This morning, the Connecticut General Assembly will start its next two-year term by inaugurating state legislators. Wilton will have two new state legislators — Keith Denning (D) will become Wilton’s state representative in the newly-formed 42nd District and Ceci Maher (D) will take the oath of office to be Wilton’s state senator (26th District).
Will Haskell held that state senate seat for the last four years but opted not to run for re-election after applying to law school (he started his first year at NYU Law School this past fall). GOOD Morning Wilton asked Haskell to reflect on his four years serving Wilton.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Thinking back to the first time (as a candidate) you started campaigning in Wilton, to now, what was the biggest thing you learned about Wilton and Wilton residents?
Will Haskell: The first thing you learn when knocking doors in Wilton is that this town is filled with uphill driveways. I literally had a hole in my shoe by the end of the first campaign.
The second thing you learn is that Wilton residents care deeply about their community. When I reached the top of those driveways, practically every resident I met was eager to stop what they were doing and brainstorm about how to build a better town or better state. They shared why they loved Wilton, and how it could be better. I think Wilton residents rightly understand that governance is a group endeavor, and I was proud to take some of the great ideas I heard at doorsteps or town hall meetings and turn them into bills. Then I had the chance to turn those bills into laws. Wilton may be ideologically diverse, but nearly everyone in this community values respectful dialogue. With very few exceptions, my constituents in Wilton were ready to put politics aside after Election Day and work together on changing things for the better.
GMW: What was your biggest success as State Senator, and where have you had the biggest impact?
Haskell: As the youngest state senator in the state and country, I’m especially proud of my work on behalf of young people. When I arrived in Hartford, I was appointed as the Senate Chair of the Higher Education Committee. Stepping into that role, I saw declining college enrollment as an economic crisis, since 70% of jobs in our state will require some degree beyond a high school diploma by 2025. I also saw rising tuition costs as a moral crisis, since qualified students are being locked out of higher education opportunities simply because their families lack resources.
So we made community college free in 2019, and thousands of students since then have pursued a degree that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. Enrollment is now on the rise, and local businesses will be better able to fill job vacancies.
For recent graduates who are struggling with debt and deciding where to start their careers, I’m proud to have passed a new tax credit that cuts taxes for businesses if they offer student loan repayment as a benefit to their employees. Connecticut has the highest student loan debt in the country, and that cloud of debt has a major impact on our economy. It slows young people down when trying to buy a home, start a family or launch a small business. I hope the new tax credit will make Connecticut a more affordable and appealing option for the next generation of taxpayers.
Getting those wins across the finish line felt great, but I’m also proud of some long-term victories that I’ll have the chance to see realized in the years to come. As the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee, I fought for historic investments in the New Haven Line, the Danbury Branch Line and the New Canaan Branch Line. I had the chance to collaborate with Gov. Lamont on the Time for CT Plan, which will increase train speed, install WiFi for commuters, and provide CT riders with direct access to Penn Station. None of those changes happen overnight, but we directed unprecedented resources to modernizing the antiquated rail lines and I’m excited to watch those investments deliver real change in the years to come.
GMW: What was your biggest regret?
Haskell: For every new law that I’m proud of helping to pass, I could tell you about 10 more that didn’t make it across the finish line.
I tried repeatedly to ban the bulk purchase of firearms because I believe we must do more to end the cycle of gun violence. When someone buys five or 15 or 30 handguns, chances are they will sell them into the hands of someone who wouldn’t pass a background check.
I also fought like crazy to legalize Aid in Dying because too many constituents with a terminal diagnosis told me that they planned to leave their home in Connecticut so that they could pass in a peaceful manner of their choosing someplace where dignity in death was legal.
I tried to enact a carbon budget for our Department of Transportation because fighting climate change requires limiting the greatest contributor to carbon emissions — the transportation sector. I worked to eliminate the car tax, which is among Connecticut’s most inequitable, inefficient and unpopular taxes. It’s hard to walk away from the job when there is so much unfinished business, but it’s made much easier by the fact that Ceci Maher is taking office this week. She’ll be an exceptional advocate for the district, and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes.
GMW: Knowing what you know now about politics and how government works from the inside, is running for elected office in your future after law school?
Haskell: I would love to get back into politics one day. I launched my campaign because I was feeling pessimistic about our state and our politics, but these past four years have converted me to an optimist. Believe it or not, lawmakers can still work across the aisle. Change is actually still possible, so long as you’re willing to channel your passion into the hard work of building a coalition. Underdog candidates can still pull off what seems impossible, because voters call the shots in a democracy. I feel so lucky to have found what I love to do at a young age, and if the opportunity arises, I’d love to jump back into the fray. But in the meantime, I’m excited about law school, and spending more time with my loved ones.
GMW: What would be a possible next step… statewide? Local? Higher office?
Haskell: Timing is everything in politics. My team and I worked hard, to be sure, but 2018 was a special moment in our state and country — people were feeling fed up and ready to change course. I’ve shied away from making any specific plans for the future, because I’ll have to see if there is another moment that feels right. You know what they say about the best laid plans…
GMW: What do you hope Wilton will remember about you?
Haskell: I hope my constituents felt heard. Even if we didn’t always agree, I did my best to answer their emails, texts, voicemails and letters honestly and promptly. I loved hearing feedback from folks at their front doors or outside the supermarket. Often, they changed my mind. I did my best to make sure my constituents knew that I worked for them — that’s why I called my book 100,000 First Bosses.
I hope the teamwork of Wilton’s delegation (including my friends [former State Rep.] Stephanie Thomas, [former State Sen.] Gail Lavielle, and [State Rep.] Tom O’Dea) with local leaders like [Wilton First Selectwoman] Lynne Vanderslice made them feel more optimistic about the prospect of bipartisanship.
I hope that my team and I made state politics just a little bit more accessible — for seniors I met during Town Halls at Comstock Community Center, or students I sent a birthday note to when the pandemic forced them to cancel their birthday parties. My constituents showed up for me on Election Day, and I hope they felt that I showed up for them every other day of the year.
GMW: What advice did you give Wilton’s next state senator, Ceci Maher?
Haskell: Ceci’s personal story and professional experience make her a perfect fit for this job, and I have no doubt she is ready on day one. We’ve kept in close touch during this transition period, and I left a note in her Senate desk (the contents of which I’ll keep between us).
But this bit of advice I’ll give publicly: prepare to be occasionally unpopular. Running for office is all about being liked, but being in office often requires the opposite. It’s your job to make hard choices, and doing so thoughtfully and respectfully won’t placate everyone who wishes you made a different choice. Follow your conscience, remember that it’s ok to disagree with your own party, and keep in mind that it’s important to be comfortable sometimes saying no to the very people who helped elect you. You’re the state senator for everybody now — not just the folks who voted for you.
For full disclosure, I struggled with this part of my job. When I voted to make sure Connecticut students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, I was berated in public by strangers and scorned by some people I thought were friends. Protesters showed up when I tried to read picture books to kids, and there were some scary security threats. But I’d make that vote again in a second because I believe it was the right thing to do to protect public health. Ceci has no shortage of tough votes and unpopular decisions coming her way. Sometimes, she’ll find herself on the opposite side of some of the loudest voices in the room. I know she’ll do her best to make the right decision, and I hope her constituents will endeavor to look past occasional disagreements, as they often did for me.
GMW: What’s your parting message for Wilton — what do you hope Wilton will do entering 2023?
Haskell: Thank you for taking a chance on me. You opened up your front doors, and then your homes, so that we could work together on building a better future for Connecticut. I’ve learned from each of you, during quick conversations on the train platform and long ones at Orem’s Diner. Thank you for your feedback, when we agreed and especially when we disagreed. I couldn’t have done my job without it.
I am so optimistic about this community’s future, and I’m forever grateful to have had the chance to work for all of you. If you’re reading this and thinking about getting involved in politics, whether as a volunteer or a candidate, I hope my time in office has helped convince you to take that leap of faith. I’ve found that stepping forward can be scary, but take that first step and then look behind you. I bet you’ll find a team of old friends and new friends who have your back.