The GMW Interview: Mr. Haskell Goes to Hartford
photo: Will Haskell/Facebook
Senator-Elect Will Haskell has less than a month to go before inauguration and officially taking office to represent Wilton in Hartford, but he’s already hard at work. GOOD Morning Wilton grabbed an hour of his time to talk about how he’s getting prepared and what he’ll do starting the first day on the job as State Senator.
GOOD Morning Wilton: You hit the ground running Day One after the election. What have you been doing since then?
Will Haskell: Truth be told, it was probably Day Two–I slept on Nov. 7, but Nov. 8, the job started up again. My campaign manager (who’s not in Connecticut anymore, he follows me on Instagram) was like, “What are you doing? You’re still campaigning?” In some ways it may look or feel like that, but all those kind of official things shouldn’t just disappear after election day, right? The mission of campaigning should continue on throughout the two years. I may not be knocking doors every weekend like I was, but I want people to give me a call on my cell phone. I want to be a presence at community events.
I’m trying to make really good use of time I have now because January to June, I’ll be in Hartford a lot. That means I may not be at every event as I was during the campaign. That means in December I want to try to meet with as many people in the community as possible, go to as many tree lightings and menorah lightings as I possibly can. And looking forward, into the first session, I want to be accessible and constantly giving voters a sense of what’s happening up there.
You might have been familiar with the “How I Would Vote” emails during the campaign–every two weeks, I would send out an email about how I would vote on key legislation, giving people an idea of what kind of State Senator I would be. Now I want to send out those emails, but they’re going to be “How I Voted” emails so people know what kind of State Senator I am. If they disagree with me or agree with me, I want to hear from them. I want to be a voice, not just for the 53% of people who elected me, but also the 47% who didn’t. I’m their State Senator as well, and something my campaign did well was listen. I learned a ton by just going to people’s front doors, and asking, “What’s the most important issue for you?” I continue listening to people, every chance I get.
GMW: People may have your cellphone but where can people find you?
Haskell: I love the idea of hosting, at least every month or every other month, a regular event in Wilton for people to come and ask questions, maybe at Comstock Community Center. I’ve waited to organize that until the legislative session gets started because there’s not a whole lot to report yet.
There isn’t a lot of change, there shouldn’t be. I campaigned for eight months on a platform of things I really believe in and thought my family, friends, neighbors, and community believed in as well. My intentions are the same, I still want to make it harder to get a gun, and easier to vote. I want to draw young people back to Connecticut through a student loan forgiveness program. My core campaign platform is now my main policy platform as I get to know my colleagues in Hartford.
What I have been doing is meeting with as many local elected officials as possible–that means Democrats and Republicans. Finding out the specific needs of a town like Wilton. I met with [first selectwoman] Lynne Vanderslice, we had a really productive meeting. She and I didn’t get to know one another on the campaign trail because we were of opposite parties, but honestly, the needs of Wilton are specific and non-partisan in some respects, so we’re going to be able to work together really well. She seems like a great partner to have here in town too, she’s incredibly gracious and offered to catch me up on a lot of the ongoing issues that Wilton’s facing.
I met with, not just John Kalamarides from the Board of Finance, who’s in my party, but also [BOF chair] Jeff Rutishauser. Jeff’s a Republican but we chatted about how we can make the budget process more transparent for Wilton, so there’s more predictability and reliability when they’re building their local budgets. His job would be a lot easier if people in Hartford stop passing budgets at the 11th hour.
Obviously, I’m only one voice in the room. I’m a brand new state senator. I’m not going to be able to change Hartford or the process overnight, but I can give Wilton an inside look at what’s happening in the caucus room of the majority. I can be Wilton’s eyes and ears on the ground, and of course, an effective advocate for the specific needs of our community.
GMW: So people like Jeff and Lynne … are you going to have them on speed dial and vice-versa? Is the goal to have that kind of communication?
Haskell: Absolutely. I hope they’ll have me on speed dial. I’ll be checking in with them because we need constant communication. I’ve already found a date with Jeff that I can meet with the entire Board of Finance because that is so important. Wilton needs to know what’s happening at the state level, from teacher pensions to transportation funding, in order to build their local budget and respond to local needs.
Also all sorts of things hyper-specific to town, whether it’s adding another lane on Rte. 7, building a pedestrian bridge, talking to a state official about a grant application. There’s a lot that needs to be done for Wilton outside of party politics, and I really hope to be an effective advocate for this town. That starts by listening, not just to people whose doors I knocked on, not just to the people who voted for me, but also the people who didn’t. Also those who are in local office.
GMW: What’s your relationship with Gail Lavielle?
Haskell: Was just with her this morning. We were touring a water tank site on North Avenue [in Westport]. I like Gail a lot. She is, I think, going to be a wonderful ally and I’m excited to get to know her better. Again, somebody I didn’t necessarily get to know very well while I was campaigning, but now we’re colleagues, we represent both Wilton and Westport together and I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for bipartisan agreement.
Gail seems very level headed to me. I don’t think she’s a far right, ultra-conservative Republican. I think she knows that I’m not a Bernie Sanders Democrat. I’m looking forward to getting together. Both of our schedules have been so hectic, truth be told, we haven’t sat down together yet.
GMW: In terms of priorities, who are your first meetings, who are you trying to connect with, and what’s your top-five things you’ve got to do right away when you get to Hartford?
Haskell: There aren’t all that many senators, and I want to get to know all of them. The Democratic Caucus, there are 23 of us, and I’m going to be a little bit more moderate in that caucus than some of the other members. Some have been in Hartford for years, for decades, and they bring valuable experience. But I bring a new voice, fresh perspective and a different set of eyes. Changing Connecticut and setting the state on a better path has to involve a collaboration between the two.
So, I’ve driven as far as Danielson, CT to get to know Senator Mae Flexer, who’s in her 30s and knows what it’s like to be a young Senator. She and I are ready to work together on making it easier to vote.
I’ve already spent a few days in Hartford, meeting with people like the Secretary of State, and I drove up to New Haven to meet the Governor-elect. I’ve had a few meetings north of the 26th District,
One specific bill I’ll be proposing is digitizing and centralizing the absentee ballot request process. [Right now,] it’s insane. When you’re away you have to go to your school library, print out a form, fill it out by paper, and send it in by mail to your individual town clerk or registrar of voters, of which there are over 100 in Connecticut. It should not be so difficult just to request a ballot. Of course we need to protect the integrity of our elections and ballots will always have to be in paper form, and will have to arrive in the mail. But there is no reason that we can’t follow the lead of other states like Virginia, where you can just request a ballot online, on your iPhone.
I’ve already spoken to the Secretary of State about how we can make it easier for young people to vote, because that was so crucial in my election. I believe I won because young people saw a name on that ballot that they could identify with. They saw somebody who understood the unique challenges and perspective of our generation. We need to keep young people engaged. It has to go beyond just one candidate or one campaign. We have to make sure they continue voting–in order to do that we have to make it easier for them to do so.
GMW: That doesn’t sound like just a young person’s issue.
Haskell: Not at all.
GMW: Making an absentee ballot more accessible to seniors. So they don’t have to get in their car to get one.
Haskell: Absolutely. Or commuters, single working parents…everybody would benefit from making it easier to vote and increasing access to absentee ballots. But you can’t stop there.
I’m also going to be working really hard on passing early voting. Connecticut is one of 12 states that offers [only] that one Tuesday in November, it’s the only opportunity to participate. That is crazy. It’s a real impediment to voting. What if you are a commuter and you just can’t find the time on that Tuesday to actually get to the polling place?
I don’t think this is a partisan issue. It’s about democracy with a lower case ‘d,’ that if you believe society functions a lot better when everybody is engaged, when everybody has a seat at the table, then we should be able to all agree on this one. It’s going to take some bipartisan work because in Connecticut, in order to have early voting we’re going to have to put it in the Constitution, which requires either a simple majority–50% of the House and Senate this year, and 50% of the House and Senate in 2020–and then it would go to the voters for approval in 2022. Or, there’s a faster way, something that I want to work on, which is passing it by three-fourths in the Senate, three-fourths in the House and then it can go to voters as soon as 2020.
This is not something we can drag our feet on. We have to be proactive in getting early voting to the ballot, proactive in making sure that voters have the opportunity to really approve this fundamental change, this fundamental improvement. Obviously, three-fourths of the House and Senate is going to require some Republicans to sign on too. But I hope that they will. That’s why I’m ready to reach across the aisle. I’m interested in starting a Fairfield County Caucus with Republicans and Democrats, because, let’s be honest, the needs of this community are different sometimes than the rest of the state.
The New Haven-to-Grand Central Corridor has been grossly overlooked. It’s gotten slower, as I’ve said time and time again during the campaign. It’s gotten slower since 1950. Reaching across the aisle is something I’m excited to do. I haven’t had a chance to meet many of my Republican colleagues yet, but I’ve certainly met with some of them. That will continue through the swearing in on Jan. 9, and afterwards.
Also, paid family leave just has to be priority of everybody who was elected in this last legislative session. You could not go to a campaign event, you could not go to a town hall forum, you couldn’t knock on a single door without people telling you how frustrated they are that this is a country where you still have to choose between advancing in your career or parenting or starting a family.
I’m so excited that paid family leave is going to be a priority in the next legislative session and what I want to do a good job of talking about, as this debate comes in January, is that it’s not just the right thing to do for parents, it’s also the right thing to do for children.
It’s better for childhood brain development when infants have more bonding time with their parents. It’s not just good for parents, it’s not just good for children, it’s also good for businesses. I would like Connecticut to follow the California model. In the few years later when they surveyed businesses and to find out how it went, 89% of businesses recorded an increase in profitability, 91% of businesses reported an increase in productivity.
This is the right thing to do from so many levels and I’m so excited that it’s not just a priority of mine, but also in my conversations with leadership, it really does seem to be a priority of leadership in the Senate.
I’m so hopeful, honestly, for the sake of parents like my mom, who had to go back to work two weeks after I was born. Things are changing in Connecticut, we’re about to become a state that’s a lot more fair, and a lot more just.
GMW: How was your meeting with Governor-elect Lamont?
Haskell: It was great. I got to know–now the Governor-Elect, then Ned–pretty well during the campaign trail because he worked hard in Fairfield County. He and I share a lot of the same priorities. Look, he recognizes that a core component of making this state more appealing for businesses is to make the state more appealing for young people, to provide businesses with a young, diverse, tech-savvy worker they so desperately need. He’s from Greenwich. He understands the unique needs of Fairfield County. He understands the frustration of commuters in this area, and how fundamentally important the New Haven-to-Grand Central corridor is to the economic vitality of our entire state.
I’m really excited to work with him. He’s got some great ideas. We both bring, obviously, a different perspective, but both of us are new to Hartford. We both bring a fresh approach to a system that I think is crying out for reform, and change, and vibrancy, and energy. I think he’s going to be a great governor.
GMW: What are the committees you want to be on?
Haskell: You have a conversation with the Senate President about what your interests are, and my interests are really diverse. I want to put wi-fi on Metro-North and speed up the trains. I want to address our crumbling infrastructure, and our transportation crisis. I want to make sure that schools are well funded and equitable across the 26 districts and across Connecticut. I want to make it easier to vote and I want to make government more efficient. I want to work on gun violence prevention to make sure that every student can feel safe in school. Just those topics cover such a wide variety of committees that it’s going to be…I’ll be interested to see where there are openings and where I get placed.
I can’t imagine there’s any committee that I would have no interest in serving on, frankly, because from the committee on aging to the committee on children, I have a lot of interest and a lot of ideas about how we can make Connecticut–and specifically the 26th District–a better place to live.
GMW: Let’s talk about the teacher pension push down. It didn’t happen last year, but there’s talk that something will pass down to the towns this year. It’s much more likely.
Haskell: Governor Malloy’s proposal to push one-third of teacher pension payments down to towns was reckless and irresponsible, and ill-conceived. It would place a huge financial burden on towns like Wilton, and perhaps cause a rise in mil rates, which would be wholly unacceptable to most of the voters I’ve met over the last eight months. We also have to keep in mind that towns in the 26th District usually pay their teachers more than towns elsewhere in the state. When the teacher has a higher salary, that leads to a higher pension. And right now, the state is on the hook for paying that higher pension difference, and that’s not entirely fair. So, I think that Connecticut is going to move to a system, whether we like it or not, that asks the state, and teachers, and towns, to contribute to teacher pensions, something that, perhaps, resembles New York State. I will fight vigorously to keep that percentage as low as possible, so it’s affordable to the taxpayers in Wilton. I also think that we can get creative about this.
Perhaps Wilton could be on the hook for paying the differential between the average teacher pension and the teacher pension of somebody who’s spent a career in Wilton. That might be a lot more acceptable to taxpayers and, again the key thing here is providing them with predictability and transparency, which Hartford has failed to do in the past.
That’s why I’m going to have Lynne, Jeff, and John on speed dial going forward so they know exactly what we’re talking about in Hartford and what they can expect when they build their budget, because I know this is a revaluation year.
GMW: You just described yourself as being more moderate than some of your Democratic colleagues. How?
Haskell: Well, I will support a repeal of the estate tax. Drawing young people to Connecticut is important to me but we also need to make sure that this state is an affordable place for people to retire and live in. I don’t think we should be taxing Social Security, I don’t think that we should be taxing pensions. And, most importantly, people need to feel they can stay in Connecticut even after their kids graduate from school, that they can afford to live in Connecticut all the way until the end of their life.
So, the estate tax doesn’t bring that much money into the state, and it’s a huge driver of people out of the state. Look, Connecticut is facing major issues, and the solution to those issues have to be intergenerational. So, yes, we need more people in their 20s and 30s that decide to start their careers, their small businesses, their families here. But we also need to discourage people from picking up and leaving as soon as their kids graduate from our amazing public schools. We need to encourage them to retire here, to stay here throughout their life. That means repealing the estate tax.
Are progressive members of my caucus going to love that? Probably not, but it’s an important step nonetheless. It’s something I heard time and time again from folks who were trying to sell their homes, and when I asked them why they were leaving, the estate tax often came into the conversation.
GMW: One thing you might not be so moderate on is minimum wage, and with a lot of small businesses in your district, That’s probably something that’s harder for them to accept. How do you answer that?
Haskell: Actually I think it is another issue where I’m a bit of a moderate. Maybe someone said I couldn’t be moderate by supporting a $15.00 minimum wage, but I think we need to do it in a way that’s fair to small business, that works incrementally up to $15.00 an hour. I’d be open to exemptions for students who have a summer job. I’d be open to saying you have to work at a business for six months before you qualify for that $15.00 an hour minimum wage. I am ready for small businesses to come to the table. I’ve spent the last few weeks meeting with small business owners across the district.
Here in Wilton, I had a great visit to The Painted Cookie, and we’re eating lunch right now at a small business in Wilton. Engaging in that conversation and not rooting businesses against workers, but recognizing that businesses need skilled employees, and that the current minimum wage is simply not a livable salary. If you work 40 hours a week at the current minimum wage, you’re making $21,000 a year–it’s difficult to feed your kids on $21,000 a year.
GMW: Speaking of earning in the $20,000s…as State Senator you’ll make $28,000. What are you going to do for work? Being State Senator requires an intense amount of flexibility–you’re going to have to be at Miller-Driscoll for Read Aloud Day, at ribbon cuttings, and at other things that require you to be there. What are you going to do for the rest of income you need to live in this district?
Haskell: That’s a great question. I don’t want to talk too much about it on the record, only because the process is ongoing, but I’m looking for a job that will afford me sufficient flexibility, and there’s a lot I’m interested in, a lot of sectors I’d be excited to work in. We’ll see where I end up. Right now I’m really trying to get the lay of the land in Hartford, figure out where the bathrooms are [laughs], I’m still learning who my colleagues are and the towns that they represent, but it also means that I’ll be looking for some part-time work.
GMW: Orientation in Hartford is Monday-Wednesday, Dec. 10-12. What happens leading up to Jan. 9, and then after? What’s the process?
Haskell: For orientation events, I’ll be learning about, basically, the Rules of Order in the Senate Chamber, and I’ll find out what committees I’m assigned to by the Senate President’s office. There’s a lot I still have to learn about the way the building works, but I’m excited for that process.
I also do not want to be alone in that process. Sometimes Wilton feels so far away from Hartford. I was touring the YMCA in Westport and someone said to me, “I’m so excited. When do you get started in Washington?” And I said, “No, no, no, it’s actually in Hartford.” And they said, “Ah. Well, same thing.”
Basically, it feels as far away as Washington sometimes. But Hartford’s A, not that far, and B, it’s on us as elected officials to make it feel really close by letting you know exactly what’s going on and how we’re voting and what the process is like–what it’s like to be a state Senator even. So, I’m posting on my Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook, really frequently. Letting people know what orientation looks like. Hey, this is the tunnel that takes you from the Legislative Office Building into the Gallery underground, and here’s how many people serve on a committee. Here’s how many committees there are. Basic questions that maybe didn’t get covered in Civics class, or maybe you forgot since your last Civics class. I want to take people along with me on this journey, so hopefully they’ll tune in on Instagram.
Haskell: A huge problem in Westport, and I don’t know about in Wilton, but certainly in Fairfield County more broadly, too many people think that Cuomo’s their governor and Albany’s their capital.
We need to make people interested in state government, and that’s part of why I’m keeping people posted and updated on what it looks like to be a state senator. But I also want to extend an invitation to every teacher, whether they’re a teacher in elementary school or in high school, to bring their students up to Hartford for a tour. I would love to show people around the capital.
As I understand it, the place is always buzzing with field trips and yet that’s often not the case with Fairfield County.
GMW: I don’t think it’s in Wilton curriculum. You do town things, like visit Town Hall, but not Hartford.
Haskell: In my own elementary school we went to Town Hall and then in high school we went into New York City. I get it, Hartford could be a little bit closer, but it is so important. It has such a huge impact on our daily lives and I really am hoping that, whether it’s an individual family or a school, I hope people will come up and allow me to tour them around the capital.
Because that would be such an awesome day and to have people engage in the process and learn more about exactly what I was elected to do, my job that I have.
GMW: Earlier in the conversation, you alluded to wanting to speed up the vote about early voting. So that the timetable is 2019, 2020, as opposed to 2022. Well, that begs the question about 2020 and 2022 and if you’ll run again, or do you have plans to go to law school in 2020 instead?
Haskell: I’m absolutely committed to this job, and I think what I came to realize in the days after election day when it didn’t slow down at all, in fact it sped up. I had twice as many meetings as I had during the campaign. I came to realize that going to law school at the same time as being a state legislator would not allow me to really serve my constituents.
The voters in this district have put an enormous amount of trust in me and I’m so grateful for that, I’m honored, and I feel a tremendous responsibility. I don’t want to let them down by being distracted by something else. So I’ve decided to delay law school by as long as…certainly for the next two years.
And I’m hoping that I have the opportunity to serve this district for a while. I don’t think that I’ll be able to accomplish all my goals in one legislative or two legislative sessions.
Creating a state government that makes us proud is going to take a while. The last few decades with Democrats and Republicans are to blame for that. We can’t solve any of our problems overnight. I plan to work exceptionally hard in this upcoming legislative session, but I’m not oblivious or blindly optimistic to the fact that I’m not going to be able to accomplish all my goals and that, likely, that will take another few years.