On March 18, Gail Lavielle dropped a proverbial bomb by announcing that she would not be running for re-election as Wilton’s state representative for CT’s 143rd Legislative District. After serving five terms, the most recent as assistant minority leader and House ranking member of the legislature’s largest committee, Appropriations, Lavielle has decided that she is interested in neither a 6th term nor any other elected office.
Later on the day of her announcement, she spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton about her decision and reflected on her legislative career.
GOOD Morning Wilton: This announcement caught everybody by surprise. What have you heard since you made broke the news?
Gail Lavielle: I’ve heard from a lot of people and they are so very kind. It’s very moving. That’s the one thing I can say about it–it’s really moving. Some of them remember meeting me eight years ago or something, and it makes me feel very close to this town, quite honestly.
When we first moved here, I joined the Republican Town Committee (RTC) to make friends because I was traveling and working and didn’t know anybody here and had no other intention at all. When I did try to enter [politics], Wilton was much more of an old-timer town then, and people were always a little skeptical of somebody new. But when they know you and they trust you and they understand you, boy are they loyal and caring.
GMW: People not only were surprised, but they said, “Well she must be going on to try for a different office.” So what made you say, “I’m done with government, I’m done with politics?”
GL: Well, my feeling about that is not new. I was never interested in this in the first place. [laughs] I was somebody who always loved literature and words. I was always very deep with classical music. I used to be a critic for a while. I like to play classical music with other people. I’m interested in media. I’m interested in a whole range of things. I love France and feel a certain draw there as well and haven’t been able to spend hardly any time there since I’ve been doing this.
And of course, one can’t pay attention enough to one’s husband doing this, that’s clear. And he’s been wonderful, but we need to spend time together. I need my life back.
I started thinking about this already three, four years ago. I did not have in my head, “Well now that I’m in politics, I just have to go higher and higher and higher.” I never thought that. People always think, “Okay, you’re going to go run for the Senate now.” The Senate and the House is exactly the same job in Connecticut. There is no difference between the two jobs. In the Senate, you just have more constituents and therefore more busywork. I can understand it if you don’t get a good position in the House and you just become part of the rank and file. But I didn’t–I got the most important jobs that our caucus have. So if I wanted a platform, I had it. If I wanted to take a very visible stance on something I could. No, I never had any interest in just moving from one chamber to the other because that would not have given me any more access to anything than I already had.
And I was an executive who managed people and who managed budgets in my professional career. And I’m not interested in doing that again as the governor, you know? [Laughs] Not that that ever would have been an issue!
[Being State Reprsentative] has really been one of the most interesting things that I ever did. I was surprised at myself that I wanted to do it and it turned out to be incredibly worthwhile. I’m so grateful I’ve had the opportunity.
For my first three terms, I never even thought about my other interests. I was happy to give all that up. You have to give 100% of yourself and more if possible, to this every minute of every day to do it right. I
d go to bed at night, I was thinking about it; I’d wake up and I dreamed about it all night, and if we got a little vacation, I was thinking about it the whole vacation. I didn’t mind because it was just all-consuming.
But when you notice that the other things that have really defined you are beginning to come back and you’re beginning to miss them, then it’s time to think that, “Are you really going to give 100% just like it needs?” I think if you’re going to be in public office, you owe that to the people who put you there. It’s a very heavy thing and, and you can only do it for a certain period of time.
GMW: Someone said to me how lucky Wilton was to have someone who was so dedicated, who gave of herself 110%, that this was your sole job. This is where you focused your attention. You gave so much that it may be hard to find someone to fill your shoes. It sounds like it’s a thankless, really difficult place to be, in that job.
GL: It’s very difficult sometimes because you do your best and then people yell at you. [laughs]
You know, nobody’s indispensable and people give of themselves in different ways. You do need to have a life situation that allows you to do this properly. I’ve had it and there are other people who do too. But I do think it’s important for anybody who asks for and then accepts being in elected office, they do have to understand that it is not what they want that matters.
Because you have all these people who you’ve suddenly become their voice. I remember sitting in that house chamber for the first time and going, “Okay, I’m not one person, I’m 24,500 people.” You have to do what you do because you know what they want and they need is not always what you want. But generally, there is some correspondence. You have to be honest. A lot of people don’t give it that much thought and there are complicated issues most of the time.
Somebody else can do this. I just hope it’s someone who will give a great deal of thought to it.
GMW: In the 10 years you were in the legislature, what’s the thing you’re most proud of?
GL: There’s two of them. Part of this is the effect of being in the minority party–when you’re in the majority party, you can run out there and say, “I’m going to do X,” and then because you took a majority position, everybody gets behind you and then it gets done. It’s easier. But you’d be proud that you thought of it.
In the minority party you come up with, “I’m going to do X!” And, well getting that buy-in is almost impossible from the whole legislature.
So the two things that I think that I did, because I spotted them, I became aware of them, I alerted people to them and then I worked against them–but I got other people to help–the first was school regionalization. I’ve never taken total credit for that, but I did find it and I did bring it up in the first education committee meeting and surprised everybody and said, “Why is this on here?” And I alerted the media and alerted people. I’m proud of that.
And the second was, I’m proud of the time when Malloy introduced a bill that nobody saw, that would have created the Transit Corridor Development Authority that would have allowed a bunch of not-elected people to come in and start taking parts of our towns by eminent domain and doing whatever they want to do. And I pretty much did stop that one all by myself.
I think those are the two things I’m most proud of. There are a couple of other things, like the Education Mandate Relief Bill. But I think those two probably has the biggest, most long-lasting effects.
There were some other things–when we had the big storm, people needed a lot of help. Getting the utilities to answer people when their power was going to come back on. I felt very useful during those times.
GMW: What do you regret, that something you really wanted to accomplish, but you weren’t able to?
GL: One of the things people don’t realize is that nobody ever gets a bill that they passed through with their name on it. There are lots of bills that plain old didn’t get through. But when you’re in the minority, you know that they may not.
I wish all the time that we somehow could have gotten more money for that Danbury branch line train and I still wish it. And with every transportation commissioner who’s gone through, I have been on them constantly.
I’ve always gone after it on the transportation committee, and it just has not happened. I think that’s just terrible. That line needs to be fixed. It would dramatically change in the town in a good way–like property values.
One of the other things I was really happy about was when I became ranking number of [the] Education [Committee], which is a very big committee.
It’s not quite as big as appropriations, but it’s huge. The house chair was a guy named Andy Fleischmann. We had a horrible relationship before that. He was mean to me on the committee and not call on me, and he was mean to a lot of other people, it was always very frustrating. The Education Committee was not my favorite place and a lot of people got off of it from my caucus, because they found it tense.
When I was made ranking member, I called him up and we had a talk and there were a couple of things I thought that he did well and I told him and he was so shocked–you could hear, he was almost falling off his seat.
We began the whole thing with a better relationship and it developed into a friendship, to the point where sometimes, he would leave the room and he’d say, “Here, you run the meeting,”–which they don’t do with ranking members.
We ended up getting a lot of stuff done together; it was productive and people came back to the Education Committee because we were in harmony. I think that was a very good thing for the state of Connecticut. By the way, my success around education has continued with the new House chair, it’s working very well.
GMW: You’ve said before that you hate ‘politics.’ You’ve even said, “There are so many things I can’t say and I can’t wait to say them.” You still have a few more months left to serve, but is there anything that you can say now because you’ve made this decision and the weight is off your shoulders?
GL: It may not just be me, but I don’t hate anybody from the other party because they’re in the other party. I just don’t. I’ve never had that animosity. Sometimes I meet people from the other party who immediately assume that they don’t like me because they’re ‘sure’ I don’t like them. And it’s not true. It’s not true.
So many people treat it like a game. “These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, and we’ve got to get ’em out. We’ve got to attack and whatever happens, we have to argue about it and we have to prove they’re wrong.”
Or–people on both the left and the right are guilty of this–“I have an ideology and if something is not in agreement with that ideology, then it’s wrong, and we can’t have it, and it can’t be right, for the state or for people.”
That’s just not true. You really have to look at the circumstances that are in the place where you are. For a long time, Connecticut has not tracked where the United States is and isn’t. We have our own special situation here. And the way out of it is not to follow somebody’s national party platform.
Sometimes there are things we need to spend more money on. In general, we need to cut the spending. But sometimes we’ve got to spend it on something. These things are not absolute.
I’ll give you an example, something I feel very strongly about myself, particularly given my background with languages and having been an immigrant in another country for a long time. I am a French citizen–I don’t mind people knowing that, I’m very proud to be a citizen of two countries.
There has been huge influx [to Connecticut] of immigrant children. I don’t know if they’re documented or undocumented, I have no idea. They have come by the hundreds in Norwalk; the same thing has happened in Danbury.
Now, you can sit around and get mad that they’re here, and I get that. You can also think, “They’ve got to go somewhere and I feel sorry for them.” And I get that too. But the fact is they’re here and now that they’re here, and it appears that nobody is going to see if they don’t belong somewhere else, then they’re required to go to school. And if you aren’t adequately recognizing that Norwalk and Danbury have this issue and that it does cost money to find people who are capable of functioning in both languages. You have to acknowledge that it’s an asset that they speak another language, not a flaw.
You have to make sure they learn English really well, but you do what the Europeans do and you teach them half a day in one language and half a day in the other language; or three days a week [in one language], and two days a week [in the other]. But you put the native English speakers in there with them, so they’re all coming out totally bilingual in two languages.
And there are some places in the state, by the way, where that language is Polish, not Spanish.
You dedicate the resources for this because Americans can’t compete on the global level anymore. They speak nothing. And here you’ve got a golden opportunity to make sure that everybody comes out of this experience totally comfortable, idiomatic, grammatical and literate.
Then you say, “Yes, we had to spend more money on bilingual education, but make sure it’s real bilingual education.”
This is people who are here, they’re here. Okay, they’re here. So what do we do now about education? Sometimes you have to look at the thing you can solve. In Connecticut, we can’t solve the immigration problem–it’s Federal. Let’s look at what we can do, with what we’ve got. And this is what we could do.
That’s what people will get their teeth into, it’s like a dog with a bone. One guy says, “I’m against any more immigration. These people are all illegal. Let’s throw them out!” And the other person is saying, “Oh, no, no, no, no, we have to have far more sympathy for these people than Americans who live here because that’s the way it is. It’s just not fair, everybody’s getting tortured at…”
You know what? That’s another discussion, that’s not the discussion we’re having here.
Both Republicans and Democrats think it’s just great to scare their constituents into something, into thinking something really bad is about to happen and making them afraid. “Right now you’ve got gotta send testimony, you’ve got to do this, you got to do that.”
It’s like crying ‘Wolf!’ Hey, it gets headlines, right? There is a tendency among politicians to try to do something because it gets a headline. You have to watch your credibility on those things. It’s really important. And I found that there are certain people who do not watch that. It also makes people nervous. They don’t know when to worry and when not to worry.
GMW: What do you want your Wilton constituents to look for when they choose your successor?
Somebody who can listen, that’s paramount. I don’t think anybody who’s too ideological is a good idea. Somebody who’s stuck to an ideology cannot be flexible in the face of circumstances.
Somebody who will take it upon themselves always to protect Wilton. I’ve got a district where I have three towns. I’ve always given equal attention to all three, I’m the only one who has that town at the top. So somebody has got to really care about Wilton. And you don’t have to live there to be that person, but you’d better show it. I had to show it when I first ran because I was new. But having to show it actually made me feel it. It’s very, very important to have that.
It’s very important to have somebody who will tell the truth. Sometimes people do things for partisan reasons, but if they do that, then say so. If somebody doesn’t say so when you suspect it’s true and it’s not really in sync with the district, you need to question it.
I will point out one thing. And this is as close to partisan as I get here. You were in Hartford during [the debate on] school regionalization, and you saw how the folks from our town wer treated. They were treated that way, whether they were Republicans or Independent, Unaffiliated or Democrats, they were treated that way regardless of who they were.
It is important to know that in the current state of the majority party in Hartford, when a Democrat gets a new seat, those people who mistreated Wilton residents become more empowered. And that is very sad. It can be the most wonderful person in the world, but that will be the case. People should just be aware of it and really consider their vote when the time comes. That these people who are from cities who are very, very, unlike Wilton, and have very different priorities, will be more empowered if they have more and more folks alongside them. That’s just a fact. It’s not a judgment, it’s not a partisan statement. It’s a fact. So people should just keep it in mind.
GMW: Is there anything else that you want people to know?
GL: I don’t want them to think [not running again] was a decision I just made, that it’s something I’ve been in doubt about.
I’ve been very sure. I’ve been very sure for quite a long time. If I wanted to do it again, I’d do it again.
And it does not have anything to do with the current political context. It’s when you don’t want to do something anymore, you don’t do it. This is a very well-considered, very thought out decision that I almost didn’t even have to make when I knew I was ready. It’s just very important that people know that.
GMW: When you say it didn’t have anything to do with any other political context, do you mean on the national stage?
GL: Well, look, the voter registration has changed around here. A lot of people don’t look at Republicans because they’re thinking about Trump. That was not an impediment last time, and it wouldn’t be an impediment this time.
I can’t give you a download on what the national Republican playbook is. I don’t know because I don’t refer to it in order to do my job here in Connecticut. I think for myself, and then I go in and do what needs to be done. And thank God I belong to a caucus where no one ever tells us what to do or how to vote.
So whatever it is that the president, no matter who it has been–Democrat, Republican or anything–no matter what the president is doing, it’s not where I get my inspiration, one way or the other. I’ve never gone on all those presidential discussions on Facebook, whether it was Obama or whether it was Trump. I’ve never endorsed a presidential candidate. That’s way far away from my wheelhouse.
A capitol reporter called me [one time] in the middle of the night, he asked me, “I’m calling Republicans to find out if they’re feeling pressured to come out and say things about what Trump said. Are you?”
I said, no, and he said, “Why not?”
I said, “Well, because I never said anything good about him, why should I say anything bad about him? I’ve never said anything about him at all. In fact, I never said anything about Obama. I’ve never endorsed a presidential candidate. I’ve never said anything about presidential candidates, be it Trump, Obama, Romney–and God knows I never said anything good about Sarah Pallin!”
That was my answer. [laughs]
And he printed it and that was the end of that discussion!
You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror when you get up in the morning and feel like you didn’t do something completely ridiculous for show. And I think a lot of people in politics do. It’s a very inauthentic environment and that’s another reason I’m ready to get out of it. It’s not authentic.
I’ll go to a dinner party or something and people will know what I do and it changes the conversation with them somehow. Maybe it was a friend I would have made, but it just never happened because I didn’t want to give off the feeling I wanted something from them. It’s weird–it’s not like real life.
GMW: It’s a different kind of show business, in a way.
GL: Theater. It’s all theater. [Laughs]
You know how people say, “I’m not going away.” Well, on the lips of some, that means they still want to be involved in politics. I’m not going away. I’ll do a number of different things, but I’m not running for office.