Just this month, an unlikely candidate declared his intention to run as a Democrat for the Connecticut State Senate seat in the 26th district. At only 21-years-old, Will Haskell launched his campaign on March 1–just two months shy of graduating college. That doesn’t mean the Democrat doesn’t have support–he has already fundraised more than the $15,000 needed to qualify for public funds as part of the Citizens’ Election Program.
Haskell, who will turn 22 by Election Day, graduates in May from Georgetown University, (Phi Beta Kappa) with a major in Government. A Westport native, he will live in New Canaan after he graduates.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Haskell about running, about taking on long-time incumbent Toni Boucher, and what he plans to do if elected.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Hitting your fundraising mark so quickly, what does that say to you in terms of voters’ interest in this election, in this campaign, and you?
Will Haskell: You hear a lot about the democratic wave that’s coming in 2018 or the huge pick ups the Democrats made in local elections in 2017. I think that’s what we saw after I announced my campaign. I’m excited about the fact that just within three days we raised $15,000 that we needed, which is just incredible.
Frankly I was very nervous about fundraising. I haven’t asked people for money before. I think that’s a really unfortunate side of politics, the fact that we have to spend so much time asking for money. And now I don’t really have to do that anymore. Which is really an amazing thing. I spent a week working hard, asking people for their donations, and now I can spend the rest of the time asking for their votes, which is great.
But to your original question, I think it shows that the district is ready for a change. The people are excited about young candidates. They’re eager to get involved in our campaign, and–more broadly–it’s not really about me. It’s about the fact that they’re dying to see a change in Hartford.
GMW: You would be a pretty big change. You’re a young guy, you’re not yet out of college, that’s a big change for some people to take in.
Haskell: It is. And I certainly will stand out in the State Senate. But that’s exactly why I’m running. I decided to throw my hat in because we need younger voices. And true, I don’t bring 22 years of state government experience. I haven’t been in Hartford for two decades. But I think that that’s actually an asset. People are tired of reading the news and seeing the same names, hearing the same ideas that they heard a decade ago.
What I bring is a perspective of a millennial. I think a key to Connecticut’s future is drawing more young people here. When I tell my friends from college and high school that I’m moving back, too often their eyes go, ‘Why are you going back to Connecticut?’ But that’s a huge problem for our state and we’re never going to recover financially, economically or fiscally for that matter if young people aren’t excited about living or working in Connecticut.
Too many people in Hartford are stuck in this outdated, economic model–where people leave dangerous cities to work in quiet suburbs, to live in quiet suburbs and work in corporate office parks. But that’s not how my generation thinks about the workforce. We want to take public transportation to work, we want to live in cities. So I think what I bring is a perspective that’s desperately lacking–the perspective of the next generation of Connecticut residents and tax payers and citizens.
GMW: So what about relevant experience? In addition to your age and your generation’s outlook, what experience would you bring?
Haskell: I started working for my congressman, Congressman Jim Himes, when I was a sophomore in high school, and it was the greatest introduction to politics and government that anybody could get–because I went to the Bridgeport office. Instead of going straight to his Washington DC office, which is very fun, but sort of removed from it all; instead of going to the campaign, where you work really hard and write letters to the editor.
But in the district office in Bridgeport, interns were really on the front lines of government. When somebody was in trouble, whether they had lost their passport, whether they hadn’t received their social security check, whether there was something wrong with the healthcare they were receiving, they called their elected official. It didn’t matter what party they were, it didn’t matter what party he was and it certainly didn’t matter what party I was as the first line on the other end of the phone. What mattered was the government was there to help.
The whole office in Bridgeport leapt at any opportunity to help a constituent and I was so proud to be part of that team.
But it was moving. It was moving to see the role that government plays in people’s lives every single day, the potential for government to help.
After that, I caught the bug. I just loved what I was doing so I went and worked for Congressman Himes in Washington and I worked on his campaign. Then I heard about this young guy who was running in CT for the Senate, named Chris Murphy. I didn’t know much about him. I went up to the convention, it was my first day on the job and I held signs and rallied for him. That was a time when Chris Murphy was new to southwestern Connecticut. I told my friends and family, ‘There’s this guy who’s got more energy than every other US senator combined, and he’s gonna do amazing things.’
It was great to be involved in that primary campaign. I learned a lot. And I learned there’s nothing more important–no press release, no tweet you can send out–that’s more important than being at someone’s door.
So my campaign is gonna be really focused on door knocking. And I’ll be knocking on doors every single day. When you knock at the door, they remember that you made the effort. They remember your face, maybe. They probably remember your name more. But that’s the greatest thing and it’s also how you learn your potential constituents’ thoughts on various issues.
So door knocking will be a centerpiece of my campaign, I’m ready to out-work my opponent. I know I’ve got the energy to do this, so that’s what I bring to the table from my experience on Chris Murphy’s campaign.
[Finally], I spent the last summer working for the Connecticut public defender’s office and I got to know Wilton a little bit that way too, because the Norwalk courthouse where I worked served Wilton, so I met many of the police officers and victims and defendants as well.
GMW: What are going to be the things that are the cornerstone of not just your candidacy, but if you’re elected? What are the things that you’re going to want to champion, do, defend, fight for, bring up, in Hartford?
Haskell: Day one is gun control. I think that this is an issue that’s captivated our political attention right now but it’s long overdue and I’m fearful that it will fade from the public consciousness.
It shouldn’t take a shooting for legislators to vote the right way. And yet that’s the pattern that’s developed in Hartford. We can only count on our current state senator to support gun control in the wake of a tragedy. And then later, as she did just a few weeks ago, when she’s in a room full of Republicans, she’ll say we went too far in regulating guns.
I think we haven’t gone far enough. Specifically I think we need to crack down on bump stocks, we need to regulate ghost guns, which means you can order various components of a gun through the mail and then assemble it at your own home.
I also think we have some of the most outdated concealed carry laws in the country. I went to the Brady campaign in DC, and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to run for office in Connecticut, I know we have pretty strict gun laws but what more can we do?’ And they didn’t have to scrounge around, they had a laundry list of things ready to go. They said, ‘You need to do more to crack down on bad apple gun dealers.’ This is a huge priority of mine. I care a lot about regulating firearms, and preventing future tragedies.
The next issue doesn’t capture as much political airtime perhaps, but it ought to, and it’s transportation. It matters a lot in this district within our state. We have crumbling transportation infrastructure in Connecticut, as I’m sure you know.
The CT Department of Transportation recently announced that almost 350 of our bridges are considered structurally deficient. Too many of those are in our district. These are bridges that my family, friends, and neighbors, drive over all the time–from Lovers Lane in Wilton to the 1-95 crossing in Westport, and it’s scary. It’s the direct result of irresponsible behavior in Hartford. For decades they’ve refused to fund transportation projects, that’s why we’re in the state that we are in today.
And it’s because people don’t pay enough attention–and I will include myself in this–to the special transportation fund. I didn’t realize how important this fund was. We tax people all the time and say that we’re going to spend it on transportation yet, as soon as voters are looking the other way, lawmakers dip into the special transportation fund to spend on other things.
I support the transportation lock-box to make sure that transportation projects have to be funded through that fund. And that those taxpayer dollars can’t be spent on anything else. Because ultimately, what’s more important than making sure that our bridges don’t collapse? Like the one did in Florida recently. Or that our trains are faster than 50 years ago?
But you know, it’s going to take a long time to improve transport in Connecticut. I have no false illusions about that. But I do think there’s some short-term steps we can take. For instance, why doesn’t Metro-North have wifi? If you take the train from Westport to Grand Central every work day, you spend 29 full days on the train. That’s almost a month of your whole life a year. You can’t be economically efficient while you ride. When I come back and forth from DC, I work the whole time on the AmTrak, because there’s wifi. But we don’t have that on Metro-North. So that’s a short-term change that I would propose.
And then what we were talking about before, in terms of specifically how do we draw young people… I think it starts in investing in cities. Connecticut is chronically invested in suburbs, and that paid off in previous generations, but people my age are interested in cities and Connecticut needs to do more so that suburbs and cities can work together and create thriving regional economies.
To the extent that there’s a silver lining in Connecticut, we see it in places like Stamford, Norwalk. Just the other day, there was big news that a tech company’s bringing jobs to Hartford. But we need to do more to foster that sort of development. I also am hugely supportive of tax credits to people who graduate from secondary institutions in Connecticut and decide to start their career here as opposed to somewhere else. We have some of the greatest schools in the country here, from UCONN to Yale to Wesleyan, and yet too many graduates decide to go to Boston or New York or San Francisco when they graduate. I think the state government should say, ‘Look, we’ll give you a break if you decide to begin your career here.’ Because I bet they’ll end up staying.
And then finally, this is sort of basic, but paid family leave. We’re one of the only advanced countries in the world that doesn’t have any paid family leave policy or paid sick leave policy, rather. And I think that’s crazy.
Passing paid leave in Connecticut (SB-2 it was in the last cycle, I’m not sure if it has a bill number in this session yet), it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s actually good for the economy. When a similar policy was implemented in California, businesses reported that productivity and profitability actually went up. Moreover, 40% of the workers in my generation said that they would leave the country for a better work-life balance. I think that if we pass paid family leave in Connecticut, we can entice more than a few of them to cross only a state border.
GMW: You mention the transportation lock box. Senator Boucher has said that she and the Republicans support that as well. You have a Democratic governor who the Republicans blame for a lot of the transportation funds, poof!, going elsewhere, and not being spent on transportation. So as a Democrat are you going to be able to do something magically different?
Haskell: The thing that I’ll do differently is work across the aisle. And I’ll never play politics with transportation politics. For decades, we’ve heard that [Sen. Boucher] supports the transportation lockbox. And words are great but she’s now the co-chair of the Transportation Committee and we could’ve had a lock box by now. But when Democrats proposed it, she voted against it. Because she didn’t want them to get credit. I imagine that’s why she voted against it. Because she’s supported it in the past, and even proposed it herself on nearly identical bills.
It’s frustrating that we see lawmakers like the one that represents our district continually play partisan politics with this issue. The thing that I would bring to the table and the thing that I would do differently is I would always work across the aisle on this issue.
In terms of mistakes that Democrats have made, absolutely. I am not going to be shy about criticizing members of the Senate, Democratic Congress or the Governor himself. I respect a lot of what he’s done but also, there are serious, I believe, flaws, and promises that went unfulfilled. Certainly his massive transportation spending promises have gone largely unfulfilled and that’s a real shame.
GMW: Also a big transportation topic–tolls. Where do you stand on tolls in Connecticut?
Haskell: Look, I think that anybody who is able to do basic arithmetic or take a look at the state’s finances knows that tolls are coming. We’re the only state between Maine and North Carolina that you can drive through and you don’t pay a single toll.
Now people don’t realize this but it’s actually disadvantaging Connecticut taxpayers. Because we’re in an area of the country that’s disproportionately impacted by travel by trucks. I mean, just take a quick drive on 95 and you realize that there are more trucks in the southwest corner of Connecticut than almost any other part of the country. It’s because we don’t have a great rail system, so, so many goods are moved by trucks in our part of the state. And that takes a real toll on our roads. And instead of asking those trucking companies, or out-of-state drivers who pass through Connecticut all the time, to contribute, we ask Connecticut taxpayers alone to bear the cost of maintaining our roads.
So, I don’t want to pay tolls, nobody likes paying tolls. But I think that they’re coming and what our district needs, because we’re a community, is to have a seat at the table. Tolls as a concept is pretty vague. There will be lots of discretion that the state will have in terms of where to position tolls and what the charges will be. I think it’s so crucial that a representative from our district is at that decision-making table, to say, ‘Well, people who commute daily need a tax break so that they’re not going to be exceptionally disadvantaged.’ We need to look hard at congestion tolling as an option, we need to make sure we’re complying with federal regulations. This district really does need a seat at the table.
And unfortunately, my opponent has so often rejected tolls that I don’t think she’ll have a seat at the table. She sort of refuses to acknowledge their existence and that they’re coming and as a result we don’t have a voice in that debate right now.
GMW: I want to also talk about something particularly of interest in Wilton. The unfunded teacher pension issue. There’s been a lot of talk about that teacher pension funding responsibility coming back to the towns. And that would hit Wilton pretty hard. What do you think about that?
Haskell: It would hit Westport really hard as well. It’s a major issue. And I think that the government made a mistake in proposing that one-third of the teacher pension cost be covered by tax. That’s extraordinarily high. And it would put a real financial burden on our part of the state. At the end of the day, of course, we need to fund teacher pensions. Years went by that the state contributed zero dollars to pension funds. So that’s sort of why we’re in this hole that we’re in right now, and it’s because of Democrats and Republicans. They share the blame on that. It’s part of why we need to send new people who are stakeholders in Connecticut’s future.
But, I do think that towns need to bear a small portion of responsibility. That should look more like New York state, which has one of the greatest teacher pension programs in the country. Towns contribute, the state contributes and teachers contribute. The towns only contribute about 4% or 5%, I believe. And the New York system, I think that’s a far more reasonable ask of towns, and I would certainly, if I had to, lower whatever percentage this governor or the next governor proposes.
GMW: Talk to me about Wilton. What do you think about Wilton?
Haskell: I love Wilton. I grew up in Westport so sometimes, prior to high school, the furthest I ventured into Wilton was Orem’s Diner, which I love. But I’ve gotten to know Wilton a lot better in these past years. I took theater in high school so we would go to the Wilton shows, and they would come to the Staples shows.
I think Wilton is a level-headed town. There are a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats, but this isn’t Trump territory. Hillary Clinton won our district by 23 points, yet we’re represented by a state senator who is on the extreme-right wing of the Republican Party. I’m grateful that many Republicans have contributed to my campaign, and they tell me that they no longer feel at home in Trump’s party. I hope that my campaign will reach across the aisle, and I’m looking forward to getting to know Wilton Republicans who may be more moderate than Boucher and Trump.
I know this community really well. It’s my friends, it’s my family, it’s my neighbors. And I want to preserve what’s great about it, and I want to help make it better. I think that a failing of towns like ours is the fact that we live so close to poverty in places like Bridgeport. You know, you drive along 95 from Westport to Bridgeport, you pass a $100,000 gap in median income. It’s not just the right thing to do, to alleviate inequality in Connecticut, but it’s also good economic policy.
What that looks like, I think, is leveling the playing field. Really investing in public education. I know Wilton High School is an amazing high school; I had such a great experience in the public education system in Westport; but I think every high school in the state should be just as good as Wilton High School or Staples High School. Every student should have the opportunity to succeed, every student should have the opportunity to participate in a fantastic show or play on a lacrosse team. Whatever their interest is, they need an opportunity to try it.
GMW: What’s your elevator pitch? Why should someone vote for you?
Haskell: My elevator pitch is that I woke up the morning after Trump’s election feeling I had to do something. And I think Trump takes so much space in the political realm, and in our daily mindset. I spend a lot of time thinking about Trump and I have ever since he was elected. Everyone in my community does too. They’re angry, and they’re nervous about what’s happening in Washington.
But Donald Trump is not going to be on the ballot until 2020. And in our community, this year, right now, we have an exceptional opportunity because the Connecticut state senate is the only legislative body in the country that’s tied between Democrats and the Republicans. So that means by flipping this one seat, we can control the entire state senate. And that’s such an amazing opportunity to send a resounding rejection to Trump’s realities and his policies here in Connecticut. Because ultimately, the fight against Trump starts at the state and the local level.
There’s all sorts of overlap that we see between Trump’s policies and Toni Boucher’s record. Both seem to believe that voter fraud is a major issue. She’s proposed bills that crack down on voter fraud, she’s tried to impose stricter ID requirements, these sort of requirements that make it harder for first-time voters, elderly voters, minorities to vote. She’s also tried to, and successfully blocked, early voting in Connecticut. She’s tried to block automatic voter registration and online voter registration. Unsuccessfully, thankfully. The overlap I see between Toni Boucher’s record and that of Donald Trump’s, and many Republicans, is that they’re trying to keep my generation away from the ballot. They know that when fewer people turn out, they win. But when more people turn out to vote, Republicans are voted out of office. I think that this is going to be a high turnout election. I spent last week going to some local high schools and learning about the walk outs they were planning and every walk out, they weren’t just gathering to memorialize the lives lost and to sort of discuss policies but they were also registering people to vote. That means a lot.
This year my generation’s going to be on the ballot and we’ll be at the ballot, making our voice heard.
There’s also all sorts of impacts that Trump’s policies will have on Connecticut that require state legislators to step up to the plate. Trump’s budget that he proposed a few months back would propose a 40% cut on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. This would be devastating to our ability to keep our beaches clean, and Long Island Sound a place that people want to swim, and fish and visit, more generally. So we need to step up to make sure that our beaches stay clean. Trump’s budget would also eliminate funding for the low-income heating assistance program that keeps houses warm when they can’t afford their heating systems. This is, in my mind, non-discretionary spending that our state legislators need to step up to the plate to make sure that not only our beaches stay clean but our houses stay warm. That healthcare continues to be funded so that children don’t lose their healthcare.
But right now more than ever we need to make sure we elect legislators who are prepared and eager and determined to prevent Trump’s devastating agenda from impacting our community.
GMW: Some would say that what’s hurting Connecticut really started in the governor’s office and the legislature and the budget. In particular, especially in Wilton, we have decent senior population. It’s getting very hard for people to stay here. It’s getting very hard for seniors to continue to afford living here. What do you say to the senior voters?
Haskell: Absolutely. I’m sympathetic to that, that seniors are having trouble staying in Connecticut. I have three grandparents still in Connecticut and I talk to them every week, not only about what’s going on in their life but also the problems that they’re facing, what they hope that state government could serve them better. The first thing I learned in my conversations with them, and many of their friends as well, is that seniors rely on their state government for a variety of services and those services aren’t going to be funded if we see the sort of reckless cuts that Republicans have proposed become law.
For instance, my opponent has proposed eliminating the estate tax. I think she does this with the hopes that more seniors will stay. First of all, this will cut a huge source of revenue for the state so that we can’t continue to provide vital services to seniors. Also, I’ve spoken to seniors too who go down to Florida. They’re chasing the weather, not chasing a low estate tax. We’re never going to be able to compete with Florida’s zero estate tax and we’re more certainly never going to be able to compete with Florida’s sunny weather. So I don’t think that that’s the solution. I think the solution is providing greater services to seniors. And stretching our abilities as a state government to serve them.
But look, the governor and Democrats in Hartford have made mistakes. My opponent, the first thing she’ll say is that, ‘The last thing we need is another Democrat.’ But good luck painting me as part of the problem and herself as part of the solution when she’s been there for 22 years. She’ll say, ‘Well, we were in the minority,’ but that’s not true anymore. Now it’s tied, and she’s the co-chair of Transportation and Education, so she has real power in Hartford. And yet we haven’t seen meaningful action or reform.
I met Dan Malloy once, we certainly don’t know each other well. I think she’ll have a hard time tying me to the governor or his policies.
GMW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Haskell: Criminal justice reform is so important. I was talking earlier about things that the governor got wrong, one of the things he’s done right in my book is reform our criminal justice system. We’re a national leader in making sure now that nobody spends decades in prison for trying to buy marijuana. We’re a national leader in making sure that juveniles are treated fairly. But there’s also more we have to do. Too many people are locked up simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. We’ve made steps on reforming “cash bail” but I think that there’s more to do. We need to make sure that prisoners are treated humanely. We need to invest in prison education to reduce recidivism.
It’s a real passion of mine, it doesn’t get a lot of attention from people in the district but it matters a lot.
Also, the opioid epidemic is something I was exposed to while working for the public defender. And it’s really an issue in this community, it’s something that maybe people are afraid to talk about, but having been in that office I know that it affects this community. I also know that it has affected members of my family and my friend’s families. It’s too bad that we’re so hesitant to address this issue publicly, and I pledge that as a state legislator I certainly won’t be hesitant. We’ve reached a real moment of crisis. It’s a public health crisis, the opioid epidemic.
GMW: What more do you think can be done?
Haskell: Well the state can do more to invest in rehabilitative programs. Instead of sending people to prisons we can send them to therapists and physicians and other people who will help them recover. We also have medical marijuana in Connecticut. We’re a national leader in implementing safe, regulated medical marijuana. And we know that when medical marijuana is introduced, opioid rates of a district go down.
However the closest dispensary I know of in the district is in Bethel. We need to make sure that medical marijuana is available for those who need it, and I’m not talking about teenagers who want to smoke it. I’m talking about cancer patients and veterans with PTSD and kids with schizophrenia. There are many qualified medical doctors who are prescribing this to their patients who are in need. And we know that helps reduce the opioid rate of addiction.