So you want to go to Hartford? State legislators talk about what the job is really like
Published 2:02 pm, Thursday, September 16, 2010
To be a Connecticut state legislator is to occupy a peculiar position: That of a high-profile person whose work is often unknown. Constituents recognize their faces, see their signs planted across town, and may be able to recite a few of their catchier sound bites. But the work that representatives actually do on their behalf -- that can be a mystery.
Julie Belaga, who served as state representative for Westport's 136th District from 1977 to 1987, remembers an encounter she had with constituents when she was in office.
"I remember getting stopped in the supermarket once and they said, `Julie, I do not know how you can stand commuting to Albany [the state capital of New York].' And they read The New York Times!"
So what does a Connecticut state representative really do? Official publications provide some cursory clues. For instance, the state government's website -- www.cga.ct.gov -- publishes an overview of the legislative process, "This is Your General Assembly," which offers this description of legislators' work:
"In accordance with the Constitution adopted in 1965, senators and representatives are elected for two-year terms from single member districts of substantially equal population. The House and Senate meet at the state capitol in Hartford. General Assembly committees meet and hold hearings in the adjoining Legislative Office Building."
Perhaps though the closest one can come to finding an official definition of a Connecticut state representative's work and responsibilities is to ask, well, a state representative.
"The title reflects that we are your representatives in state government and in Hartford," says Tony Hwang, R-134. "You have elected us to fight, articulate and represent your interests. We're your vote."
"You are the constituents' service provider. You are the people's connection with government," says Kim Fawcett, D-133.
The weight of this responsibility can initially be a daunting prospect for a freshman legislator.
"I was dumbstruck when I first got elected," Belaga says. "I thought, `How in God's name am I going to know all the issues?' It's a cookie jar full of goodies."
Hwang says he also encountered a steep learning curve at first; so much so that he drew the attention of a more experienced legislator.
"He asked me, `Why don't you talk?' " says Hwang. "I told him, `What do I have to offer as a freshman incumbent? There's so much to learn."
For a new legislator, a seemingly endless torrent of new proposals and information comes his or her way. Thousands of pieces of legislation are considered by the General Assembly's 27 committees during Connecticut's two-year legislative cycle. In year one -- the "long year", which runs from January to June--the budget for the next two fiscal years is drafted and passed. Then, in the following "short year," the legislators convene from February to May to make "fixes" or amendments to the budget. For instance, revenue shortfalls may compel legislators to make cuts to certain items in the previous year's budget.
Throughout these proceedings, representatives collaborate and confer with an array of people -- from the chairmen who run the committees to the advocates who lobby for state funds at public hearings to the legislative aides who provide key administrative support and legislative expertise.
The sheer number of legislators -- 151 in the House of Representatives -- also entails that a representative must seek allies and accept compromise to push forward legislation.
"You have to garner support from people whose votes you're going to need when you want to do something that's protective of your own environment," Belaga says. "A very important part of this job is building relationships."
Representatives usually serve on three committees. Some consume more time than others. The Appropriations Committee, which drafts the budget, comprises about 75 percent of Fawcett's legislative work.
"It's an incredibly intense committee," she says. "It's an incredible amount of work. It's obviously really important to the state that we get it right."
At all times, local state representatives say they must approach any legislation from a distinctly biased perspective -- that of his or her constituents.
Thomas Drew, D-132, says the need to defend local interests compelled him in 2006 to contest the Connecticut Light and Power Co.'s plans to build utility bridges over Ash Creek, Sasco Creek and Mill River.
"The public really needed an advocate before the state agencies to say, `This is an awful, awful way. There has to be a better way.' And we got organized," he says.
While many think of state legislators as creatures solely indigenous to Hartford, they actually spend most of their time out of session and in their home districts. When they are not in Hartford, responding to constituents' needs takes up a sizable amount of representatives' time. This work can range from assisting a plumber in getting a trade license to helping constituents secure visas for family members from abroad.
State representatives mostly think of their constituents' interests, but sometimes they have to consider their own. Connecticut state legislators make $28,000 per year, but they often hold other professional jobs as well.
"It is a challenge," Drew says of balancing his legislative responsibilities and his private sector work as a lawyer. "The key is to be extremely well organized and structured regarding your time and daily schedule."
Hwang says, "Starbucks four times a day and very little sleep" helps him shoulder his work as a legislator and as a real estate agent.
But the zeal of any legislator has its limits, and these state representatives say the legislative process can be tiring and frustrating.
"I had decided after ten years that I was beginning to find the debate repetitive," Belaga says. "I began to get itchy ... and said, `I'm not sure I want to stay here forever.' "
In 1986, after five terms as a representative, Belaga sought a new challenge -- running for governor. She won the Republican nomination, but lost in the general election to the incumbent Democratic governor, William O'Neill.
"My experience in state government was invaluable," she says of the applicability of her legislative experience to her work at the EPA.
For those who have not gotten "itchy" yet, there is the ever-looming specter of running for re-election. In predictably diplomatic fashion, no current local representatives complain publicly of having to run for office every two years. From their vantage point, campaigning can function as a useful information-gathering process for the next term.
"Campaigns are difficult, and they're also incredibly interesting and challenging," Fawcett says. "It's this incredible opportunity to do grassroots research. You can't help but learn first-hand what matters to the people in your community."
The challengers' perspectives:
To foster a dynamic debate about the work of a state representative, the Westport News and Fairfield Citizen also invited the challengers in each of the legislative districts in Westport and Fairfield to offer an overview of how they define the role and responsibilities of a state legislator.
(Note that the seat in Westport's 136th District is open, as the incumbent, Joe Mioli, is not seeking re-election. Mioli was abroad as of press time and was not available to be interviewed for this story.)
Brenda Kupchick, Republican nominee, 132nd District (Fairfield)
As a volunteer local official I've always applied these principles to public service: ensure government is transparent and fair; help people cut through government bureaucracy and find solutions to their problems; and stand up for those who feel they have no voice in their government.
As a state representative, my focus will be job creation and fiscal responsibility. Legislators need to research each issue and understand the impact on the cost of living and doing business in Connecticut. We need legislators with the common sense and courage to fight for taxpayers and reduce the size of state government.
DeeDee Brandt, Republican nominee, 133rd District (Fairfield and Westport)
"A government by the people, of the people, and for the people." Abraham Lincoln's famous words should be foremost in the minds of every Connecticut state legislator. While the specifics of the job include voting on laws and enacting the budget, the key aspect is really ensuring the state government acts in accordance with the wishes of the people of Fairfield and Westport and for the people of Fairfield and Westport.
A state representative must listen to the voices of the Fairfield and Westport residents, not promote their own goals or agendas, or those of special interest group who offer endorsements or support. Listening to the people is what I have done this summer. By knocking on doors from Park Avenue to Sherwood Island Connector and Easton Turnpike to the Post Road I have had the opportunity to hear exactly what that the people of the 133rd Assembly District want.
A state representative must be "for the people of Fairfield and Westport." Being solidly rooted in the community and actively demonstrating a history of caring for the well being of others sends a clear signal of priorities and affords a wealth of knowledge of what is needed by the people of Fairfield to maintain their quality of life.
Ultimately we should judge a representative not by what they say to get elected but rather by what they do for their community, friends and neighbors in Fairfield.
Michael Murren, Democratic nominee, 134th District (Fairfield and Trumbull)
First and foremost, a state representative has to serve his constituents. To serve those constituents effectively, he needs to be completely in tune with those issues that affect the towns he represents. Furthermore, he needs to be an advocate at the state house for the residents of the district. As Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local."
Secondly, he must work with his colleagues to frame an effective policy for the state. This means being fiscally prudent while supporting legislation to maximize services for Connecticut residents.
Finally, a state representative must be an advocate for those who need assistance: the elderly and the disabled. Personally, I am a strong supporter of the rights of the disabled.
Nitzy Cohen, Republican nominee, 136th District (Westport)
On my website, www.nitzycohen.com, I lay out my views on the duties of a state representative. In summary:
Vote on laws and the budget.
Assist with constituent services.
Improve the quality of life.
Protect the taxpayers' money.
In talking with over a thousand Westporters, I hear that people are most concerned with jobs and our state finances. I will see my duty as a state representative to focus on those areas. People also want their state representative to give them the straight, honest facts in plain language as to what is going on in our state and not what is the "political" thing to say.
Jonathan Steinberg, Democratic nominee, 136th District (Westport)
We count on our representatives to pursue our interests, which may not always be apparent. As I've talked with Westporters, I realize that many of us aren't tuned in with what's happening in Hartford. Therefore, we expect our representatives to keep us informed, explaining how proposed bills affect us and soliciting our input.
Westport contributes more to the state in taxes than it receives in state funding. Therefore, Westport's representative must be adept at building coalitions with other legislators to secure our fair share of state support for local programs and municipal services mandated by the state.
As an RTM member, I've learned that effective legislators must master the apparatus of government. With a looming budget deficit, our legislators must apply this understanding to reform government, streamline the process and eliminate waste, and to find essential budget savings and keep taxes down.