Newcomer Stephanie Thomas Challenges Gail Lavielle for State House Seat
Up until the last minute, it looked like Wilton’s state representative, Gail Lavielle (R-143), would be running for re-election unopposed, just as she did in 2016. Lavielle has been a constant in that seat since 2010. But at that last minute, Democrat Stephanie Thomas threw her hat into the ring to challenge Lavielle.
The Norwalk resident and member of the Norwalk Democratic Town Committee decided to run only a few days before the state filing deadline. She, along with supporters and volunteers in Norwalk, Wilton and Westport (the towns in the 143rd district) scrambled to collect and vet the required signatures and submit them to the CT Secretary of State. As of press time, Thomas has not heard official word from Hartford whether she will be on the ballot.
Thomas owns the Norwalk-based business, Stetwin Consultants, helping non-profits with fundraising and event organization. GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Thomas about who she is, what she’d bring to the job, and her first effort every running for public office.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Why don’t you introduce yourself to Wilton–what do you want Wilton voters to know about you and who you are?
Stephanie Thomas: When I looked up your publication, one thing I like is the focus on good news and a positive approach. That’s what I would like people to take away most about me. Everything about my candidacy is good news from a personal perspective. This is not my natural habitat. I’m someone who worked my whole life, living a very comfortable life. The Presidential election happened and I thought I’ve spent my career in public service, but on the not-for-profit side, and I thought maybe government is something I need to start paying a lot more attention to. It’s really a slightly different take, but on the same theme of public service.
I have an independent consultant company that works with the not-for-profit sector. I made a decision in March of 2017 to start scaling down my business a little so that I could free up more time to get involved locally, both politically and also with non-profits in Norwalk in particular. I made that decision becauseI thought my own profit motive is not as important to me as actually living it and leaving a society behind that I believe in.
I did all of that, but I did not intend to run for office this year. That was not my plan, because I was still winding down my business and I didn’t anticipate that really taking hold until 2019. But I’m a woman of color, a doubly under-represented group in politics. It’s great news that people like me are stepping out of the shadows and into public service more specifically and more deliberately. I think that’s very good news for society.
This decision came about last Wednesday [June 6], and the petition deadline was Tuesday, June 13 at 4 p.m., and we did it. We galvanized some people. And in all my door knocking, and just going and talking to, I can’t tell you how many people, a lot … It really made me feel good. It was both humbling and also heart warming that so many people really care about democracies, the democratic process, about Wilton, Westport, and Norwalk. In a very real, sort of gut way, I feel like I’m already a winner just having gone through that process.
I’m from New Jersey, my husband and I moved here five years ago, and it’s funny, so many candidates are second- and third-generation in one of the towns in the district, but we chose Connecticut, we chose to live here, and it’s my favorite place that I’ve ever lived. I really love it–I didn’t expect that to happen. I thought we’ll spend some years here and then who knows. but it’s really seeped into my DNA and there’s just something about it that feels slightly magical to me.
GMW: What is it specifically about this district that motivated you to get into the race, to say, now’s the time? What was the urgency to make the decision before you finished winding down the business as originally planned?
Thomas: Choice is an inside part of democracy. If there’s no choice on the ballot, I’m not sure that we’re actually living in a democratic society. But like many people in general, but certainly many Democrats, I find myself growing more and more concerned about the shift towards a more conservative agenda. Connecticut has enjoyed pretty progressive policies over the years, but it may be because of the transplants. I don’t take it for granted that that will continue.
When I talk to people, I think there is a belief that, what I’ll call Democratic values–I don’t even like to use terms like that because Republicans have values too–but some of the things that we associate [with Democrats], like strong gun laws, perhaps fair immigration policies, some of the things that have been in the news more often, recently in particular, I have this sense just talking to people that they believe, ‘Oh of course Connecticut will always remain that way.’ But as a transplant I spend more time looking at the data, looking at the numbers, because I don’t have this life-long legacy or feeling to lean on. When I look at the numbers and what’s been happening politically over the last 5-10 years, I’m a little more nervous about it. And the national agenda has gotten so conservative that I feel I am duty bound to make sure that the state that I live in does not follow suit.
It just felt like the right time to step up. I believe very much that the status quo often remains status quo because no one challenges it. I see this in my business all the time, in fundraising in particular, that people fail to build in the next strategy until the old one has failed. I believe you need new voices, new ideas, new solutions always being introduced into the equation so that you have some alternatives before failure. That’s why I feel like now is the opportunity to step up.
I came across an interesting quote that has stayed with me for the last month or so. I may be paraphrasing, something like, “Your action expresses your priorities.” Inhabiting a society that I want to live in happens to be my priority right now. So I can’t criticize it, I can’t wring my hands if I’m not willing to step up and do the hard work myself.
I happen to think I’m qualified to do it, so I stepped up, and here I am. For me, what’s important to me is that I’m trying.
GMW: You mentioned the status quo and needing to change that. There are many people who blame the governor for the financial situation that the state is in, and the fact that the Democrats have been in the legislative majority, and so the Republicans are going to use that same rationale of needing to disrupt the status quo. What do you think about that? I’ve asked all of the Democrats so far that I’ve interviewed about whether it’s working across the aisle or making the argument for supporting a democrat?
Thomas: Interesting question. I think there’s a difference between changing the status quo as a marketing strategy or expressing a need for it and changing the status quo from an intrinsic, creative, out of the box thought process.
Both parties, and I think people in general, will always try to market effectively to their audience. I can’t blame anyone for doing that. But when I speak of status quo … I’ll phrase it another way. As a small business owner you see this a lot, you have to be nimble sometimes or you go bankrupt.
You have to think outside the box, you have to pay close attention to whatever your environment is doing, how it’s both reacting to real world news scenarios, but also what’s changing in society. And if you don’t react, you fall behind and you soon go out of business.
Government is no different. We’re still talking about people who react to what’s happening in society, we still talk about changing trends, different things come down the pipe at different times in our history. So when I talk about the status quo, I talk more about reaction to what the landscape actually is versus what it has been, if that makes sense.
GMW: You reference being a small business owner. The small business owner is always a sort of archetype in the political conversation. What do you think that vantage point lends to you and to what you could do in this role as state representative?
Thomas: When you own or run a small business, and I’ve done both, you have to really wear all hats and see all sides of everything. You have to do the corporate side of dealing with all these things of, Oh can I afford health care, and what are my accounting policies, and how do I stay fiscally solid, and how do I manage people, how do I build things, how do I keep my R and D fresh, how do I evolve my product to keep pace?
But you also have the consumer side, which in this particular instance would be voters, you also have to pay attention to what they want. You’re not in the silo, you have to really be listening to what they’re saying, you have to be listening to sometimes what they’re not saying because they perhaps don’t even have the language to say it, and you have to respond to it in some way.
And I’m not saying that you evolve your product to fill every niche, but you have to either respond to it by strongly endorsing why you’re not changing your products and why your product is still the best solution or you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that to come up with a creative solution, approach, or resolution of whatever is on the landscape.
I have just found that running a small business has really helped me in just about every other setting I’ve ever been in, both in terms of leadership, in terms of listening, in terms of team building, in terms of budgeting. You can’t deficit a budget when you have a small business. If you can’t stay solvent, you close. It’s really that simple.
Having that type of approach really gives someone a unique perspective that perhaps you don’t gain in other ways, other sectors.
GMW: What do you think are the biggest issues on the landscape–for Wilton, and for Connecticut? What are those issues and what do you think should be done about them?
Thomas: It’s premature for me to say, honestly, just one week into my run. I do not like to just talk for the sake of talking.
I would really want to look into some data, run some numbers to see Wilton. I have not spent a lot of time in Wilton to date. I have spoken to some people, and a lot of people are worried about the things I think we can all guess. They’re worried about budget, they’re worried about tolls, they’re worried about immigration. A lot of people that I spoke to were just interested in the election process and things like gerrymandering, sort of these large scale topics that have come up in the past year, more so than ever.
One gentleman I spoke to, he was in Wilton, he said something like, ‘The next time I see you I want to talk about some potholes at the end of my driveway.’
I think people want to talk about all types of issues, and I think it’s just premature until I speak to them to even guess what’s foremost on their mind. I think that does them a disservice.
GMW: What would you say are your qualifications for the job?
Thomas: Qualifications are a funny thing. As a voter, you spend a lot of time reading palm cards and checking out websites, and I’ve always been slightly frustrated because it seems sometimes to be a slight disconnect. I don’t think that a resume equates good public service or a good public servant. I really don’t believe that. I think what’s most important in public service is the type of person you are, the type of leader you are, and how you are able to either build consensus and or put through the priorities that you’re trying to manifest, whether that’s a bill or an opposition to a bill, that type of stuff.
I am not one to toot my own horn, which is also probably bad for politics, but I prefer to move through the world with an authenticity that I think people read and respond to very well, and as a result other things, very good things about my ability to be both a very strong leader, a firm leader, definitely not a push over by anyone’s standards, but to do it in a way that leaves people feeling good and not trampled upon, and perhaps not with all of the negativity that we see in national politics right now.
I’m sure I could go on and on about actually nitty gritty resume, but it’s all irrelevant at some point because business, and even individual social lives are very different than government and public service. And I think, although some of the skill sets translate, I think it’s a totally different world and you need to approach it with a genuineness that perhaps does not exist to the same level in the other sector.
GMW: Wilton has had a state representative from Wilton for more than 20 years. Our state senator is from Wilton, and has been for a long time. People feel a lot of comfort in that. They know Gail, they know she is a resident of Wilton. What would you say to get people in Wilton to cross that metaphorical town line to vote for somebody who is not a Wilton resident?
Thomas: This is probably not the type of thing that any candidate would ever say, which is evidence in and of itself that I’m a newbie.
I have always valued on the one side I have leadership skills, and how those skills translate to my values on the other side. Most people want the same types of things and most Democrats have similar values to the ones that I hold. And I will, throughout this campaign, get around, talk to people, hear their concerns, give them an opportunity to get to know me a little better, and get to know some of the things that I consider priority, and let them make their decision based on that.
I am not the type of candidate who will sit here and say, right now, today, a week into my run, everyone must vote for me because… I want them to get to know me and vote for me because they think I would be the best candidate regardless of what town I happen to reside in, because if elected I’m obviously representing, and I take that very seriously, representing everybody in the district, whether it’s Wilton, Westport, or Norwalk.
GMW: I know that there were a lot of people very motivated to get those signatures for you in Wilton.
Thomas: Yes. Yes. Very, very nice welcome in Wilton. It makes me even more certain that I feel that magic, that Connecticut magic, that would have never happened in New Jersey.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. There was no alteration for content.