Jack Martins (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Jack Martins (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Jack Martins, a three-term New York State Senator, often has his breakfast at “Portugalia,” a bakery owned by Portuguese immigrants, a few blocks away from his office in Mineola, Long Island.

Two weeks ago, Martins, 49, was there, having an espresso after a morning full of meetings, while some hosts of the Portuguese channel RTP went on about the soccer game of the day before, in which the national team had beaten Wales to advance to the Euro Cup final.

Martins had watched the match, and, two days later, would cheer Portugal on as it beat France, in Paris, to win the tournament. “As the child of immigrants, I share the pride my parents feel watching the country they emigrated from winning the European Cup,” he said.

Martins is currently the Republican candidate for Congress in the 3rd District. For the last 15 years, the district has been a Democratic stronghold, but Rep. Steve Israel is retiring at the end of his term, and Democrat Thomas R. Suozzi, a former county executive of Nassau County, is running for the seat. Martins believes he can win the race, and so does the GOP, which just booked $1.1 million in cable TV advertising on his behalf.

The candidate is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from northern Portugal. His father, António, came to America in 1963 with a few dollars in his pocket, found work in construction, learned the trade and eventually opened a small business. Starting with “a wheelbarrow and two shovels” he built the business into a company that, to this day, provides services in New York’s five boroughs and throughout the tri-state area. It was never in António’s plans for little Jack, or any of his four children, to become a politician.

“We were a typical immigrant family. The priorities were on work, education and providing opportunities for the children,” the candidate remembers. “That’s the environment I grew up with, in a community of Portuguese immigrants who had the same priorities. My family wasn’t involved in politics.”

Martins first ran for public office at the age of 35. A St. John’s University School of Law graduate, he had his own law practice, and was the father of four girls. The son of an immigrant family narrative served him well in that first campaign for mayor of Mineola. Portuguese and Portuguese-Americans made up the majority of the town’s population and were having a political awakening.

“Recent immigrants sometimes think of their communities as someone else’s,” Martins says. “The truth is that the transition, when they go ‘this is my community, I am participating, and I’m going to have an active voice in government’, is a very important one.”

Manuel Carvalho, owner of the Portuguese barbecue restaurant Churrasqueira Bairrada, was among his early supporters. “I had known him since he was very young. He was my lawyer before getting into politics,” Carvalho explains. “But that had nothing to do with why I support him.”

Carvalho says he “liked his posture, very results oriented” since their first conversations about politics. “He turned out to be a very good mayor. He helped to build the train overpass, and significantly improved the finances of the city, which had a great impact.”

The Portuguese community in the United States, like many others, traditionally leans Democratic; but Martins’ parents were always Republican, and he registered with the party at a very young age. He believes the GOP is the natural home for immigrants. “I think personal initiative has always been part of the American dream, and of the immigrants’ journey as well. That you allow anyone who comes from anywhere to set his priorities on education, hard work, and to succeed – it’s an issue fundamental to the Republican Party.”

If Martins wins the 3rd District, which includes parts of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens counties, he will represent an affluent area with a mixed recent immigrant community. On one side, the Asian population rose 54 percent between the years 2000 and 2010. Martins says he “enjoyed a strong working relationship with the Asian-American community throughout the Senate district, including Great Neck,” and that he welcomes their support now.

On the other hand, Long Island currently has the fifth largest Central American community in the country and it received the third largest number of refugee children. For the past couple of years, schools in Westbury, Hempstead, and other districts refused to register hundreds of these children. While some elected officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties tried to stigmatize the young refugees, many Long Islanders reached out to help them. Martins believes “immigrants should be welcomed with open arms, but they should also go through the proper process and enter this country legally.” He also says that “hate is decidedly un-American.”

“People don’t leave everything they know – their country, their families, their friends – to travel to another part of the world, where they might not know anybody, to set up shop and get public assistance,” he argues. “They do it so they can work and, through their hard work, provide opportunities for themselves and their families. I think that’s very consistent with Republican ideals.”

Last week, the GOP convened in Cleveland, Ohio, where Donald J. Trump accepted the nomination to be the presidential candidate. The New York billionaire promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and has used strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. Martins didn’t attend the event, but he’s voting for Trump.

“I will vote for my party’s nominee. [But] I run by myself and run my own campaign. I don’t embrace anyone else and certainly no one else speaks for me,” the candidate says. “There will be issues in which I’ll disagree with Trump, and there are issues in which my opponent may or may not disagree with Clinton. But the party isn’t running. I am.”

Martins switches to Portuguese (it was his first language, and he speaks it fluently) to discuss the “very populous, and very powerful, movement” that he thinks is behind the success of candidates like Trump and Sanders. He says no one should look down on it, or, even worse, ignore it.

“People are anxious, concerned, and some of them angry, at the lack of progress government has shown addressing issues that are important to them. Things languish and decisions aren’t made even when everyone agrees we’re heading in the wrong direction and need change,” he says.

One of the things he believes should be easy to fix, for example, is to pass legislation that would prevent individuals on the federal government’s no-fly list from purchasing firearms. Martins believes such things are being made impossible by “a hyper-partisan bent to Washington” that “has only gotten worse” in the last eight years.

The state of New York, he argues, has set a good example. “Over the course of the last six years, the period I have been in the Senate, we had historic accomplishments. The Republican-controlled Senate was able to work with a Democratic governor, a Democratic Assembly and get things done.”

Martins has long outgrown the Portuguese community. His first race, for which these immigrants were crucial, was in a town with about 20,000 residents. The population in his Senate district was around 320,000. In the congressional district, which no longer includes his hometown of Mineola, there are around 710,000 people. Still, the message he’ll share in his campaign, he says, will be the same he’s been telling all along.

“This is our story. I’m the son of immigrants, a business owner, a husband, and the father of four daughters,” he says. “And that story didn’t change in the last 14 years. And it’s not going to change. The only difference is our resume has grown.”

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