Local political races heat up
The presidential contest isn’t the only election that holds intrigue in Connecticut.
All 36 seats in the state Senate and 151 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs Nov. 3, with several closely contested races in the Farmington Valley.
At stake are two-year terms of, notably, how lawmakers will steer the state through Connecticut’s challenging financial, health and social issues.
After a brief shift in the balance of power in the state Senate from 2016-18, when there was an 18-18 split after years of Democratic control, the Democrats regained the majority 23-13 by gaining five seats in the 2018 election.
That margin was winnowed to 22-14 from the special elections that resulted when various lawmakers were appointed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.
In the House, the Democrats also have a clear majority (91-60) over their Republican counterparts.
Farmington Valley voters will have a hand in deciding three state Senate seats (the 5th, 6th and 8th districts), and four House of Representative seats (the 16th, 17th, 19th and 21st districts).
The Valley Press reached out to every Republican and Democratic candidate in the Farmington Valley to hear why they’re running, what they believe are the important issues facing the state, the challenges of campaigning amid the pandemic and what messages they want delivered to voters.
8th Senate District
One of the most hotly contested races in the area is between Republican incumbent Kevin Witkos and Democratic challenger Melissa Osborne.
They’re certainly familiar opponents, having run against each other in 2014 and 2018, races that Witkos, who works for Eversource in community relations and economic development, won by 27 points and 13 points, respectively.
This year, Witkos, the Republican deputy minority leader, is running for his seventh term in the Senate in a district that includes Norfolk, Hartland, Canton, Simsbury, New Hartford, Avon, Barkhamsted, Colebrook and portions of Granby, Harwinton and Torrington. A retired police officer, he previously served as a state representative as well as on the Canton Board of Education.
He says the pandemic and resulting impact it has had on the state’s finances compelled him to run again, as the state needs people experienced in the budget-making process to usher Connecticut through a challenging time.
“We need experienced leadership,” he said, adding the budget surplus that resulted from the 18-18 tie in the Senate will “evaporate” this year.
He says getting through the public health crisis is also paramount, noting he did not like Lamont’ extending his emergency powers for another five months through February 2021.
“We don’t have any information he’s basing it on,” Witkos said. “That’s very concerning to me when you have thousands of people on forced unemployment because the state is not allowing businesses to reopen. I think we need a total overhaul of that whole process.”
Witkos added the Department of Labor needs to update its computer systems to the 21st century to expedited unemployment claims.
Connecticut also needs to continue to recruit and retain high-tech businesses and be more business friendly, Witkos said.
“We need to stop the mandates on businesses,” he said. “We haven’t even gotten to the $15 minimum wage and people want to pass a living wage, which is $23 an hour. We’ve got to stop that. That sends the wrong signal to businesses.
“We’re perfectly situated between New York and Boston. And with COVID we’ve seen an influx of people and I’m just waiting to see what our tax revenues are on the personal income side.”
Witkos said the state doesn’t need to raise taxes and needs to continue to find efficiencies.
Other major issues are the getting a deal done for recycling and waste for the 51 towns that are served by MIRA, as well as wildlife management, particularly with bears in the Farmington Valley and Litchfield County, he said.
Witkos says he has gotten creative this year while campaigning, bifurcating the race into two elections: Oct. 2 (the day absentee ballots go out) and Nov. 3 (the date of in-person voting).
He’s opened a campaign “victory” headquarters and has a mobile billboard driving home his message. He attended BLM rallies in Avon and Canton (“we need to hold bad actors in police work accountable”), though he says he has not followed the national political scene.
He did not support the police accountability bill that passed the General Assembly in the summer, saying, among other things, it was too broad and vague, leaving open the possibility, for example, of police officers not being insured because of too many lawsuits being filed against them, regardless of the legal actions’ merits.
Osborne, an attorney, said she decided to run because she sees a changing political landscape in the district. She says bluntly that Witkos no longer shares the same values the residents in the 8th District share.
“This is not about him as person,” she said. “He’s a really nice guy but his votes are not what you’d expect from the man you meet. The thing that caught my eye and catalyzed me is he voted against a bill that would provide emergency contraception for rape victims in hospitals. This is not a man who shares the values of the people in this district."
She cited Witkos’ votes against a ban on allowing children under the age of 16 to possess semiautomatic weapons, a ban on bump stocks and a measure to remove firearms from someone who has recently had a domestic violence restraining order against them.
“Those votes don’t suggest he shares the values of the district that we share,” she said.
Osborne said campaigning during the pandemic has been difficult, but she also says everyone is struggling with the fallout from COVID-19.
She noted that her place of work - the court system - has been effectively closed for the past six months. Clients of hers are suffering because they are unable to resolve issues that require a judge and they’re also experiencing economic impacts.
She only started door-knocking in September, and she said she’s surprised the number of people who are happy to see her and her fellow candidates.
To make up for the fewer number people she sees in person, she has significantly increased phone calls to voters.
She says people in the Farmington Valley as a whole are receptive and supportive of the BLM movement.
“That’s extraordinarily important that for the first time in history a civil rights movement is also coming from people who are not adversely affected,” she said. “White people are saying enough is enough. Almost as a result, it doesn’t make it a divisive campaign issue for us.”
She says she would have voted for the police accountability bill, understanding the concerns municipalities have over the potential for increased litigation.
“There are probably things that need tweaking,” she said. (The legislature convened a special session this past week; the police accountability bill was not on the agenda). “It’s something that needs to be addressed in full session: a methodical, steadfast, deep dive into the issue.”
She said the biggest issue is with the removal of qualified immunity, noting that municipalities are the ones who hire and train and employ police officers and, therefore, are in the best position to deter bad apples from acting in bad ways.
“My opinion of the bill this summer is there is still work that needs to be done. but this was a moment in time and far greater injustices have occurred to Black and brown in people in this country than the costs of frivolous litigation, and it was a moment that could not pass us by.”
Top priorities in the state include economic recovery, which was needed before the pandemic hit, she said, as well as tackling “the behemoth that is Eversource” as well as Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, Osborne added.
She said Witkos has been at the Capitol for a combined 18 years and nothing “suggests he has the answers to economic recovery.”
As for Eversource, Osborne said Connecticut has one of the highest rates of electricity in the country as well as one of the poorest responses to major storms. She said she wants to take a holistic view of how energy is generated and provided in the state, something, she contended, Witkos won’t do as an employee of Eversource.
“Our district does not have a voice on energy,” she said. “We are being held hostage by a monopoly that exists with a right to profit even when it’s doing a bad job. Even during a year when we don’t have a bad storm, we have still been voiceless in our district.”
Witkos said he takes each bill on its merits, and has contended that Osborne misrepresents his voting record.
He also waved off Osborne’s claims on energy, saying PURA sets electricity rates.
“She’s been running against me for five years,” he said. “I’m doing the job. I’m doing it well. I’ve worked harder this year than ever, which had to with COVID and other issues. … Melissa would rather just attack me and associate me with President Trump and Eversource energy.”
Further, Witkos said when PURA suspended a rate-hike increase over the summer, he wrote testimony to repeal the increase.
“I always put my constituents first,”
he said. “I’m one of 9,000 employees [of Eversource]. I don’t set the rates. PURA does.”
Osborne, however, said energy rates is a massive issue not just to individual consumers, but to businesses as well.
“It’s one of the biggest economic barriers to businesses and people in state,” she said. “As part-time legislators, we need to maintain jobs outside the legislature. I still will. But we need to make sure our employment outside the legislature doesn’t keep us from doing job we need to do inside the legislature.”
Osborne works as a mediator and said she has a proven record of helping solve large, complex legal and financial problems while practicing law. She’s served as a volunteer on Simsbury’s Charter Revision Commission, Clean Energy Task Force and is currently a Zoning Alternate. She’s also served as the vice chair of the Child Welfare and Juvenile Law Committee of the Connecticut Bar Association and on the legislative subcommittee of its family law section.
“I am a qualified, competent, professional individual who has run a successful law practice,” she said. “I can help take parties who are at opposite polar ends and come together and settle cases. That’s what we need in Hartford. At end of the day, I’m not one to start the fight, but I’m one to absolutely finish it if I have to as a litigator.”
6th Senate District
In what’s sure to be a closely watched race, incumbent Republican Genarro Bizzarro will face state Rep. Rick Lopes in a rematch of the February 2019 special election for the 6th Senate District seat that Bizzarro won 53% to Lopes’ 47%.
The 6th District covers New Britain, Berlin and a small portion of Farmington.
The 2019 special election, which was marked by low voter turnout (just over 7,315 votes were cast in that election. By comparison, 30,000 votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election) was necessitated when longtime state Sen. Terry Gerratana vacated her seat to take a position with the Lamont administration. (This is the seat Republicans flipped to cut the majority from 23-13 to 22-14 in the Senate).
Bizzarro, an attorney, says the state is at “crossroads.”
“Now, more than ever, we need legislators who understand the challenges faced by working middle-class families, small business owners, and overburdened taxpayers,” he said. “I have been a warrior for the forgotten middle-class families of Connecticut, and I will continue to fight for them in Hartford.”
The biggest issue, according to both candidates is the pandemic and the resulting economic impact on the state. Bizzarro also said how the state educates its children during the pandemic is also a major issue “COVID-19 and the economy will continue to dominate our daily lives for the foreseeable future,” Bizzarro said.
“Even prior to the pandemic, Connecticut was bleeding both jobs and population, and our state’s economy was flat. But now the combination of crushing long-term debt and the financial fallout from COVID-19 is projected to yield a multi-billion-dollar hole in next year’s state budget. Once the November election is over, you won’t have to wait very long for the conversation in Hartford to once again turn to higher taxes and highway tolls.
“In the near term, we need to figure out a better way to handle education in the face of COVID. Education has always been the key to the American dream, but COVID is threatening to slam that door shut for so many. Teachers are understandably scared, parents are confused, and students are lost. We have to make sure that schools and families get the resources that they need so that none of our children are left behind.”
Bizzarro said he would “let voters decide” the differences between his and Lopes’ platforms, but that he is a proud fiscal conservative, and a “strong supporter” of law enforcement, first responders and health care professionals.
“[I am] a big believer in the American way of life,” he said. “I want a leaner, more efficient state government, and I want to put an end to the tax-and-spend mentality that has permeated the culture in Hartford for so long. My approach to the state budget is simple: spend no more than you have and borrow no more than you can afford to pay back. If we stop wasteful spending, reduce the burden on small businesses, and start keeping our promises when it comes to aiding municipalities and local school districts, we will quickly find ourselves on the road to fiscal recovery.”
Lopes said Bizzarro has “an objectionable track record” concerning policies that affect people of color (including voting against the police accountability bill that passed over the summer) and working-class residents (voting against raising the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour).
“Over the past few months, the American people have watched as people of color were murdered by law enforcement officers,” Lopes said. “Like many, I understand that this continues to happen at a much higher rate with people of color than white people and is unacceptable in our society. While I answered the call for increased oversight on law enforcement and voted in favor of the police accountability bill, my opponent did not.
“My opponent answers to a Republican party that has followed President Trump and gone further and further to the fringe of the political spectrum. … Unlike my opponent, I am in favor of a public option, because I believe health care is a human right and that no one should be deprived of it. As a father, I cannot imagine what I’d do if one of my children got seriously ill and I had no way of getting them medical treatment. We need a health care system that puts people over corporate profit.”
As for the recent social unrest, Bizzarro said politicians should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
“I just try to remind people that anger and hate cannot be overcome by more anger and hate. The flames of violence and lawlessness are being fanned by professional politicians on both sides whose only interest is winning another campaign,” he said. “With all this turbulence roiling the sea around us, I see it as my duty to be an island of common-sense and steadfastness in what I believe and what I do as the 6th District’s state senator. Where I stood yesterday is where I stand today.”
Lopes said this November’s election is a historic moment in time.
“As our President continues to mishandle the COVID crisis and deny the just calls for action from communities of color in response to police brutality, the American people are paying the ultimate price. Unfortunately, defeating Donald Trump’s agenda is going to take more than just the Democrats winning back the presidency in 2020. It’s going to take a full overhaul of all elected leaders that are committed to advancing his problematic policy initiatives, including my opponent, Gennaro Bizzarro.
“Never in my 17 years in public office have I witnessed a Democratic base so invigorated by our political climate, this helps us tremendously on the campaign trail. I hope to harness this energy at the polls and take back the sixth senate district for the working people of our community.”
Bizzarro said it’s been more difficult to connect with voters amid the pandemic, with less door knocking and campaign events.
“Fortunately, I have a pretty strong connection to my community, and I regularly see and visit with people during the normal course of both my business and my personal life so I am able to connect with many constituents even in the absence of more traditional campaigning,” he said.
Lopes has dedicated his resources and energy to mostly to making phone calls to voters.
“I have also tried to keep voters up to date by engaging more with social media, including, posting my endorsements, policy stances, and volunteer opportunities on various platforms,” he said.
5th Senate District
Democratic incumbent Derek Slap is being challenged by Farmington Republican Phillip Chabot for the 5th Senate District seat, which covers West Hartford, Burlington and most of Farmington.
Slap, a vice president at a nonprofit, is finishing his first truncated term in the Senate after defeating Farmington Republican Bill Wadsworth by 29 points in a special election in February 2019 after state Sen. Beth Bye, who won re-election in November 2018, took a position in the Lamont administration.
Slap, who served one term in state House of Representatives, said he is running for re-election because he is “committed to helping others, strengthening our state and creating a more just and fair society.”
He highlighted his legislative record during his relatively short time in office.
“I’ve been able to pass laws to help close the gender wage gap, keep illegal, untraceable guns off our streets, and lower prescription drugs costs,” Slap said. “There’s more work to do and I look forward to listening to the concerns of constituents and advocating for them in Hartford.”
Slap said even before the pandemic, strengthening the state’s economy was priority No. 1.
“Now, we must approach the next session with a focus on growing jobs and recovering from the pandemic,” he said. “Health care costs are also a big concern, as families and businesses are suffering from increasing premiums and declining coverage. I’m also committed to ensuring we address racial inequities and truly make our society a place where all people have the opportunity to thrive. Disparities in housing, education and employments – to name a few – persist and I believe Connecticut must make progress next year and beyond.
“Finally, Connecticut has made great progress to stabilize its finances over the past few years. Our bond rating has improved, the rainy-day fund is at a record high and fiscal reforms are finally in place which better position us to address long-term debt. We should continue to craft sustainable budgets, which make investments in critical infrastructure (transportation), protect the social safety net, and efficiently steward tax dollars.”
Chabot, a restauranteur and entrepreneur, said he wants to give voters in the 5th District a choice after years of Democratic dominance in the district.
“We need to look at Connecticut with a fresh set of eyes to fix the fiscal issues while capitalizing on many of Connecticut’s unique strengths,” he said. “As an owner of multiple businesses, I am very fiscally conservative and believe we should be spending less. I also would like to see less burdensome mandates on small and medium businesses that make the state less competitive in many areas of business. I believe the free market is better regulation as consumers have a very powerful voice with social media more so than ever before.”
Both candidates said the pandemic has affected the way they are campaigning.
Chabot said he is campaigning online and did not seek public funding because “there is too much money in elections.”
Slap said the pandemic has led him to spend more time on the phone and responding to emails “and helping constituents get the assistance they need.”
“Traditional phone banking and door knocking is still important but my first priority is helping families during this difficult time,” he said.
Chabot said issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election have also affected his campaign.
“Many more people are unwilling to listen or consider my position to being a Republican than my last campaign,” he said. “I do not agree with many stances national Republicans have taken but feel they are more in line with them than the Democratic party. I feel there should be more than two parties as most people don’t really align with either party that well. Since it is a presidential election there will be more voters who only focus on the national issues and will not look into local candidates as closely as they should.”
In a nod to the current political climate, Slap said people are “desperate for a return to civility in their politics and for elected leaders who understand what a pivotal time this is for not only our nation, but for Connecticut as well. This nation is dealing with a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning of racial inequality. Now is not the time for silence or to pretend that the decisions and messages coming from the White House don’t matter. I share my constituents’ concerns for our future but I’m also confident that we will turn empathy into action, that science will win out over scare tactics, and that the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to strengthen our communities.”
17th House District
One of the most intriguing House races is the rematch between incumbent Republican Leslee Hill and Democrat Eleni Kavros DeGraw.
Hill, an attorney, defeated Kavros DeGraw, a giving team coordinator for Foodshare, in 2018 by 119 votes out of nearly 12,500 that were cast.
The district has traditionally leaned Republican for years, but shifting demographics , social movements such as Black Lives Matter reaching the suburbs, and a re-energized Democratic Party in Avon and Canton, have made the race for the seat more competitive.
Hill, a former Canton First Selectman and Board of Education chair who is finishing her first term in the General Assembly, said there is a lot of work left to do at the state Capitol.
“After my first term in office, I have experienced how critical it is to for our communities to have representation at the Capitol that knows first-hand how our small towns and local schools are impacted by proposed legislation that is all too often ‘one size fits all,’” she said. “I believe Canton and Avon should continue to have representation that understands and respects that we are a community of diverse opinions, priorities, and needs. I have experience listening to these many interests and bringing a balanced approach to decision-making.”
She says the fallout from the pandemic is the No. 1 pressing issue facing the state.
“We are dealing with ongoing serious health concerns, including the extreme toll on our most vulnerable nursing home residents,” she said. “We also need to address the mental health impacts from ongoing isolation, job loss, substance abuse, and domestic violence. In education, we are seeing the toll on our students, their families, and educators. Students with special needs are losing important ground as their education plans cannot be fully implemented with remote learning. We will be dealing with the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on our state’s economy for years to come.
“The virus, compounded with the implementation of $1.9 billion in new or increased taxes, which I voted against, is having a crippling impact on the state’s economy and small businesses. Challenging decisions will need to be made in the next session to help our business community recover, resurrect vital job growth, sustain a safety net for our residents in need, and also address the state’s mounting budget deficits, significant long-term debt, and the state employee and teacher pension deficits.”
Hill says she has five key priorities if she wins another term: “I will fight tax increases, advocate for smart, transparent budget policy to reduce spending and prioritize needs, work for local control of safe, healthy public schools; support law enforcement and first responders to help keep our communities safe for all, and continue helping my constituents manage the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and communities.”
The pandemic has curtailed some of her campaigning, “but traditional methods are still possible,” she said.
“I am focusing on getting my message out by distributing literature and meeting voters while social distancing, using social media, Zoom meetings, phone calling, and mail,” she said. “The biggest challenge due to COVID-19 is time. The legislature is usually very quiet in an election year after the regular session ends in early May, but not this year. Every day, I am helping constituents deal with state agencies, such as the Department of Labor and Department of Public Health, responding to concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on their health, businesses, schools, and families, and getting important information out to my constituents. This work is my priority.”
Kavros DeGraw, meanwhile, said she is running because she came so close in 2018 and there is a lot of work to be done, which the pandemic exposed.
“The pandemic is a crisis and also an opportunity in a lot of ways,” she said. “It exposed so many systems are not working and how much work we have to do to take the state and move it forward.”
She cited the antiquated unemployment system, which runs on, for tech people, the ancient coding system Cobalt, which wasn’t built to handle the deluge of claims wrought by COVID-19.
“I’m a ‘build-a-better-mousetrap’ person,” she said. “I see something and say, yes, it might be working, but how can we do it better? That would be my approach to how things run in the state. Once I’m on committees, I’ll look to make them more efficient, get rid programs that are not working and replace them with programs [that are] even better.”
Kavros DeGraw also said she wants to be an advocate for green jobs, not only for the environment, but also to attract and retain young, residents.
“Connecticut used to lead nation in green jobs, and we should be doing it now,” she said, adding one way would be to forgive debt for graduates of state universities who remain in the state and work in green and tech jobs. Improving the environment is key, she said, noting all the work to make a strong economy doesn’t mean anything if the planet is uninhabitable.
“Not of it matters if we can’t live here,” she said. “With good environmental policies and new technologies, we’ll be able to mitigate climate change and the climate crisis we find ourselves in.”
While she has done less door-knocking (done with social distancing and masks), Kavros DeGraw said she is running a spirited campaign on social media as well as through phone banking. She is also active in community projects, social media campaigns and non-profits.
Kavros DeGraw said that Hill ran as a moderate in 2018, but voted with her Republican counterparts 96% of the time.
“Many constituents found that surprising,” she said. “I don’t plan to vote entirely with my party. I am a much more common-sense gun person. We have the 2nd Amendment, which serves for people protect themselves by arming themselves. But you have to be conscious about Mrs. Hill, who voted against the ban on ghost guns. Those guns are unserialized weapons, that can be printed in someone’s basement. It makes the entire community less safe, and less safe for law enforcement.”
(Hill contends the law had issues with constitutionality and enforcement).
In addition, Kavros DeGraw said she doesn’t believe Hill shares the same view on the environment and climate change, noting Hill voted against teaching climate change in schools.
“But I prefer to talk about what I am running for and what I am doing, not a negative campaign. There are some things she and I differ on. It is upsetting with the Republican Party. They complain there’s not a great budget, but they just propose bonding or kick the can down the road, or raiding the rainy-day fund. It’s tough to listen to that.”
Kavros DeGraw said the recent social unrest has affected the issues people bring up to her while campaigning.
“It has in terms of them bringing up different topics we didn’t talk about 2018,” she said. “Fewer people were comfortable talking about Black Lives Matter in 2018.”
But, she said, it’s a false a narrative to say if you support Black Lives Matter, you can’t support law enforcement and other first responders.
“I hope we can tear that false narrative down,” she said, adding people want good police officers who do not cause significant harm to people of color. “Regardless what you are for or against, I am grateful people are actively engaged in the discussions that affect their lives and their neighbors and friends lives.”
Democratic incumbent Mike Demicco is looking for his fifth term representing the 21st District (which is composed of most of Farmington) at the state Capitol and is squaring off against Farmington resident John Brockelman, who is running for state office for the first time.
Demicco said he is running for office with the simple notion that serving in public office “is to make peoples’ lives better.”
He says his record follows through on that credo.
“We have maintained state aid to towns and schools, protected the environment and promoted renewable energy, increased access to behavioral health and addiction services, improved accessibility for those with disabilities, increased educational opportunities and workforce development, enhanced tax exemptions for seniors, expanded insurance coverage for women, and maintained the social service safety net – all while balancing the state budget and building up the ‘rainy day’ fund to record levels,” he said.
Still, he says there is work to be done.
“I would be honored to continue representing Farmington and Unionville with compassion, fairness, and integrity,” he said.
He said the pandemic and the ancillary challenges it poses are the No. 1 issues facing the state.
“We must ensure that our businesses, industries, schools, restaurants, health providers, police, firefighters, courts, government agencies, etc., have the resources they need to operate safely and efficiently,” he said. “At the same time, we must continue working to achieve social justice and the equal protection of every person’s rights, as well as safe and accessible voting opportunities for all. Municipal budgets, and the state budget, will be strained, and will require all of us to be thoughtful and patient in our approach to these problems. I look forward to keeping our residents informed, connected, and protected.”
A tireless doorknocker during normal campaign years, Demicco said he still has gone door-to-door while social distancing but has curtailed that some in favor of a greater social media presence, increased telephone calls and more direct mailings.
He said recent social movements such as Black Lives Matter have given rise to numerous conversations, as well as state and local concerns.
“My approach remains the same: listening to, engaging with, and learning from my constituents,” he said.
Brockelman, who is the director of sales for the Ames companies, is serving his third term on the Farmington Zoning Board of Appeals.
He said he was approached by Republican leaders to run against Demicco this year.