Congressional Candidates Say Newtown Concerns Reflected Across 5th District
Each of the three candidates vying for Connecticut’s 5th District US Congressional seat spent about 20 minutes speaking with The Newtown Bee between October 18 and 20, responding to several specific questions.
Incumbent Democratic Rep Jahana Hayes, Republican challenger David X. Sullivan, along with state independent party candidate and Newtown resident Bruce Walczak each talked about issues they are hearing about that are of the greatest concern to local voters; whether those concerns differ between suburban/rural and urban constituents; a couple of the most critical items they will prioritize if elected; and their thoughts on how they will move forward toward addressing those priorities depending on who is elected president.
Hayes said she has found it interesting that across the district, some of the top constituent concerns are shared, regardless of where those residents live.
“There’s a huge emphasis on COVID and health care — what are we going to do to get people healthy, what does that strategy look like,” Hayes said. “Rebuilding the economy is big, and a lot of people are really concerned about small businesses and small business owners.”
The congresswoman said school-related issues also come up a lot, as well as “a recurring theme of civility, and how do we deal [with that] after a contentious election cycle.”
Sullivan, who checked in from rural Morris in between campaign stops in Litchfield County, recognized that while the diversity of constituents across the 5th District is substantial, he is hearing similar concerns about health and safety — particularly in relation to addressing the pandemic fallout, and feelings that some constituents are feeling less safe these days in their own homes, schools, and even places of worship.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Sullivan said, pointing to New York bail reforms that he says are churning people who have been arrested back out onto the street “in some cases, within hours.”
“I’m seeing so many New York plates as we drive around today, even up here in Morris. You know people are afraid in New York because of safety concerns. In part it’s because of that policy, in part it’s because of defunding police and not supporting those who protect us,” he said.
Sullivan, who said he joined the campaign hours after he officially retired as a 30-year federal prosecutor, also believes that Connecticut has never recovered from the recession of 2008.
“Our GDP is still in the negative, and it’s going to take some diversity of thought in Washington,” he said. “I believe in working in a bipartisan fashion, but the fact is we’ve had five Democratic congressmen, and two Democratic senators representing not just the 5th District but the entire state for well over a decade. I’m not sure where we will be [after Election Day], but I am concerned where our national economy will be heading because the policies of our two presidential candidates couldn’t be more different.”
A Fighting Chance
Sullivan said Connecticut has a fighting chance to come out on top if the country “resumes a very sound economic course,” but if the national economy slows much more, “Where is Connecticut going to be at that point?”
Walczak, who is a career relocation consultant and local landlord, said he is hearing most often the issue of partisanship in Washington.
“To me that is a threat to our democracy, this perpetual win/lose environment there is dividing our country, and that division is keeping [elected officials] from creating and passing meaningful legislation that will help people in the 5th District,” he said. “Whether it’s enhancements to the Affordable Care Act, the relief programs for states or for those who lost their jobs — the Congress is at a standstill. They’re basically putting politics before the needs of the country, ideology in front of solutions. I’m hearing people say Congress needs to start working together.”
Hayes said even issues like social unrest and policing seem to resonate equally among suburban and urban constituents. She said these issues “are as palpable in cities like Waterbury and New Britain, as they are in Washington Depot, Kent, and Southbury.”
“I think the outlier in some of the smaller communities, I get questions about agriculture and farming, and what those things look like in the future,” she said.
Sullivan said jobs seem to be a unifying concern no matter where he is campaigning, from suburban/rural communities to the cities like Danbury, Meriden, New Britain, and Waterbury.
“Minimum wage jobs only create minimum wage lives,” he said. “We need real industry and business growth in Connecticut,” not revenue building through sin taxes on legal recreational cannabis, expanding gaming, and tolls. “That could generate money right off the bat, but it will cost us a lot more on the back end from damages that our communities could incur. It’s revenue, but it’s not developing a healthy economy.”
Sullivan favors recruiting green businesses that create secondary benefits like those developing better technology for expanding the use and ownership of electric vehicles. He also thinks Connecticut can be a leader in public/private partnerships that will begin to develop widespread water filtration technology and products.
“We need to compete for that business with other states, though, and I don’t think one party control is how to do it,” the GOP candidate said. “In Newtown we have kids coming out of high school, or returning from college, and they need and are looking for good paying jobs, and to live in Connecticut like they did when they grew up.”
Walczak said no matter where he goes in the district, he is hearing calls for racial justice “loud and clear,” and “the issue of anti-Semitism is starting to look like systemic racism.”
The inability to campaign door-to-door in the district, Walczak said, is not necessarily a drawback, because much of the campaigning he sees Hayes and Sullivan doing is happening among party faithful and town committees.
“I just started my campaign two moths ago, so I have not been able to get out into the communities to rub elbows,” he said, although Walczak said he is getting constituent responses to issues he has presented in various forums and debates in which he has participated.
If reelected, Hayes committed to digging right in to constituent services. “I think this will be a top priority — making sure we build bridges and rebuild trust in government and in elected officials,” Hayes said, adding that she looks forward to getting back out and hearing from voters at the grassroots level.
Hayes said unlike a lot of other candidates, she emphasizes meeting individuals throughout the district, which is an alternative to making herself available first and foremost to party stakeholders and municipal officials.
“I really want everybody to feel like they have some agency in this whole process,” she said, “so that people don’t feel disengaged or disenfranchised and ultimately become angry. I want people to become part of the process and to have their voices be heard all along. I’m singularly focused on that kind of work.”
Sullivan said he will hit the ground running to develop a national tax base that promotes reviving the economy post-pandemic, while keeping taxation at a reasonable rate. He also wants to see police reform, and sees a lot of crossover points between federal proposals coming from both major parties — but a bipartisan initiative needs to get some traction in the House.
Walczak said there are three major issues he would dig right in to — shoring up national healthcare initiatives; re-engaging on the global stage to address environmental and climate change concerns; and how the legal system will move forward from local courtrooms all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Regarding the divides that are separating voters and communities across the 5th District and nation, Hayes said she feels it is more important for her constituents to express their differences versus hearing her try to lead or influence the conversation.
“I think it works when I can [say] to people, ‘I listened to what you said and this is how I advocated for legislation, or this is how [their concerns] are incorporated into what we have done.’ I’ll listen to people and say, ‘As we are rebuilding and coming up with new legislation, what types of things would you like to see reflected in that legislation?’”
Hayes said she hopes to see legislation supporting child care workers that the House approved this year move to be approved by the US Senate in 2021 and signed into law.
“That would be a game changer for so many families in this district. Research shows for every dollar we spend on childcare, seven dollars is returned to the local economy,” she said. She also hopes the school infrastructure bill and the larger Moving Forward Act will be signed into law.
Sullivan said no matter who is elected president, he needs to represent the needs of his 5th District constituents.
“I want to make sure my priorities align with the people of the district,” he said, adding that he also wants to maintain lines of communication with district municipal and community leaders.
Address The ACA
Walczak said divided views over the Affordable Care Act need to be addressed, and he generally prefers staying the course with that contentious piece of legislation.
“We would not have the Affordable Care Act for employees. I think the future program is going to be choice, and I think the ACA will have to [accommodate] private insurance and Medicare,” he said. “I think the important thing is finding solutions so we can expand quality medical care to everyone at an affordable price, and to have a safety net for those who can’t afford those programs so they still have access to quality healthcare.”
As a so-called “Reagan Republican,” Sullivan says he believes in civility. “I think you can be partisan and a gentleman at the same time,” he said, recalling a collegial conversation he had at the last Newtown Labor Day parade with Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“I look forward to serving with Senators Murphy and Blumenthal and anyone else who is elected this year from Connecticut. We are, in fact, one team at the end of the day. You don’t put partisan politics in front of your state, your district, or your country,” Sullivan said.
Hayes said getting sponsorship for key legislation and helping political opponents understand the legislation her constituents need will be part of her plan no matter which candidate wins the presidency this Election Day.
“For me, I think every administration, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, is ultimately supposed to leave things better than when they came — we shouldn’t be resetting with each administration. So even with a Trump administration we still have issues with health care we need to work on, we need to build our economy back and make sure all the people who have fallen into unemployment are once again employed,” Hayes said. “And I would work with anybody to get those things done, and I would hope that any other Democrat would do the same because that’s what our communities need.”
Reflecting on the number of presidents he has served under in his career, Sullivan admitted that Trump is contributing to the “entire atmosphere in Washington right now, but many other people do as well. He is the lightning rod because he is the president.”
Walczak believes that no matter what happens, Democrats will sustain a substantial majority in the House, but Democratic congressional leaders need to do a better job working with GOP counterparts in both the House and Senate creating bills that have a chance to actually become law.
“We’re spinning our wheels in Congress. If we don’t put in place bipartisan laws,” he said, “we’re going to see a continuation of a divided country.”
The independent candidate says he favors looking at term limits in the House and Senate, and from the top down, campaign finance needs to be addressed.
“If Trump wins, I don’t think we’re going to have much opportunity for top-down change to create more bipartisanship,” Walczak said. “If Biden wins, I think it’s in his bones to address bipartisanship, and begin to soften it. But I do believe by electing independents who can move freely between party positions, and who aren’t dependent on [party-driven] campaign financing, it begins opening up opportunities to work across the aisle.
“Imagine if we had five independents in the Senate, they could control the debate because neither party would control the majority,” he said.
Equity In Education
As an educator and former National Teacher of the Year, Hayes said once the virus pandemic subsides she wants to see school systems reopening with expanded focus on equity.
“I hope we don’t return to the normal we had in January because as COVID has revealed, there are a lot of equity gaps — a lot of schools weren’t connected with broadband [internet access], students didn’t have devices, teachers were not trained in different modes of virtual learning, and we didn’t have schools with good HVAC systems and air ventilation,” Hayes said. “There’s no way we can go back to business as usual with all these gaps revealed in such a pronounced way. We have to work together to close them.”
The congresswoman said the initiative to begin restoring equity in education starts at the top.
“We have to have a Department of Education that believes in public education, and believes in the federal government’s role, because many of these programs and [addressing inequities] I’m suggesting require some level of federal investment,” Hayes said. “If we want to rebuild our economy and military and foster diplomacy, we need to be graduating young people who are ready for the workforce, who are self-sustaining, who have some buy-in to our systems, and who pay taxes. Education is so critical to all those things, that to have a hands-off approach at the federal level — I do not think that’s the right way to go.”
Sullivan said as he feels some degree of frustration about the ways things are being handled in Washington.
“I think we need calmer voices,” he said, inferring that the president’s use of social media has great potential to incite divisiveness, instead of using it to do good. “At the same time I think we need louder voices saying let’s bring greater civility to this process.
“I don’t want to point the finger at any one person and say they are the problem. The entire process has become a problem, and the people of our country and the 5th District are uncomfortable with what’s going on... with the rhetoric,” Sullivan said, agreeing that the president needs to set the tone.
“It starts with personal discipline,” Sullivan concluded. “People do attack you in politics. And social media — boy oh boy — I know who I am and I know what I believe in, I know how I treat people, and I know that I can serve in Congress. I hope I am afforded the opportunity to show the people what kind of congressman I can be for them.”
Walczak said he is running to help promote greater opportunities for independents as a means of eventually addressing and diminishing partisanship, even going as far as suggesting that his next political move if he fails to win this congressional race, could be to go head-to-head with either of Connecticut’s Democratic US Senators.