Wilton resident Ross Tartell is the Democratic challenger taking on State Representative Tom O’Dea, a New Canaan resident who currently represents a part of Wilton and New Canaan in the 125th District in Hartford.
He and his wife, Karen, have lived in Wilton for 30 years, and raised their son here. He has worked for GE Capital and Pfizer, and started his own consulting business. For the past 22 years, Tartell has also been an adjunct professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Tartell has been active in Wilton municipal roles, as a Fire Commissioner and chairman of several long-range planning committees for the Wilton School District, but this is the first elected position he’s going after.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Tartell to find out more about why he’s running and what he wants voters to know.
GMW: You are running in a district that is one-third Wilton (where you live), but two-thirds New Canaan. So you may be new to a lot of people–both in New Canaan but also here in Wilton, as a first-time candidate. How do you introduce yourself as ‘Candidate Ross Tartell’ now?
Ross Tartell: In Wilton, I’m extremely well-known. I’ve been around for 30 years. I’ve been very active in the Wilton community, in a whole range of activities that touch many points and cross many circles. But New Canaan is new to me, and New Canaan I know because they’ve got great restaurants and they’ve got a great library and they’ve got a pretty good historical society. It’s in a wonderful location, it’s got a beautiful downtown, but that’s what I know about New Canaan, and that’s not enough.
The way I introduce myself in New Canaan is I say who I am, and I say, ‘I’m running against Tom O’Day, and I’m running on the Democratic line.’ Then I talk about how it’s important that Tom have some competition so we can identify and talk through and really explore the issues that are important to keeping New Canaan and Wilton as top-tier towns in Connecticut and changing the direction of Connecticut itself, because Connecticut is not doing well.
GMW: There are different needs between the two towns. How do you anticipate being able to do that between New Canaan and Wilton?
Tartell: Each town has unique culture, as you well know. Each town is just a fabulous town, for some of the same reasons and also for some different reasons. What I bring to each of those towns is that I’ve got tremendous business background. I’ve got a tremendous education background, and through my community work I have a good understanding of what it takes to make a town top-tier and really good. I spent my life helping individuals and organizations perform well, helping them understand what does it take to succeed? I’ve taken that background and applied it to my community work.
For instance, 23 years doing long-range planning in the Wilton school systems, and oh, by the way, we benchmarked against New Canaan, so I have a pretty good idea of New Canaan because it’s a top-tier school system and we wanted to take their ideas and see how they might play in Wilton. You take that experience, that background, that perspective, and then you apply it to the community work so that the strategic planning experience that I have played out with my strategic planning experience within Wilton.
The project management experience and perspective that I bring that help people understand how to drive a project to fruition is something I’ve taken and applied to the Marhoffer Fire Station [Fire Station #2] that we’re looking at renovating. Those types of skills come back to the community, and those are important in how they play out in the community, but they’re certainly the type of thing that is missing in Hartford.
GMW: Many people are familiar with your volunteer service in Wilton as a fire commissioner. I wasn’t as familiar with what you’ve done in terms of long-range planning for the school district. What has that experience been?
Tartell: With the school system, my son was born in 1991, he went through the entire Wilton School system. I started on long-range planning teams in Wilton under Superintendent David Clune in 1990, with principal Helen Martin, when it was still Driscoll School. There, I chaired that long-range planning team. The long-range planning process in Wilton was school-based, so you got the charge from the Superintendent of Schools, then each school worked individually, and then at the district level they aggregated the direction of the different schools together.
I chaired the long-range planning team in Driscoll, then I chaired it in Cider Mill, then I chaired it in Middlebrook, then I chaired it for the High School. And then once Gary Richards came in as superintendent, he changed the long-range planning process and made it more district-driven, so I chaired the community work stream.
For instance, early on at Driscoll, we really worked at changing the testing when the students were tested, so we could do early identification of learning issues and put that into place.
It changed how students were assessed and the diagnosis that could be done with the students, so it was earlier and you could make a difference there. Later, we looked at how is the handoff between Cider Mill and Middlebrook–you go from elementary school to middle school, and it’s a different world. How is that done? From the high school, when you leave Middlebrook, those services that you get, especially around reading, change, so the services diminished between 8th grade and 9th grade. We really looked at how you change those services and then make sure you don’t leave kids behind, because if a kid can’t read well, their entire scholastic ability suffers because they can’t read a word problem. They can’t do math, they can’t do history, they can’t do English.
Those are some places that made a significant difference. I chaired these, working closely with the school principal, and working with an entire team. You support the process so that the process can work. Those are some of the places where I made a difference in long-range planning. I’m very proud of that work, because the school system in Wilton, when you look at cost-per-head, is not the most expensive in the DRG, and yet we do extremely well. We get a pretty good payback of what we invest, and part of that, I like to think is some of the work I did in terms of long-range planning.
GMW: Is education an area that you would want to stay involved in in Hartford?
Tartell: Yes. Partly because people move to Wilton and New Canaan for the school systems. That’s the number one reason why people move here. And I’ve got a deep education background–I’ve got a Master’s in Education; I ran instructional design for Pfizer; I understand how to use technology to increase scope, decrease cost, and increase impact of educational processes. Those are things that are important to our school systems because we’re under constant cost pressure and you’re in a top-tier community that really cares and is involved with education and how those schools perform.
GMW: What would be your other priorities in Hartford?
Tartell: These priorities really come out of my professional background and some of the work that I’ve done in the community. For instance, in Hartford I find it appalling that they can’t seem to forecast the budget. They’re constantly either under-forecasting or forecasting in a way that they didn’t project out the latest surplus. The budget process is out of kilter. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. How do you do that? How do you put that together? That forecasting process is so important for business success in Connecticut.
I’m going to shift this conversation just a little bit, if I might. You’ve got to look at the things that give Connecticut competitive advantage versus the other states that we compete with, and part of what we need to do is invest in education. We’ve got a great educational process. We’ve got some of the top-tier educational institutions in the United States. UCONN’s a very fine institution, you don’t get much better than Yale, and then you’ve got a whole range of top-tier educational institutions in Connecticut. They produce fabulous graduates, but you also have–and this comes out of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA)–you have tremendous school gaps because we’re not producing students who are technically proficient.
Based on that CBIA data, [General Dynamic] Electric Boat says they’re looking to hire 10,000 people. They’re looking at Pratt Whitney, looking to hire thousands of people; practically at the end of my street with ASML, they’re adding 300 people. They can’t get the people who are technically proficient, so I’m very pleased that Connecticut invested money to build technical skills. My competitor does not support that–but building an educational infrastructure that creates the knowledge, skills and the workers that we need to have to carry Connecticut forward helps fill the jobs and helps make Connecticut a competitive place that people want to be in because, good paying jobs, good place to live, good school systems, it’s a recipe for success.
GMW: Hartford is a different place than the business world or the classroom where you taught, or local/municipal government. How well acquainted are you with the ways of working there and the people there? State government is a relationship business. Will that be a tough adjustment for you?
Tartell: It’s a different world, but it’ll be fun to make that adjustment. I’ve already been up to Hartford a whole batch of times, because I needed to see what they did. I needed to listen to hearings. I made sure that [State Representative] Sean Scanlon invited me up and I sat through a bunch of these hearings so I could understand what the insurance business was like. I listened to the [Judge Andrew] McDonald hearings, the day that McDonald was voted down, because I needed to see how it went, how did people think? What was the interaction like?
If you go to my political Facebook page, you’ll see Tom O’Dea introduced me on the floor of the legislature (left). That’s a very unusual thing, I was standing on the Republican side, at Tom’s seat. The capacity to show up and make connections and do things that are nontraditional in that environment, simple things that are things I do everyday. I cross those lines.
Part of my background is how do you build teams? How do you build coalitions of people with very different ideas? I do that again and again and that’s part of what I do.
GMW: It’s interesting you say that, because on your website front page you have oblique references to “things happening in Washington, in Hartford, being disturbed by the trends in our world.” Those are oblique references. There’s not a specific partisan mention of President Trump or partisanship or anything like that, but if you’re reading between the lines, you know what that means. Wilton has a majority of unaffiliated voters, but there have been pockets of extreme partisanship that hits hard here. Are you referring to specifics of things here in Wilton? What is it that you think you could do to be different than that?
Tartell: I’m going to give you a quote. This comes from the best boss I ever had. She was in the Marines, and when she left the Marines, she was one of the highest-ranking women in the Marines. When I said I was running, there were a fair number of people who were surprised, because running for office has not been something that I’ve done (although obviously with the amount of community service I do, it shouldn’t be that surprising). When I sent her a note [to tell her], here’s her quote of what she said: “With your critical thinking and excellent ability to review issues and find a reasonable way forward, you are up to it.”
That’s the key to my success in Hartford. Being able to think through the issues, review the issues, talk about the issues with a focus on those issues, and then find a reasonable way. That’s not a partisan message, and that’s how you build coalitions. You find the common ground, you find the common goal, you say, “How do we make a difference in terms of what we need to achieve?” And that’s what you do, and then you can pull people along.
GMW: How do you compare to your opponent, to the incumbent?
Tartell: That’s an interesting question, and it’s one that, as someone who’s new to politics, I kind of struggled with, because I’m always about finding common ground, not different ground.
I’m a research guy. I teach this course called Data-Based Interventions. How do you take data to drive strategic change? That’s a course that helps you understand what is reality and what is fake. As I looked at Tom’s record and analyzed it, and watched as he’s become more prominent in the Republican party–now he’s the Republican leader at large–I’ve watched his positions evolve and become, I think, far more socially conservative.
I think he’s lost his way a little bit in terms of representing the middle, the thinking people of New Canaan and Wilton. New Canaan is almost 50% registered Republican, and they’re Republicans who think a lot about the issues. They work hard to make their town the best it can be, and that’s not so different from Wilton. You’ve got tremendous resources, really smart people here, who want to make this town fabulous, and that’s no different than New Canaan. What does it take to be fabulous? It means that you’ve got to take care of certain social issues that are important.
It might be women’s health, and I think Tom has voted against that. You need to think about having technical schools so that we train the workers we need for the future. Tom has voted against that, even though the Commerce Business and Industry Association said that was something they felt strongly about. I think even when it comes to judges, the last round they said, “These judges are too expensive,” and frankly social justice is something that you always need to invest in, because when people believe they cannot be treated fairly in the justice system or don’t have access to it, it causes problems.
I differentiate myself because I’m really representing the middle. What does it take to have a just society? What does it take to ensure that people have adequate medical coverage, that they can get the access to care that they need? That the police have the freedom to act with due diligence and judgment, that they don’t have to follow what comes from Washington. They can adjust to what we need in New Canaan and Wilton and Connecticut. I think that’s where we differentiate.
Part of this is my background as a fire commissioner. When you’re in charge of first responders, one of the things you really begin to understand is what does it take to make a safe society?
If you look at guns, you realize that two thirds of the people who die because they’re on the wrong end of a gun are committing suicide. You look at opiates in our society. In 2016, almost 1,000 people died from opiate overdoses in CT. In 2017, it was over 1,000. It’s not getting better and that is a problem in our society, that is what we do to mental health, what we do to the way the society works, but it needs to be addressed.
To create a safe society, it means you need to look at guns, you need to look at mental health, you need to look at access to medical resources that people have in order to take care of themselves. You see that being eroded in today’s society. That is a piece that we haven’t talked about, but I feel really strongly about, partly because of my background in rehabilitation vocational counseling. I used to run a residential ward for adolescents with severe disabilities.
Creating a safe society, one where it’s safe for our students. The Tennessee legislature, just passed a bill that’s gone to the governor’s desk allocating $30 million to pay for off-duty police officers to guard their schools. That’s a huge cost that society is now shouldering because of the number of guns walking around our society.
We need to take care of society in that way, we need to look at how we give to the world because Ronald Reagan talked about the US as the city on the hill, and we are no longer the city on the hill. We turn people from our shores, and it hurts our industry, it hurts our place in the world, and it hurts Connecticut.
If you look at Wilton, we brought Syrian refugees to Wilton–a mother and five children. That is the type of society we need to have, that welcomes people from all over the world and brings them here. That’s a piece we haven’t talked about, but is so important and I think differentiates me a little bit from my competitor, and I think it reflects what the tone is in Wilton and New Canaan and the way people think about it.
Why should someone vote for me versus Tom? I’ll just tell you that one of the most amazing things that happens to me in this entire process is people across party lines say, “I’ll vote for you.” Not only do they say, “I’ll vote for you,” but, “I’ll give you money.” A former Wilton first selectman gave me money. Someone who is 98 and had never voted for a Democrat gave me money. People are stepping up and they say, “Because you are who you are, you’re non-partisan, you care about the future, and you’ve got the knowledge and skills to do that.”
That’s why I have a chance at winning this election, because those people who think about what really matters, what it takes to keep the towns as strong as they are and turn around Connecticut know that I’ve got the type of background to do that.
GMW: One of the areas that Tom is strong on is transportation–he has background in it and is on the Transportation committee–that’s something that is very critical to Wilton voters. How do you differentiate yourself and what do you offer over him in that area?
Tartell: In my world, there’s a fellow named Edwards Deming. He’s a quality guru, anyone who spends time in business probably knows who he is, and what he says is this: “In God we trust, everybody else bring data.” What Tom did, and the Republicans, with their positioning and their spin, is they said, “We are voting against the research we need in order to make good decisions.” That’s a political decision, but it’s not one that I would have made.
The issue of tolls is one that we need to look at. We’re the only state in the entire Northeast that has no tolls on our road. Everybody I talk to has a different point of view, they have a different idea, and most of them have misinformation. I don’t have a complete view either. Research, analysis needs to be done in order to do this properly or not do it, and they voted against the bill that would provide us with that information.
I was surprised at where it went, but not surprised when you take a political view.
GMW: Rail transportation is an important issue here in Wilton. What’s your opinion on rail transportation issues that Wilton faces, and what can you do about it?
Tartell: If you can’t move people, goods, and services to and from the state and around the state, then nothing can happen because business can’t happen. You need to make a financial assessment for the future of the state, and that requires transportation. That’s rail transportation, that’s buses, cars, trucks, roads. Those things are crumbling and if you can’t move your goods and services and people can’t get to work, you can’t have an economy that works.
If you’re going to be a successful state or a successful locality, you need to have transportation, and you need to do everything you can to invest in that, to make it work. I can’t give you exact details, but I can tell you that trains should run at least as fast as they ran 70 years ago. It now takes longer to go from New Canaan to New York than it did 25 years ago. They slowed down the trains to increase safety because you couldn’t trust the tracks. That’s ridiculous. You’ve got to invest in the safety, you need to invest in the equipment so that people can get to work.
The issue with Tom is he sits on the Transportation Committee and transportation in Connecticut is in abysmal shape. So if he talks about providing leadership, he hasn’t done it there.
GMW: What’s your elevator pitch? Why should someone vote for you?
Tartell: I have a strong business background that I’ve always applied to all of my community service. I’ve applied it to long-range planning, I’ve applied it to my work as a fire commissioner, I’ve applied it to the things that I’ve done in public safety and all the other community activities that I’ve done. That business background of how to make individuals and organizations succeed is missing from much of what needs to be done on the public level. That’s what I bring, that’s what I’ve done in my background, that’s my education, it’s my profession, and that’s how I’ve had impacts. That’s what I can do for New Canaan, for Wilton, and for Connecticut.
GMW: Is there’s anything else you want to add?
Tartell: I am having the best time in the world. I’m meeting people who have different ideas, I’m meeting smart people, almost everybody I meet cares deeply. It’s really a remarkable experience in every good sense of the word. It’s just an incredible journey and one that I’m so pleased I started.