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Senate Candidates Stress Experience As Strength
When Newtown voters head into the polling booth on November 6, they will choose between a 28th District Senate incumbent who has spent the better part of a decade working across party lines to promote issue-oriented consensus in both branches of the Connecticut legislature and a challenger who pledges to bring constituent-driven perspectives and a gift for turning analysis into action to the state house.
In a word, both two-term incumbent Republican Senator Tony Hwang — who also served three terms as a state representative — and Democratic newcomer Michelle Lapine McCabe believe it is their respective experience that will best serve Newtown, the district, and the state.
Each sat down for separate interviews recently with The Newtown Bee to discuss their ideas and strengths, and they also shared background information.
According to her bio, Ms Lapine McCabe is a Fairfield County native and a Fairfield resident for the past 14 years, where she still lives with her children. A graduate of Vassar College (BA), and the University of Texas at Austin (MA), she earned degrees in Art History and Criticism from both universities.
After years of museum work, Ms Lapine McCabe returned to Connecticut to start a family. In 2007, her passion for local agriculture and student health led her to join a newly formed PTA Council Committee, the Fuel for Learning Partnership.
The following year, she became chair and in the subsequent years successfully advocated for an increase in the “from scratch” cooking and healthy options for school meals. Ms Lapine McCabe also ran the Food For Thought Expo in partnership with school administrators and school volunteers from around the district.
Her advocacy led her to a position at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Over a three-year period at Yale, Ms Lapine McCabe worked on policy briefs and recommendations, built a parent advocacy program, served on the Governor’s Agriculture Council, and held leadership roles with the Connecticut Food System Alliance.
In 2014, she functioned both as a food policy analyst with Hartford Food System and as the Hunger Outreach Coordinator for the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, where in mid-2014, she began working exclusively. Since then, Ms Lapine McCabe said she has grown and redefined the program known now as the Center for Food Equity and Economic Development (FEED).
That expanded mission involves working with food pantries and community meal programs that include training in the areas of culinary workplace and food business development. It also offers the use of a shared commercial kitchen space and management and distribution of a prepared food line made from repurposed, discarded, and expired produce, which is offered to the community at reduced prices.
As the FEED Center director, Ms Lapine McCabe said she oversees and nurtures the physical and financial health of many of the most vulnerable residents in the Bridgeport area. She added that her decision to run for State Senate ties directly to her vast experience working in policy and nonprofit programming.
Touting a demonstrated and significant ability to make systemic changes with limited resources and to build coalitions while remaining focused on getting the results necessary to guarantee success, Ms Lapine McCabe believes she has the established skill set to lead the communities of the 28th District and Connecticut toward a brighter future.
Before successfully running for and being elected to the first of two 28th District terms in 2014, when he served as the first Asian-Pacific American State Senator in Connecticut history, Sen Hwang first served the 134th District for three terms in the state House of Representatives.
Also a Fairfield resident, the married father of two was born in Taiwan to parents who had escaped Communist China as teens and lived under martial law in Taiwan. According to Sen Hwang’s bio, neither parent had attended college and both worked as blue collar laborers.
After his dad came, by himself, to the United States to seek better opportunities, he brought the rest of his family here, eventually settling in Watertown, N.Y., where they lived in a federal housing project. As a boy, Sen Hwang took English as a second language (ESL) classes and benefited greatly from what he described as “passionate, caring teachers and administrators” in the public school system.
He also received invaluable support from Upward Bound educational assistance programs, where his bio states he received instruction and coaching on weekends and during summer breaks.
Eventually advancing to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in labor relations and organizational behavior from Cornell University, Sen Hwang worked briefly with United Technologies, entered the executive search business, and ultimately established his own company recruiting technology executives. Several years ago, he went on to work as a residential real estate agent.
Four years before winning his first seat in the General Assembly, a town educational issue motivated Sen Hwang to run for and win a position on the Fairfield Representative Town Meeting. Since fist being elected to the state house, he has worked with numerous local nonprofits, including The Kennedy Center, specializing in caring for those on the autism spectrum; and The Center for Family Justice, which works to provide counseling and assistance to victims of domestic violence.
Sen Hwang has also received awards and commendations by organizations including the Connecticut Alliance of YMCAs, the League of Conservation Voters, AARP, the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, among others.
He believes Connecticut must maintain a balance between fiscal accountability and social responsibility while striving to reduce the economic uncertainty, high governmental costs, and restrictive regulatory bureaucracy he says are some of the state’s primary barriers to creating more private sector jobs.
Ms Lapine McCabe told The Newtown Bee that as she is meeting Newtown constituents and residents across the 28th District, she is hearing a lot of the same concerns.
“It’s really about the economy, affordability, and the need to create opportunities for their children to come home and stay in Connecticut,” Ms Lapine McCabe said. “As a state senator, certainly one of my main focuses will be attracting more businesses and residents into the district because a number of the issues concerning residents and the affordability factor are tied to the number of people and businesses paying taxes.”
She said as a taxpayer, Ms Lapine McCabe knows state residents are expected to contribute to paying for a lot of services, and the state cannot continue to “keep dipping into that same well to address budget shortfalls.”
“While we need to invest in Connecticut’s future, the things families value most cost money as well, so the more we can build our business and residential tax bases, the more we can offset how much state government and government services cost for all of us,” Ms Lapine McCabe said.
She is also committed to looking closely at the state’s current and potential future revenue sources, especially residential property taxes.
“Property taxes are difficult for everybody because they are not differentiated between those with executive-level incomes and seniors on a fixed budget. They pay the same residential tax rate, so we need to look at property values and craft ways to offset property taxes. And I’d like to see whatever help we can provide going to the people who need it most.”
She said various state agencies and appointed bodies have already looked into ways to achieve that outcome, and “we owe it to them to pay attention and consider some of the solutions they have come up with.”
Ms Lapine McCabe cited the outcomes from the state’s new Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth as well as looking at individual ideas that municipalities have come up with to generate varied revenue streams while also providing strategic property tax relief.
“One of the ways, as a senate, that we could help, would be to provide municipalities with more flexibility to provide that relief,” she said. “My role, once I get up to Hartford, will be to learn from both the experts and stakeholders how we can provide that relief responsibly while still funding the things we most hold dear, like education.”
Investing In Education
Ms Lapine McCabe said without a good public education system, “we are cutting ourselves off at the knees in terms of getting people to live here. It’s a great investment not only for our children, but for our future economic growth.”
In another area of education-related challenges, Ms Lapine McCabe said she would like to explore public-private partnerships that would result in student loan debt forgiveness. Since she knows finding skilled workers for Connecticut businesses is a growing challenge, she thinks the state could draw and keep students here with a residency-based program that would provide some form or amount of loan debt relief if those resident or out-of-state students committed to working within the state for a certain number of years.
At the same time, Ms Lapine McCabe believes getting businesses to relocate to, to stay, or expand in Connecticut requires supplying housing stock that is affordable. She sees the lack of widespread affordable housing directly tied to another huge challenge, especially in Fairfield County — traffic congestion.
“If the people who work in a community can’t afford to live there, they have to commute to work from farther away,” she observed. Such travel generates higher living expenses for the vehicles they drive and more wear on the state’s vehicular infrastructure.
“A long commute eats away at peoples’ earnings, and they are always going to be on the lookout for better opportunities elsewhere,” Ms Lapine McCabe said.
So how do we get there?
“Affordable housing involves getting a buy-in from municipalities as well as building a better understanding about what affordable housing is and where it can go,” she said.
In regard to pushing Connecticut toward the structural changes its government must accomplish to level out the tax burden and attract more residents and businesses to stay and grow here, Ms Lapine McCabe believes its elected leaders must be more proactive in recognizing the things the government is already good at — while searching out and embracing things others are doing better.
“One of the things our government can do well is oversight and evaluation,” she said. “At the same time, there can be accountability issues when you rush to push too many state services onto state nonprofits and private providers.
“I think we look for too many simple solutions, and the challenge is nuanced,” she continued. “So I would not go up to Hartford presuming I know what is waiting there; I would go up there with an open mind and a goal-oriented personality looking to solve problems.”
A Growing Uncertainty
Senator Hwang said he strives, and will continue to strive, to be considered by residents of Newtown, the 28th District, and the state, as a leader who wants to be part of what matters to them. As he visits constituents, he is finding that “people care most about their families, their neighbors, and their ability to provide and plan for their future — which is so difficult in our state because of the economic climate and the uncertainty about jobs and our ability to retain and grow businesses.”
Looking to the near future, Senator Hwang said with such a huge number of unaffiliated voters being dealt out of the opportunity to weigh in on gubernatorial candidates vying for the governor’s office in state primaries, “we are seeing candidates going into November who don’t capture the sentiments and the values of our broader population. So there is a lot of disengagement, misinformation, and characterizations because we really don’t know these candidates. Most of our voters have no real contact with these individuals.”
Nonetheless, Sen Hwang believes the incoming state legislature has a tremendous opportunity.
“We have equal branches of government in Connecticut, and we are seeing growing evidence that when we come together in bipartisan fashion, when we work together, we can accomplish positive things,” he said.
Sen Hwang cites the recent special session where lawmakers came together and defeated what he called “Governor Malloy’s draconian budget that zeroed out education funding, stripped residents of their Medicare savings programs, hobbling social service programs designed to support the state’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations.
“We said no — as a legislative body, with the courage that bipartisanship brings,” he added. To that end, Sen Hwang said he will never let state residents, and especially his constituents, suffer because of party politics.
“Our ability to work together, and to have demonstrated achievements we can point to that evidence collaboration, cannot be understated. Working together on the environment, on advocacy for disabled communities, on mental health reform and parity, raising awareness about suicide and prevention — those are things that don’t grab headlines or get the focus of TV news,” he said.
“But it’s a basis of my experience, my relationships, and my accomplishments to not simply talk about it, but to work across the aisle to do what is best for Newtown and for our communities and not get hung up on party labels. So as people look to consider candidates this November, take a look at what we’ve done and what daunting challenges we have ahead, and use our experience, our relationships, and our track record of collaboration to find solutions. We need that more than ever.”
Sen Hwang said while certain voters in the district may not have voted for him, or even like him, he still has a responsibility to respect and represent all viewpoints. Having served eight of his ten years as an elected leader in the Republican minority from a party perspective, he gained valuable experience working with Democrats to cultivate a relationship of respect and working trust to enjoy many legislative successes.
“We worked together on good ideas,” he said.
For Senator Hwang, it is also about being recognized as being more than responsive to his Newtown constituents, but to ensure they all know he is working for and beside them on issues that matter, no differently than if he lived right next door.
“I think the biggest compliment is when people see me at the General Store or at events around town, they ask me where I live in town,” he said. “And when I tell them I live in Fairfield and represent five towns, they recognize that I’m present, just like I do live in Newtown.”
Sen Hwang said taking the time to be present in the communities he represents is a huge asset when he interacts with colleagues of all political stripes in Hartford because he can relate to the challenges facing them and their constituents.
“That is the power of collaboration and of statesmanship,” he said. “Understanding we all have common goals, and by working together and respecting their viewpoints, they in turn will take the time to hear my thoughts. It’s about issues, results, and policies that impact people — not about political labels.”
If given the opportunity to return to Hartford this fall, Sen Hwang said there are three issues he will refocus on from past sessions.
“We have to be diligent and work together solving our state budget and deficit crisis,” he said. “There are no easy choices. We need to prioritize, make hard decisions, and do our best to realize that we have to live within our means. And we need to do that in a transparent way, working together.
“We need to establish and put in place a real educational funding formula and provide that support mechanism early — before municipal budgets are set. And we need to use a formula that is not based on an arbitrary political process so communities can do what is right,” the senator added. “For me, our current education formulas and the chilling impact it has on our communities is another critical issue that must be addressed this year.
“Then we need to create an ecosystem that combines education, regulations, and nurturing entrepreneurial and technology innovation — not just bio sciences, defense manufacturing, and genomics. We need to look at our arts and cultural offerings because they are an economic force. We need to support those flourishing entities instead of being bogged down with the idea that we can generate easy money through gambling expansion and legal marijuana sales.
“You create a growth economy that empowers commerce and partners with people instead of regulating them and stifling the ability to do business, not buying companies to entice them into our state — it’s not sustainable,” Sen Hwang continued. “So we have to change the system. If regulations are outdated and bureaucratic, let’s expedite and innovate.
“We need to reinvent the delivery of government services based on best practices using technology and crafting a system that delivers high quality government services without an overriding bureaucratic system. And do it all in a way so we feel we’re all in this together instead of attacking those with different thoughts and different backgrounds.
“I’ve tried to conduct myself that way and my campaigns that way,” he said.
Looking forward, Sen Hwang also sees the need to aggressively address the growing needs of Connecticut’s aging population, from expanding home care opportunities and housing services to addressing Medicaid and Medicare funding challenges, while coming to grips with the increasing number of residents facing conditions like dementia and autism spectrum disorders.
“I come from a culture that stresses that our seniors are to be revered,” Sen Hwang said. “And we need to be more responsive in regards to the huge number of individuals on the autism spectrum who are aging out of school-based services. What happens when these young adults lose their coverage? We need to look at social adaptation, employment challenges, and the struggles of parents who are worried who will be there to take care of these children when they are gone.
“To be sure, we can’t do it by one side alone. We need to share a belief that we can work together, and I’ve demonstrated that as a legislator.”
Learn more about Sen Tony Hwang by visiting www.tonyhwang.org. Learn more about Michelle Lapine McCabe by visiting www.michelleforct.com. Both candidates will be participating in the Newtown Bee Candidates Forum on October 23 at 6:30 pm at Edmond Town Hall.
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