Gov. Ned Lamont visited Wilton on Friday afternoon, Sept. 18, and GOOD Morning Wilton got an exclusive opportunity to sit down with him for an interview.
During his stop in town, he endorsed two Democratic candidates: Will Haskell, who is running for re-election in the 26th State Senate district, and Stephanie Thomas, who hopes to win the race for State Representative in the 143rd State House district. Both Haskell and Thomas joined the interview.
Below is a transcript of GMW‘s interview with Lamont, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
GOOD Morning Wilton: You’re here today for Will Haskell and Stephanie Thomas. What about each of them makes them an effective partner for you in Hartford?
Gov. Ned Lamont: I’ll start with Will because he and I both came in at the exact same time and work together really closely. I think he’s one of the sanest guys in the State Senate. He brings a real balance. You have this sort of urban/rural split up there and a guy like Will Haskell really represents a thoughtful, middle ground that gets things done. He’s got a heart of gold and looks out for working families every day of the week. He thinks about the environment. Obviously a leader on guns, obviously a leader on elections, but also sort of a fiscal conservative, in my mind. I don’t want to put you under the bus, because we try and make sure that we balance the budget, not on the backs of the taxpayers. So for me he’s a soulmate.
Stephanie, I don’t know quite as well, I’ve got to admit, but I could tell you, we need allies in the House of Representatives. We just need the House to be able to make some decisions. As we found this last cycle, you’re able to make a lot of easy decisions, but they weren’t able to make some of the tough decisions. And I love the fact that you’re here representing Wilton, what a story that means to people knowing this is a state that represents everybody.
We both have that small business orientation. I’m a champion for small business. That’s where you grow the jobs. We spent the last 10 years trying to throw billions of dollars to attract that big elephant into the state as opposed to respecting our small businesses. They’re the ones who pay all the corporate income tax, by the way. And they’re the ones that love the folks that work there like a family.
Stephanie Thomas: And it’s the bridge to greater and greater communities and success.
Will Haskell: Governor, you may remember, Stephanie ran last time around, she came within 300 votes. So this time I really think that this is her year.
Lamont: 300 people! That’s all it would have taken!
Thomas: 361, if I’m counting! [laughs]
GMW: Governor I don’t know if you know that there are now more registered Democrats in Wilton than Republicans, perhaps for the first time ever. Unaffiliated voters are still the largest group–
Lamont: Oh really?!
Haskell: And I’ve got to say, Wilton has been taking the mask thing really seriously. We’re lucky to have people like [First Selectwoman] Lynne Vanderslice who I know you work with a lot. She has prioritized science every step of the way in this town.
Lamont: I’ll give you good news–our infection rate went down a little bit [today]. As you know, we’ve been trending up for the last couple of weeks, so I was getting anxious, maybe schools or colleges, but back down to 1%.
GMW: We did have one COVID-positive case here at Wilton High School. And there were others right before the school year started. Our case rate is definitely on the rise–our rolling, seven-day average went from 1.92 cases per 100,000 to 7.4 cases per 100,000. It’s gone back down a little bit now–today it was 6.3/100,000 for Fairfield County.
At Wilton’s Board of Education meeting last night, the schools’ medical advisor discussed case data. Right now we’re on a hybrid learning model, and they’d discussed Sept. 29 for going back to full in-person for K-5. But Wilton’s medical advisor and our Health Director said, ‘No, push it back.’ So we’ve now delayed phasing in that return for K-5 at least until Oct. 5.
So kids went back to school and now you’re seeing incremental case increases. We’ve had about a case a day increase in Wilton in September. Our teachers are really concerned. [Friday’s] infection rate news was good, but are you concerned with what returning to full in-person school might mean?
Lamont: I’ve said before–if Connecticut can’t open their schools, no state can. Because we’ve had the lowest infection rate in the country going on some months now.
And I get the 2-1-1 calls, the number of kids calling up who feel isolated, just need somebody to reach out. We’ve got exactly 39% of our kids, K-5, that are going to school full-time right now. I leave it up to the local jurisdiction, but my strong feeling is if you can do it, do it. My healthcare guys say it’s safer for that fourth grader to be in the same class with the same group five days a week than to be there two days a week and then three days hanging out with other people–that doubles the risk of infection.
GMW: What about for the teachers? Our elementary schools did a survey of their teachers, and a majority said, ‘We do not want to go back full time.’ What do you say to the adults in the building and the teachers in the building that are petrified?
Lamont: I say, we provide testing for you whenever you need it. I can tell you it’s safer if you’re with the same group of kids for five days, rather than two different groups of kids, one group on Monday and Tuesday, a different group on Thursday and Friday–that increases their risks. And I love what you do and the kids really need you.
GMW: You mention testing. I know here in Connecticut, that Yale has FDA-approved, smart testing [saliva-based pool testing]. People ask about why can’t we do testing in the schools? Can’t we do that kind of saliva pool testing that’s available. Is there any thought about doing that?
Lamont: First of all, for our colleges, we thought that was risky. They’re coming in from all over the country, from Georgia and Texas and Florida with a higher infection rate. So we were really strict. We said, ‘You test before you get on that plane, you test after you arrive in Connecticut and you’ve quarantined within your group. We haven’t had a Notre Dame, we haven’t had a University of Alabama. We’ve kept our rates very low.
In the schools right now, with less than 1% infection rate, the CDC and all of our experts say there’s no need to test all the students all the time. We’re thinking about though, like you said Heather, doing some pool testing just in terms of giving the teachers confidence.
And by the way, provide testing for the teachers anytime they want it.
[Turns to Haskell and Thomas] But any thoughts on that?
Haskell: Yes. So really interesting numbers came out of Data Haven this morning. You may have seen them: only 6% of Connecticut residents say that they sought a test and weren’t able to find one, but the better statistic is that one-in-four Connecticut residents has already been tested, which is pretty astonishing.
Anecdotally in my own family, I had two family members come down with COVID-19 early on in March. They were tested immediately. I’ve got a grandmother in the hospital now for unrelated reasons. Our hospitals are able to do rapid turnaround testing. She was tested right away.
So of course it’s hard that we can’t visit her. But I think that Connecticut really has actually established a pretty strong model and making testing available where it’s needed most–among those who have been exposed, those who are experiencing symptoms, and also regularly testing in urban areas where we’ve seen that this can have the most deadly effect.
So, in hearing from constituents. In March, I was getting hundreds of emails asking, ‘Where can I get tested?’ These days, people generally know where they can get a test or they know if they should get a test.
Lamont: Go to the website, we’ll show you exactly what’s the closest place. You’re much more likely to get tested here than just about any state in the country. We’re going to keep going.
Haskell: And by the way, it’s not been inexpensive. Connecticut deserves a lot of credit for putting forward the investment.
Lamont: Stephanie, what are you hearing?
Thomas: I’m out door knocking a lot. And I come across the teachers all the time and they are frightened and they are scared, but they are so passionate and committed to their children and resilient. It varies from town to town, but what I hear from them in their own words, they just want a voice at the table. They want to hear from other school districts what’s working, what’s not working, and they want mental health support. And to make sure that they know that their district will pull them out if they feel it’s dangerous.
So I think Connecticut is doing an amazing job. I know in this district, in Norwalk our elementary school is back five days, and so far, so good. It would be great for Norwalk and Wilton to get together and see how that’s working.
I think that’s what teachers are looking for–just knowing, safety first. They are on the front line.
Lamont: People have got to know that we’re leading with public health every day.
GMW: Speaking of safety and public health, football. [The CT Interscholastic Athletic Conference] CIAC has definitely said, ‘That’s it, we’re not going forward with the football season right now.’ Yet there are some high school teams that are now starting to form club teams. I heard in Westport, there were some players practicing at the Staples High School field. What do you think about players and families organizing in that way, starting their own leagues and playing?
Lamont: We consider public health a statewide issue. So when it came to bars and restaurants, we wanted a statewide policy. I consider education a local issue. So every town was going to have their own set of priorities.
Look, everybody from Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and [former FDA Commissioner] Dr. [Scott] Gottlieb and the CDC, as well as a Deidre S. Gifford, our head of public health, all were pretty clear: that high school football is a high risk sport, just given the nature of people crashing into each other.
That said, we said we’re going to leave that up to the local leagues. We had a good meeting with CIAC. They came back and said, ‘We agree, just like they did in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and New York, we’re going to put off the football season until the spring.’ Which I think was the right decision. I appreciate them doing that.
That said, I know there’s club football and other things that are still going on. You know, I’m not heavy-handed, I’m not banning this, I’m not outlawing it. But you had our public health recommendation. If we see a spike, then we’d close things down.
Haskell: I want kids to have something to do after school and my heart breaks for the football players, but it’s not just the football players. My heart breaks for the band kids and the choir, the theater kids, and every other sport that they’re not able to pursue.
The best thing we can do to get over this virus, to turn the chapter in Connecticut, is to be strict, to recognize that we’re all making sacrifices and that, and try to find some way to move forward and get everybody healthy again.
Going back to that Data Haven survey that came out today, 90% of Connecticut residents trust public health officials, that’s way higher than those who trust state officials and those who trust local officials. The last thing you want is somebody like a legislator making a decision about what’s allowed and what’s not. It should be epidemiologists leading the way. And Connecticut has put public health officials front and center rather than politics. And that’s been so crucial. I would hate to have that fall apart just over the football issue.
GMW: One of the biggest issues that’s picking up steam here in Fairfield County, especially in Wilton–I’m hearing a lot about it in the letters I’m getting from people, and from Will and Stephanie’s opponents–is about the issue of zoning reform. There’s a definite uptake at the state level in Hartford about changing local zoning laws.
There is a great concern here in Wilton, where there is an effort to increasing housing diversity. You’re going to have to reassure voters here with a firm statement that they’re going to be able to keep control over what local planning and zoning laws are, for these two to have a fighting chance.
What do you say to Wilton voters about this issue?
Lamont: I believe in the diversity of housing, and I also believe in local control. They say, ‘Well, there’s a contradiction there.’ I’m not sure.
You know, when it comes to transit-oriented development, when it comes to a downtown, when it comes to having some multi-unit [housing] here, when it comes to an opportunity for your teachers and your cops and your firemen be able to live close to where they work, it’s better for the community.
You don’t do it all over town, but I think transit-oriented makes all the sense in the world. Everybody doesn’t have to necessarily get into a car. It’s probably a little less relevant here where I don’t see a train station–
GMW: We’ve got two stations in town, and transit-oriented development part of our plan–
Lamont: But I was just in Berlin, I was just in Windsor Locks, celebrating the fact that we provided a lot of incentives–not penalties, incentives–to allow housing to be built next to a train station. So a lot of the folks who work locally can stay locally or if they’ve got to get into Hartford, New Haven, or Stamford, they can get there easily.
[To Haskell and Thomas], what do you think?
Thomas: Oh, I have a lot to say on this!
First of all, there’s a big gray area between protecting home values and doing nothing. And it feels like so many issues are getting conflated from segregation to mixed housing stock, to urban development, and those are not necessarily tied together.
Personally, I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach can work because we have everything from rural to city, small city to suburban. And I do think it makes sense for the towns to figure that out.
But–they have to figure it out. They can’t do nothing.
I personally think the state does have a role to play in perhaps providing some guidance. What I hear in the three towns I’m in, they are all struggling with this. They don’t have land-use training in many places. It’s all volunteers and they’re not sure where to go with it.
It would be great to have a compendium of what works in certain types of towns. Transit-oriented development has worked very well in South Norma, for example. Maybe at Cannondale? I don’t know–maybe, maybe not.
But for me, what concerns me about all the conversation I’ve been hearing, you can’t just say, “No–no.’ You can say, ‘No, but how do we fix it? No, but what can we propose? What can we bring to the table?’
All these towns have been working so hard–Westport for two years on this already, Wilton for at least a year, Norwalk for about four to five years. So to just bring this up, like a political football, I just think it negates all the hard work that people are putting in.
Because what I hear from people, seniors want mixed housing stock. Young people want mixed housing stuff. I hear from business owners who are in that startup phase, who want to live near their business but can’t afford to. Or they want their employees nearby. And my personal favorite–recently-divorced parents who don’t want to buy another two-acre lot but they want to be near their kids. So we hear affordable housing and it conjures up so many things, but if there were an apartment right there, most people aren’t against that.
GMW: No, and in Wilton, there has definitely been movement forward on doing exactly that. The Planning and Zoning Commission does have a committee looking on Danbury Rd.; the Plan of Conservation and Development in 2019, specified that. So there’s definitely been progress and movement toward it.
But related to that, there’s a development that’s right on Danbury Rd. that was slated to be shovel-ready and the economy being what it is, now that’s fallen apart. We’ve had developed come and look at projects, and now they’ve walked away. Nobody’s building rental apartments, now it’s harder.
You had Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Commissioner David Lehman focused so much on COVID-19 response–which he should have been, and everybody should have been. But what are you doing now, especially specific to Fairfield County, to start turning that around again?
One year ago we had great prospects in Wilton. Our First Selectwoman gave a talk about the number of projects that were in the works a year ago. Now, it’s gone quiet. What are you doing to get the developers back in here, again?
Lamont: I’d say you’re crazy if you’re not looking to Connecticut right now. We’ve had 25,000 people change their address from New York or elsewhere to Connecticut. These are young families in many cases.
But I’ll tell you something else. I’m a little bipolar, I spend weekends often Greenwich where my family is, and I spend the rest of the week up in Hartford. And the difference between West Hartford and Greenwich is dramatic.
I love West Hartford. They allowed something called Blue Back Square to develop, very tasteful, outdoor dining. The average age of West Hartford is 15 years younger than Greenwich.
Greenwich, I don’t want any housing for young people and others in the downtown. And our town got older and older and our kids didn’t live near where we lived and we were regretted it down there. And now that housing is beginning to come along.
I think the developers are going to be taking a look, but look, you’re going to have to be within the character of the town. But I believe in multifamily housing in a downtown area where it’s appropriate. Absolutely.
Haskell: Governor, I hear people on both sides of the aisle, say all the time, ‘You’ve got to get the next generation of workers back to Connecticut.’ That’s something I’m a little bit obsessed with as the youngest member of the General Assembly.
We’ve got so many great schools–Yale, UCONN, Wesleyan, Conn College, Norwalk Community College. And so many others. We graduate tens of thousands of students every year. And most of them decide to start their careers elsewhere. Well, how can we reasonably expect them to start their small businesses, to start their families, to start their careers in Connecticut?
They can’t afford to live here. So when we talk about affordable housing, it’s workforce housing. It’s what Stephanie said, so a broad array of folks can afford to live in Fairfield County. In my last campaign, I had trouble finding a place to live in Fairfield County. Yeah, it is too hard to move back to Connecticut when you’re 22 years old. We’ve got to figure out more ways to keep those recent graduates local.
Lamont: We have the best and the brightest kids in the world coming to Connecticut to get educated. And then they leave because they can’t find a decent place to live. And we have jobs. Now we’ve got the jobs. I’ve put together Workforce [CT Workforce Development] and places to stay. And this is a place where young people want to be again, they didn’t want to be here 10 years ago. They do now.
Thomas: This is another example of one size doesn’t fit all. For example, they’re trying to do a lot of work around accessory dwelling units. I talked to a lady in Norwalk today, who I met door knocking. She was complaining, she used to rent out the cottage behind her house for many years. Then she did a renovation, and when she went to get the permit, they said she could no longer rent it out. This was 15 years ago. So I told her to go back and try, that the zoning commission is much better now.,
But that is ridiculous because that is naturally-occurring affordable housing. It’s better. Developers will only build if there’s density because there has to be ROI there. But how great in this environment, if someone could rent out that cottage and have extra income and provide an affordable that’s great for regular community members, teachers, doctors, and everything.
GMW: I want to ask one more thing about economic development, especially what we’re seeing in Fairfield County.
My husband used to commute every day to the city. Now he’s working from home. There’s no prospect of him going back anytime soon, 2021 maybe. That’s the story all around Fairfield County. Are there concrete things you’re working on to capitalize on that–in Stamford, where we’ve got office space? What are you doing for Fairfield County to be able to capitalize on the fact that all that workforce talent doesn’t want to commute anymore?
Lamont: A) finding really nice places where people can live and making it affordable. B) a personal interest of mine is having high quality IT, 5G available in downtowns. I want to make sure that Will Haskell does not have to go into that train every day into New York City. We’ve now learned in the last six months, I can get everything I need done out here, maybe go to the city once or twice a week, as long as you can have the telecommunications you need.
I’m a big investor in telecommunication to the town square in Wilton has free Wi-Fi. So people will be able to do what they’ve got to do.
Now it’s part of our education system too, with 20% of the kids not feeling comfortable going back to school, we’ve had to extend Wi-Fi to all those families. I think that’s a big part of why Connecticut’s location is now a big plus, where in the days when you had to be in the city, it was a bit of a negative.
Thomas: One thing I’m really fascinated by (and I don’t know what’s there, but we need to look at it) I cut my corporate income tax checks this week for Sept. 15. I cut a check to the federal government and I cut a check to New York City, where my office is. And I cut no check to the state of Connecticut.
So on the one hand, that’s great. But on the other hand, all that money is going to New York City, but I have not set foot in New York City since March 3.
It would be great to start seeing some of that income because everybody’s in the same boat. If they’re not in New York, we need to look at that formula.
Haskell: That is so true. And the law says both in Connecticut and in New York that you pay taxes wherever you’re working at the convenience of your employers. So if the trains aren’t operating or if your office in Manhattan is closed, well, then you really should be paying taxes into Connecticut. And by the way, added benefit, we’ve got a lower tax rate than Manhattan. So I think this is an opportunity not only to bring more dollars back into Connecticut, but also to actually give our constituents a tax break.
Thomas: Putting that value proposition out there, maybe there is a business in coaxing, small businesses like mine back to Connecticut. Quite frankly, I’d never thought of it.
Lamont: Believe me, we’re on the phone.
GMW: One more question: How safe is it going to be for people in Connecticut to vote in person on election day? We’ve got ballot drop boxes. Town clerks are working hard with absentee ballot applications. It’s now ‘no excuse’ absentee voting. But should we encourage people to vote in-person to avoid potential questions about the validity of mail-in ballots?
Lamont: Thanks to the good work Will and the legislature did. We made it a lot easier to vote by absentee. And we’ve learned a lot because we’re going to have 10, 20 times more people voting absentee than ever before. And older people, those people with a preexisting condition vote absentee. All the applications have gone out the door already. You’re going to get your a ballot by early October. Then you can either mail it or better yet, drop it off at any one of those drop boxes. That’s the safest way to do it. Get it there on time.
I am a little worried that people are going to play games with this election, aren’t you? I really want to make sure that we get the votes in early, we count them, get them done on time. Because if this drags out three or four days for counting ballots, that’s room for mischief, which I think we want to avoid.
GMW: Anything else you want Wilton voters to know, any other message for Wilton residents?
Lamont: I used to live here. I love Wilton. I was a Nod Hill Rd. guy for a year, my aunt lives here. Look, it’s towns like this that are part of the character that makes Connecticut amazing. Nobody’s going to change that character. Places evolve, you want to make sure it’s a place where your kids could afford to live. You like to be a place where your teachers and your cops can be here as well. I think that’s part of the future of keeping a town like Wilton vibrant and alive. I can tell you right here, you’ve got two amazing candidates, one of whom I’ve gotten to know very well over the years. And you’d be a fool not to send them back to Hartford.