It’s the economy, Connecticut!
WESTPORT — Early on a rainy Saturday morning, state Sen. Toni Boucher gave supporters a pep talk at the Republican campaign headquarters in Wilton.
“We were the envy of the country. Now, the economy is going steadily downward with the current administration that is overtaxing the most important things — equity in homes, storefront. People are saying not one penny more,” said Boucher, the incumbent representative for the state’s 26th senate district, which includes parts of Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton.
“Everyone’s talking about the sorry state of Connecticut,” Boucher told supporters at the 8:30 a.m. meeting on Aug. 4. She has represented the district since 2009 and spent the previous 12 years representing the 143rd house district, which includes Wilton and Norwalk.
Families struggle to put their kids through college, businesses ache to keep the doors open, and home values are plummeting because of Connecticut’s economy and, as a result, people are leaving the state, Boucher said. She said she has worked hard to pay for her three grown kids’ education and understands the economy from decades of work in the private sector.
“Toni realizes that for our state to regain the strength we once had, we’ve got to bring the state’s financial situation under control, reduce spending, re-negotiate union contracts, and reduce the tax burden for families and businesses to make them want to stay here,” Boucher’s campaign communications director, Tom Derderian, a Redding resident, told me at the meeting.
Wilton Republican Town Committee member Andrea Preston, one of the 13 supporters present at Boucher’s weekly campaign meeting, said Boucher’s Democratic opponent, 22-year-old Will Haskell, is not qualified to handle the state’s difficult economic situation.
“How can you say what you’re going to do for people economically if you haven’t experienced it yourself?” Preston asks.
Boucher, 68, said she doesn’t want to criticize Haskell’s age, but he should be judged against her background as an experienced businessperson and working mother.
Of the 13 meeting attendees, five are young people, including one college campaign assistant. Erin Chubinsky and Lelah Conway graduated from Wilton High School this year and interned for Boucher’s campaign in the spring to satisfy a senior-year internship requirement.
The other two students — Juliana Musilli and Alex Edwards — are seniors at Wilton High and co-presidents of the high school’s Republican Club.
“For National Honor Society you need four hours per month, so it’s a really good way to get it. It’s also for college apps because colleges like to see you’re doing volunteer service and active in the community,” Musilli said of volunteer work for the campaign.
Around 10:15 a.m., Boucher leaves headquarters for the nearby Orem’s Diner. The owners, a family of Greek immigrants, are friends of Boucher because in the early 2000s she helped them negotiate with the Department of Transportation to buy the parcel of land under the diner to prevent a superhighway from running through the property, she said.
Boucher and Demetri Papanikola, the owner’ son, express their mutual sadness about business and people leaving the state. Then, Boucher walks around and dinergoers nod and wave to her in recognition.
“You’re my favorite politician. I don’t have many favorites anymore,” Wilton resident Una Callanan tells Boucher.
Back in the car at 11 a.m., Boucher returns a missed call from a Westport supporter, Gloria Ginter, a Democrat constituent who Boucher says she bonded with over work on animal rights legislation. Ginter tells Boucher her house was broken into, but will still make time to help with Boucher’s campaign. “Oh no, Gloria!” Boucher says. “Take care of yourself first.”
“Your ability to help people is really strengthened by personal relationships,” Boucher says, quoting one of her favorite sayings: “People don’t care what you know unless they know you care.”
Her personal relationships extend to fellow politicians, Boucher said, adding she has befriended much of the Democratic leadership.
“Those relationships have come back to save our district a lot of money,” Boucher said, noting her relationships helped in a grant for the nature center in New Canaan.
Boucher’s capacity for compassion and close relationships comes from her difficult childhood, she said. Her family immigrated to the Waterbury area from Italy when she was 5, and she didn’t learn English until the fourth grade because there was little support for non-English speaking students, Boucher said. “It was very painful. I was quiet, shy.”
A high school teacher encouraged her to join the debate team, where she blossomed, before going on to American University and then switching to the University of South Dakota when her husband, Bud Boucher, was transferred there for the Air Force.
“We were the poorest family in our community yet we excelled,” Boucher said, noting her father told her education is the way out of poverty and the path to freedom. Indeed, Boucher got her start in politics through education advocacy, first on the Wilton Board of Education and then as a member of the state Board of Education.“The income gap is closed by closing the education gap.”
We arrive at the Sycamore Drive-In in Bethel for a lunch of burgers and root beer floats and Boucher speaks with the owner, Patrick Austin, about the state of his business. She says she doesn’t support adding tolls because of people like him who have customers that come from New York state.
Boucher said she doesn’t support increasing the minimum wage because the marketplace should determine what companies pay employees, and a mandated wage harms the ability of businesses like Sycamore to invest in new technology she says could help them pay workers more.
After lunch, we stop by the Gift Cottage shop in Bethel to say hello to her friend, Terri Braybas, who owns the small business and then head to the Annual Clambake & Pig Roast at the West Redding Fire Department. As we drive, Boucher addresses her critics who say she voted against civil unions, saying that’s what her gay constituents wanted her to do because they did not feel civil unions were equal to marriage.
To Haskell’s criticism that she has embraced President Donald Trump, Boucher says she has released several strongly worded statements against the president’s actions.
As we arrive at the clambake, Boucher remarks these are her “fish and gun holding group” and sits down with a group of attendees at a table. She commiserates with them about the state’s economy and the exodus of people out of Connecticut.
The Republican constituency in the district is diverse, and she has a responsibility to represent all of her constituents, which is why she proposed legislation asked for by the Weston Gun Club that would allow gun clubs to have ammunition on hand for people to practice. The bill never passed, but Haskell criticizes Boucher’s proposal as an indication she wants to loosen restriction on ammunition sales.
For the last hour of the day, until 4 p.m., Boucher knocks doors in Weston. At one home, a young girl opens the door and Boucher says to tell her parents to vote.
While leaving, Boucher stops to reflect: “Women have to see women in office and that it’s an option for them someday.”