EXCLUSIVE: Haskell’s 350 Sq. Ft. ‘Fake’ Apt.? Our Q&A on GOP Accusations & SEEC Complaint, and Sprint to the Finish
“Really? This is what they want to talk about seven days away from the election? There’s so much more on voter’s minds,” says Will Haskell, the Democrat challenging incumbent Toni Boucher in the State Senate’s 26th District.
Haskell is talking to a reporter, standing in his tiny apartment kitchen while his roommate and campaign manager Jack Lynch cooks dinner. They’re winding down at the end of another long day on the campaign trail in the tiny–350 sq. ft.!–apartment they share. A homemade meal is rare these days; dinner is typically frozen pizza or cheese and crackers at a campaign meet-and-greet, following 16-18 hours on average each day knocking on doors and talking to voters.
Haskell sat down with GOOD Morning Wilton in what he and Lynch say will be the only lengthy media conversation addressing the recent complaint filed against him with the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) by State GOP chair J.R. Romano. The complaint accuses Haskell of violating campaign finance laws, alleging that the Democrat used campaign money to pay rent on his apartment (see CT Gen. Statutes 9-607).
Noise about the allegations spread quickly on social media, as video and still images showing campaign disclosure statements and multiple residences purported to demonstrate Haskell’s wrong-doing. They suggested that not only had Haskell paid his former Georgetown roommate Lynch as a ‘consultant’ as a cover for rent payments, but he was lying about improperly diverting campaign funds to do so. The posts also implied that Haskell was even lying about where he said he was actually living.
“Will Haskell does not live in the 26th District,” was one allegation. “While still in college Haskell said he lived at 21 Burtis St. in New Canaan,” reads another charge, intimating that the apartment where Haskell says he lives isn’t really his residence, but was a cover he set up before he even graduated from Georgetown last May. “But that’s a commercial space,” the charge continues, over pictures of the building itself. And he must be doing something fishy, they implied, because with no job or income while on the campaign trail, “…how does Haskell pay for the space?” The video answers its own question: “He pays for it with campaign funds.”
When the story started circulating, GMW initially declined to pursue it, after Haskell’s team put out a short statement answering Romano’s accusation: “There’s a simple answer that may not have occurred to Mr. Romano, and that is that my roommate, Jack Lynch, is my campaign manager. Jack is compensated for his work on the campaign, and we both pay rent. Senator Boucher and Chairman Romano are welcome to stop by any time to visit Jack and me.”
Since election season started in May, we’ve tried to stay out of any muck and above barbs and accusations lobbed by any campaign or party; instead we focused on bringing information to readers about what the candidates stand for and propose. But one Republican insider complained to GMW Tuesday morning: “No one is looking into this and there are real problems here with this supposed apartment. Check out the documents.”
So we thought the best way possible to check out the story was to take Haskell up on the offer he made to his opposition and actually go to the apartment. GMW asked Haskell for an interview, and requested the opportunity to meet at the New Canaan location. After a quick check of his schedule, Haskell extended an invitation to do the interview over home-cooked pasta, courtesy of Lynch.
Their apartment is on the second floor of a older wood-frame house in the center of downtown New Canaan. There’s a spa business on the ground floor, and an apartment upstairs. [New Canaan Town Planner has not yet responded to confirm whether the space is a legal residence, but rental listings for the apartment can be found online.]
There’s one small bedroom which doubles as Lynch and Haskell’s living room. It’s neat and tidy, albeit crowded with a couch, coffee table, bunk beds, small shelves and a dresser. Framed pictures on the walls show the two roommates with friends from their college days. There’s also a large poster of a fundraising thermometer–filled in at the party they threw with friends last spring at Georgetown when Haskell declared he was running for office. It tops out at $300.
For a first apartment right out of college, it’s unremarkable save for the fact that it’s pretty well-kept and clean. There are even throw pillows on the couch. There’s food in the fridge–some orange juice, a large container of chicken noodle soup that a supporter left on their porch when both Haskell and Lynch were sick last week, and other basics. There are only two chairs at the small kitchen table, but real dishes, utensils and sundry pantry items. It’s clearly furnished and lived in.
According to campaign finance filings for July and October, the Will Haskell for CT candidate committee paid Lynch $1,125 each month as a consultant. Romano connects the dots from those payments to the apartment’s current listing price–$1,100 a month.
“Will Haskell is showing us that he is too immature to run for office, using a scheme to live in an apartment on state money while families are struggling to pay their own rent. Moreover, Will is using the CEP grant as his own personal slush fund and I think the State Elections Enforcement Committee should look into this matter so abuses like this stop” Romano writes on the CT GOP website, adding that the landlord is advertising for new rental tenants as of Dec. 1. “Is he moving out when the grant is gone? Where is Will Haskell going?” Romano asks.
I don’t think that we should choose elected officials based on how many square feet they’re sleeping in every night. Instead we should choose them on their values and on their beliefs and on their ability and willingness to listen to their community. –Will Haskell
“This is What Moving to CT Looks Like at 22”
“Admittedly it’s kind of a crappy apartment. But I’m 22 years old and that’s what moving to Connecticut looks like when you’re 22,” Haskell says. “And we should be encouraging people to do that. I’ve talked about this in my campaign again and again–the greatest problem with Connecticut is that people my age aren’t excited about moving here. No one is choosing between Brooklyn and Bridgeport, and look no further for why that is than the fact that people can shame you for living in a 300 sq. ft. apartment. It’s small, but you’ve got to start someplace.”
When he decided to run last year, he thought it was a logical thing to find housing early–he wanted to get it out of the way before kicking off the campaign in early spring.
“I wasn’t going to live at my parent’s house–I think it’s understandable that most 22-year-olds don’t want to live at home,” Haskell laughs. But he’s serious when he says he’s frustrated at the suggestion the state or his parents are paying his rent.
“I worked hard in college, every single semester. I had a job as a cashier and then a job as a researcher. Sometimes I did both jobs at once to save and this is what I use my savings for–to pay rent.”
As soon as Haskell decided he was running in early 2018, and that Lynch would be his campaign manager, he says they started scouting apartments.
“This might come as a surprise, but New Canaan was the cheapest apartment we could find. Rent here is expensive, but for the 26th district it was reasonably affordable, and we could afford to split the rent. So we got the apartment and I came back pretty frequently second semester to campaign–I got of all my fundraising done. We both started living here over spring break,” Haskell says, noting they have a lease and split the rent.
They decline to say exactly what the rent is, out of deference to their landlord, who has put the apartment back on the rental market to be available Dec. 1 at $1,100 per month. “Our rent is different than what it’s listed for the next person,” Lynch adds. “Even though $1,100 [and the $1,125 payment], those two numbers are not the same and also that number is not the same as what we’re paying in rent.”
Why Target this District and Boucher?
So what about accusations that Haskell is “carpetbagging” or “parachuting in” to a district where he didn’t live before just to run against Boucher?
True, Haskell says he zeroed in on Boucher because, motivated to get involved after the 2016 election, he did his homework to find out where he could have impact, and he learned he didn’t see eye to eye with the incumbent on most issues–unlike legislators in others districts.
“I asked, ‘Who is running against Toni Boucher? I’ve worked on campaigns before and I want to help out.’ And the answer was, nobody’s running against her–she’s been there for 22 years, she might be there another 22 years. I thought that was crazy and bad for democracy, and also bad for the Democratic Party. This is a district Hilary Clinton won by 22 points. There’s no reason Democrats can’t compete here.”
Moreover, says Haskell, he’s not new to the district.
“I grew up in this district,” he says. He lived in Westport and went to Staples High School before attending Georgetown University. But his mom lives in what he says is “the small sliver of Westport not in the 26th District.”
Which brings up another criticism aimed at Haskell–that he once listed a Westport address that is in the district (152 Kings Highway North) on a voter registration. Critics say it’s his mom’s law office, and say it’s another deception.
“I was registered briefly to vote there, that’s where my grandparents live. I spent a lot of time there, certainly a lot of nights there. I’ve talked about this a lot–I was raised by a single working mom and my grandparents picked me up multiple days a week from school. It was where did homework every day with my grandfather. I sort of considered their home a second home in Westport.”
Lynch points out that both the Westport address and their current New Canaan address are adaptive, mixed-use housing, with businesses in one part of the structures and residential housing in another. “They both are living spaces and they both are businesses,” he says.
Campaign Manager–Real or Faux
Speaking of Lynch, is he really a consultant working on Haskell’s campaign? Is it possible to graduate college and jump right to steering a state senatorial race with no prior experience?
“What everybody says is, you have to have a campaign manager who you trust completely–to make split second decisions, to organize on your behalf, to communicate with people on your behalf, to just steer the ship while you’re out meeting people. Because as a candidate, you don’t really have time to run your own campaign. All you can do is try to meet as many voters as possible,” Haskell says.
The duo were roommates through all four years in college, and both majored in political science. Haskell says he trusted decisions Lynch made that a more traditional campaign consultant probably wouldn’t make–like walking and door knocking through so much of the district, long driveways and curvy CT roads be damned.
“Democrats have just sort of written it off as, it’s too difficult to walk because the driveways are long or whatever. A long term CT consultant or campaign manager might not have recommended that, but it’s something that Will and I just decided early on we were going to do that,” Lynch says, adding, “That’s what campaigns are supposed to be–not spend money to pay someone who’s done this a bunch of times before, but, ideally it’s just a group of people who are really excited about something and are gonna go knock on doors and make phone calls and there’s no defined one way to do it.”
Haskell calls it “lunacy” to think Lynch wouldn’t get paid.
“It would be illegal for him not to get paid for the basically 24/7 job he’s taken on. Similarly it would be illegal for him to live here for free and not pay rent. He and I split the rent legally. We follow the law exactly. It cracks me up that we’re seven days away from what is going to be a historic election, and [this is] the only negative thing coming out. I guess the benefit of running for office when you’re 22 is that there are no skeletons in the closet–because there is no closet. But they’re grasping at straws here.”
Throughout the almost 90-minute interview Lynch interjected with updates he was getting via texts–questions about volunteer staffing of phone banks, rearranging the next day’s schedule, and a last-minute need to find a spot to gather after polls close on Tuesday, as the one they’d secured long ago–the Black Duck–just announced they’d be closing permanently two days before election day.
Over Lynch’s shoulder, there’s a white-board in the kitchen, on it campaign-related notes are jotted. There’s a collection of lapel stickers with Haskell’s logo stuck on the bedroom door.
When talk turns to Halloween plans and if Haskell will go to Ridgefield to hand out candy to voters before heading to Westport’s Compo Beach, Lynch gives his candidate direction: “Short answer is … No. I can’t let you do a 40-minute drive at peak trick-or-treating. The woman hosting us in Westport said I should start setting up by three and then anyone else should be there no later than four.”
Keeping Perspective and Moving Forward
With just seven more days to go, Haskell says he’s learned a lot about himself.
“I never thought about the fact that running for office means being vulnerable. And a lot more listening than talking. The first 50 meet and greets I did way too much talking and telling people what I was gonna do, what my plans were and what I thought was wrong with Connecticut, and not enough of the very basic question of like, ‘How long is your commute in the morning? How long did you sit in traffic on the Post Road today? What choices have you had to make in your life between your career and your family? Just how much do your prescription drugs cost every month?’ My campaign has taken a real shift–at every door I ask, ‘What’s the most important issue for you?’ immediately after introducing myself. At meet and greets, I try to keep my talk to 10 minutes and then for the rest of the hour I just open it up for a conversation. That’s ultimately what makes a better state senator, a better representative.”
Listening also means having to talk with people who don’t agree with you–or who criticize and accuse.
“I think I’ve learned eventually to stop reading those online comments and just to keep doing what I’m doing and talking about my vision for a better Connecticut. To run a campaign that doesn’t respond to every negative attack, but instead just steps forward. A campaign I can be proud of that’s ultimately positive–perhaps critical of my opponent’s record, but always on the record. Never about her family or her personality. It’s always her voting record that we’re talking about.”
Haskell said he expected to hear criticism of how young he is–and is surprised that doesn’t hear it more often.
“I thought at every door I would have to explain that I’m running because I think the next generation needs to step up. Because representative democracy should be representative. But, actually it comes up very infrequently. You can’t hide the fact that I’m young, right? But because they’re ready for the next generation to get off the sidelines and into the voting booth. They’re inspired by the Parkland students and they want to see every generation have a seat at the table for the decision making in Hartford. It’s going to impact the state for decades to come. The biggest surprise is the only people who want to talk about my age, are the ones running against me. That’s what we see at the debate and the social media attacks–voters aren’t all that concerned that I’m 22. In fact they’re excited by it.”
Seeing other young people get involved in the election process is leaving him optimistic about politics as well.
“The fact that there are 300,000 newly registered voters in Connecticut; the fact that at our campaign headquarters tonight, there were easily 10 or 12 people who aren’t old enough to vote yet but were there making calls. The fact that, except for the other side, voters in this district have largely accepted and embraced my messages that instead of litigating the last 20 years, we have to build an economy for the next 20 years. I think that it matters, especially to young voters, to see somebody they identify with on the ballot,” says Haskell.
As proof, he points to last week’s mock election at Ridgefield High School. “In 2016 they voted for Donald Trump. [This year] they voted for [Democrat] Ned Lamont by one point. So quite clearly, I don’t have the same political views as everybody in the audience. There are conservative students but we overcame our policy disagreements and they voted for me by a huge margin, 211 to 54. Because they saw somebody that they could identify with on the ballot,” he says, adding, “If there’s one hope I have regardless of whether I win or lose, is that more people run for office. More young people, more people of color, more women, that there are more candidates with whom the average voter or the not-so-average voter, but any voter can identify with.”
“If He’s Serious, Why is the Apartment ‘For Rent’ Again?”
The other criticism that’s been levied at Haskell is that he can’t really be serious if the apartment is up for rent as of Dec. 1. That must mean, critics say, he has no plans to stay in the District after all.
“Maybe it’ll be me who takes up the lease, maybe I’ll try to find someplace even cheaper because I don’t know if Jack will stay in Connecticut after the campaign. I certainly have every intention to stay in this state, in this district. Maybe not in this apartment but the reality of being 22 and running for office is that you’re flexible, and unfortunately there aren’t enough places for young people to live in this community,” Haskell counters.
He says it also resonates as on-the-job perspective, recognizing that there’s a conversation to be had about affordable housing available to people in this district, housing located in walkable, accessible areas close to transportation–issues that people he hopes to represent deal with on a day to day basis.
“That’s something we need to recognize as legislators of this society, that at 22 you have to keep your housing options flexible. How many people can lock themselves in to an additional 6-month lease or something like that, when who knows what my job is going to be? That’s up to the voters,” Haskell says.
He points out that 34% of Connecticut households are rentals. “Those voices deserve a representative in the state senate too. I don’t think that we need to go back to the days of only property owners in the legislature.”
Haskell says he’s committed to staying here.
“I want to live in this district. My promise to voters is I’m going to continue listening to the community, I’m going to continue being a part of the community, I’m going to continue living in the community. Will it be in this apartment? Maybe not. Maybe, depends on what happens Tuesday.”
The question of how he’ll afford it has to be asked, especially with the base annual salary for a state senator at only $28,000.
“I’ve been treating campaigning as a full time job. As a state senator, I’m going to continue being in touch with the community but as everybody knows, you also have to find another job and that’s part of my plan,” he insists.
If Haskell does get elected, what will he do?
“The biggest thing is to just remain in touch with the community. The advantage of reelection every two years is that you’re always campaigning. I see myself taking a little bit of time off, maybe a day or a week, but then I’m going to be at the New Canaan Advertiser coffee, I’m still going to be talking to commuters at the train station in the morning. That’s the job of a State Senator, not just a candidate. When I climb up literally an 18-minute long driveway in Redding and knocked on their door, they were like, ‘Whoa, no one running for office let alone my governor or my state senator ever knocked on this door. Come on in even if we have policy disagreements.’ The guy was, I think, a Republican or unaffiliated voter, disenchanted with Trump a little bit, but I earned his vote simply because I went there and listened. Just being a State Senator who listens, I would be really proud to have that be my reputation.”
SEEC spokespeople have declined to comment on the complaint until it is put on the hearing docket; the next regular meeting of the SEEC is scheduled for Nov. 14, more than a week after the election.
Bill Lalor, chair of the Wilton Republican Town Committee–which was not a party to the SEEC complaint filed by the state GOP chair–did offer a comment: “We are glad to see the allegations are being taken seriously by the SEEC. Any allegation about inaccurate campaign filings, fake addresses, and misuse of taxpayer money is obviously something very serious. Wilton voters we’ve talked to have a lot of questions about this, and rightfully so. At best it shows lack of experience and judgment on Haskell’s part.”
Toni Boucher, Haskell’s opponent, emailed a comment as well: “I honestly do not know anything about this as I have never in any election had time to look at anyone else’s SEEC filings, just my own with our treasurer’s help. All I know is what is in the papers. That is where I first saw the press release you refer to.”