Susan Barrett has seen Fairfield's town government from several different angles over the last 30-plus years. Her second year into a six-year term on the Board of Finance, Barrett ran for state representative from the 132nd District and won. For her two years in the General Assembly, she continued to serve on the finance board, as well as teach at a Stratford elementary school, a job that she did for almost 38 years.
The first woman Democrat to serve on the finance panel, Barrett held that same distinction in 2000, when she was appointed to the Fire Commission.
A member of the Democratic State Central Committee, Barrett traveled to North Carolina last year as a delegate to her party's presidential nominating convention.
Now, having finished her second term on the Fire Commission -- commissioners by charter are limited to two consecutive terms -- Barrett said these days she is picking and choosing where and when to get involved in civic affairs.
Q: You were a teacher for many years. Why choose that profession? Or did it choose you?
A: "I was at Warde and I played field hockey and was a majorette ... I enrolled at Southern Connecticut in the phys-ed program. My first semester, I sprained my ankle and I realized I wasn't in the same league as these people. I didn't fit in. So during my stint in community recreation, the light bulb went on -- take a semester off and find myself. I worked at D.M. Read's, in the stationery department. I realized that wasn't for me. I went back to Southern and enrolled in the early childhood education program. In the summers, I was invited to coach Fern Tetreau's Singing Oaks Day Camp -- he remembered I was a majorette -- and taught baton twirling. That opened the door. ... Jane Norris French (a friend) and I both worked at the camp.
So, we finish our college classes, pick up our caps and gowns and realize we have no job. We both got a job interview in Stratford. We arrived a tad late, we march in, we sit down and see there are nine people being interviewed all at one time, for two first grad positions. I figure we're doomed. They asked if there were any questions and I raised my little hand and asked, `Does every class have a piano?' And that's how I got to Lordship School. We used Fern Tetreau for a reference."
Q: If you hadn't become a teacher, what do you think you would have done?
A: "That's hard. I was always the kid that was involved at school. If the classroom needed someone to learn to run the AV equipment, the teacher sent me. I was always following my father around, trying to fix things. And I was always playing school. I had a lot of teacher support. I always had people who were encouraging me in the field of education. I was in Future Teachers of America, and I ran for its president. I remember losing by one vote. Our advisor took me to Hartford to the State Future Teachers of America and I was nominated for vice president from the floor.
Q: What was your first foray into politics?
A: "The Parish Council at Holy Family. I served with Richard Marconi. I was into trying all these psychological things, like switching seats, having one-hour meetings, using Robert's Rules efficiently. I'd always have an agenda, which the pastor appreciated. It allowed me the opportunity to try things. I talked him into a suggestion box. I was also involved in the Young Dems and Bob Bitar was my mentor. He was moderator of the RTM at the time, I think. Then was Bob left the Board of Finance, I think I took his spot.
Q: What prompted you to run for state office?
A: I spent 18 years on the Board of Finance and as a state rep. My friend John Quinn, from the Young Dems, who held that seat for a number of years, he was moving to the Hebron area, so it would be an open seat. At that point, Billy Fitzpatrick and I faced off at the town committee. John Quinn supported me, his father supported Billy. John felt I would be the right person at the right time. I think I won by three votes. I remember (Fitzpatrick) said, "Let's go to HoJo's, we'll meet and talk." He said he might do a primary; I had no idea. I said fine, whatever and then he called a few days later and said he wasn't interested. I ran in the general election against Bill Cox. It was almost anticlimactic.
I'd already been up to Hartford a number of times with the Young Dems. I had great guidance. Stratford schools didn't deal well with it, my being state rep. They put me on special assignment, which if you were on for more than a year, you could lose retirement benefits. So I went back to them, and they docked my per diem. When I think back to it, I was team teaching in kindergarten. They'd ask when are you going to Hartford. It wasn't like a regular schedule.
Q: Which did you enjoy more, local or state office?
A: I'm going to quote someone: All politics is local. Really, to me it all starts here. Hartford is all brush strokes. When I was up there, I was on the environmental committee, finance, revenue and bonding -- I was the most lobbied freshman legislator because of the groups I was associated with. Nancy Wyman (now the lieutenant governor) was our staff clerk. (Richard, now U.S. Sen.) Blumenthal came in in a special election when I was there. Now I've hit a more mature level of Democratic involvement.
Q: There's a lot of political rancor on the national level. Do you think the same thing is happening on the state or local level?
A: I think there are various shades of gray. In Hartford, it's like all of sudden they realize Malloy is governor and in Washington, D.C., they realize Barack Obama is president. There's a denial factor. I don't think you have the deal makers, like Tip O'Neill. People who could argue on the floor and go out for cocktails that night. That's missing.
That's one thing about the Board of Finance. After a meeting, it ended when you closed the door. It wasn't carried over to the next meeting. Until you are able to move beyond that, it's a rocky road. When I see some of the RTM meetings, it's a good argument for a town council. That becomes personality driven, it's not even political.
Q: What qualities do you think are important for a local elected official?
A: A listener. You have to be a listener. You can't know everything. You're going to be bombarded with information and you have to sift through it. I also think, caring for the community. You're not expected to have a Phd, but come with an open mind.
Q: What is your favorite memory of your time as an elected official?
A: Hmm ... favorite memory. That's a tricky one. There are so many memories. One of the things, I actually did a needlepoint for Ella Grasso. I took her bumper sticker and traced it. It stayed on her mantle until she was very ill.
John Quinn was state rep then, and as a Young Dem I was called to the airport to greet President Jimmy Carter.
I encouraged the Fire Commission to march in the Memorial Day parade, you get to see Fairfield. Chief Russell asked me to be a judge for something, and he said you get to ride on the fire truck. Ed Crowley had a great picture of that.
The late John Sullivan saw that I gave Ella Grasso the needlepoint and he said, "Where was mine?" His license plate for FFLD 1, so I did his.
Q: How do you think John Sullivan or Jacky Durrell would feel about the state of local politics today?
A: From heaven they're saying, "What happened to Fairfield? What happened?" You look at Jacky Durrell, homelessness and Operation Hope. John Sullivan, he was your deal maker. Both John and Jacky respected the political realm. John would drive around after a meeting, checking on the town. Jacky did have the lap up in Hartford. I think she really, truly loved this town and I think that came out in the way she worked with people.
Q: You're a big UConn women's basketball fan. Do they win title number eight this year?
A: I'm very impressed with what I see with this new crop. They come to win and they graduate. I'm feeling good.