State Rep. Devin Carney

State Rep. Devin Carney on Hartford, Party Lines, and His View of the Coming Session

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OLD LYME — With deep roots in the region, Rep. Devin Carney is in his third term serving in Hartford with his own combination of dedication and service that has attracted the support of voters across party lines.

“When I decided to run, I really wasn’t thrilled with Dan Malloy — it was more on the economic stuff. I’m definitely fiscally conservative. Socially I’m definitely more on the liberal side. So I think that fits that Rockefeller New England Style Republican — like Chris Shea and Rob Simmons … or even Olympia Snow and Susan Collins,” said Carney, 35, in a conversation with CT Examiner on November 21.

Describing himself as “pretty moderate” and “pretty open-minded,” Carney said he was able to convey those qualities when he first ran against Mary Stone in 2014 and won District 23 covering Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.

Ironically, Carney was originally a Democrat and changed parties around 2010 whereas Stone was originally a Repubican and became a Democrat.

“I’m definitely fiscally conservative. Socially, I’m definitely more on the liberal side. So I think that fits that Rockefeller-New England-Style Republican… like Chris Shea and Rob Simmons or even Olympia Snow and Susan Collins,” said Carney

“I remember we joked about that,” said Carney. “I’ve got a good amount of unaffiliated support and I think, a decent amount of support from those who identify as Democrats.”

Carney, the grandson of actor Art Carney, grew up in Old Saybrook and earned a B.A. from Brandeis University in politics and American studies with a minor in film.

When he returned to Connecticut after college, he said he wasn’t really into politics at first. He started volunteering at the Kate and became the emcee for Oscar night there. He worked on some political campaigns and eventually was asked if he had interest in running for the 23rd District seat.

“I was 29 at the time and I always think it’s good for young people to get involved in politics or public service, or volunteerism, especially in this area,” he said. “And I thought it was a great opportunity to go up to Hartford to try to promote some changes in the state, to try to get people like me to come back to Connecticut, work in Connecticut, raise a family, things like that.”

Growing up in the area helped because he was in touch with a range of people, from his former high school buddies to family friends across the political spectrum.

“It made it so I could call people who aren’t politically involved, which was helpful to me because I wasn’t just talking with people who are, say, on the Republican Town Committee of Old Saybrook. I had people who were unaffiliated, people who are Democrats who knew me my whole life or knew my mother or teachers who all supported me and helped me a little bit in that election,” he said. “And then in Westbrook, people knew my grandfather and grandmother because they bought a house there in the 1950s and started living there in the 1980s.”

Before he ran for office, he said he started dating his girlfriend in Old Lyme, where he lives now, and getting to know her family.

“It really solidified why I wanted to run,” he said. “All the people that I knew over in Old Saybrook and Westbrook and Lyme and Old Lyme and met through knocking on doors — I was really thinking it was the right fit for me at the right time to run for state rep.”

Work in Hartford

Carney has served on the Transportation, Planning and Development Committee since he was first elected.

“It was always the number one committee I wanted to be on, I was always interested in transportation and it’s definitely really important to this area with I-95, Route 9, Shoreline East,” he said. “I think the focus is always on Fairfield County, a lot of the members of the Transportation Committee are from Fairfield County so I think it’s really important to get a voice from this area.”

In a November 22 email, Carney said he is always working to try to find ways to make Connecticut more affordable.

“I think I vote with Democrats 80 percent of the time and with the Republicans I think it was 91 or 92 percent of the time,” he said. We generally get along pretty well. It’s very different from what people see in Washington. It’s much more somber, more traditional, more bipartisan than I think people realize, definitely.”

“One area I always bring up, which is particularly important to my district, is tourism. I would like to see the occupancy tax reduced to 12% so our hotels/inns can better compete with neighboring Rhode Island and I want to see more of those dollars going to promote tourism,” he wrote.

Carney is also the co-chair of the legislative Clean Energy Caucus. “I will be looking at ways the state can promote clean energy and improve our clean energy policies,” he said.

But his job isn’t as glamorous as it appears on tv and in the movies.

“It’s much quieter than you think. I think people think it’s ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ and we do have those days, but a lot of it is committee meetings, working with nonpartisan staff on legislative language,” he said. “A lot of bills we pass are pretty boring, not things that really are of much interest.”

Much of the work takes place in the district rather than in the state house chambers, he said.

“I think a lot of people think we’re up there all the time. When session’s out, I don’t go up there that much, but it doesn’t mean I’m not working in my legislative role. I do a lot of things from home, I go up there when I need to go up there, which is committee hearings, meetings, certainly when the House is in session, full chamber, press conferences. But a lot of this stuff, constituent work, is in the district,” he said.

The process of legislation is very slow and bills can take years to pass.

“A lot of bills, especially on controversial topics, have been going through the process and dying, going through the process and dying for many many years and even some bills that you wouldn’t think would take a while. For some reason some group comes in and says we don’t like this part of the language and then it gets held up and it dies,” he said. “It’s a slow process. A lot of bills die.”

Unlike Washington, most bills are bipartisan.

“I think I vote with Democrats 80 percent of the time and with the Republicans I think it was 91 or 92 percent of the time,” he said. We generally get along pretty well. It’s very different from what people see in Washington. It’s much more somber, more traditional, more bipartisan than I think people realize, definitely.”

“If you drive down near the Saybrook Point Inn, there’s got to be 10 houses for sale. These are definitely probably middle to upper middle class people who are moving, so I’m a little worried that if you add on an additional tax burden — because the budget is all out of whack — is that really going to solve the problem?” he said.

Changing Connecticut to a ballot referendum state, which would allow citizens to place legislation on the ballot, is one of Carney’s interests.

“It would serve democracy well … I’ve heard people say tolls should be on the ballot, I’ve heard people say marijuana. I think it would definitely give the people of Connecticut the opportunity to give their opinion on the issue and have a direct impact on democracy,” he said. ‘It could potentially benefit how our state government works. Not everyone agrees with me … some Democrats oppose it, some Republicans oppose it, some people think we were elected so we’re the ones who [should] sign [legislation] … but I think it would be beneficial to just put it to the test and just deal with whatever the people think. To me that’s the most direct type of democracy that you can get.”

He said the “one speed bump” was that a citizen could create a ballot initiative “for something that nobody really wants, get enough signatures and that would make it on the ballot.”

So far, the idea hasn’t gotten support. “It never goes anywhere,” Carney laughed.

Carney said he was studying a number of issues, including truck tolling — a plan that he said he would need to see more details of before he could commit to it.

“It is regressive and I think folks are concerned at how it will affect the business community,” he said.

Carney said a big problem in Connecticut is the ongoing deficit, but finding a solution is complicated. One idea put forward by the Republicans is to use a portion of the state’s Budget Reserve Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay down the debt and free up monies for the state’s road funds, which some consider risky in the face of a possible recession.

Raising taxes could cause people who can afford to move to leave the state.
“If you drive down near the Saybrook Point Inn, there’s got to be 10 houses for sale. These are definitely probably middle to upper middle class people who are moving, so I’m a little worried that if you add on an additional tax burden — because the budget is all out of whack — is that really going to solve the problem?” he said.

Economic development

“The big thing is just making it less expensive to do business here, especially for larger companies,” Carney said.

For example, he said, Sikorsky was considering moving a 15-year contract to another state, claiming it would have saved them $400 million and the legislature felt forced to come up with a tax credit to offset the savings in order to keep the business in Connecticut.

“It’s not an ideal situation, but I think Connecticut has to do what it can to preserve especially these larger manufacturing companies and allow them to do business with government assistance, not necessarily with government getting in the way,” he said.

Another example is the Lee Company. “It’s a big job creator for my district and they’re good jobs, they treat their employees fantastically. They’ve expanded over the past couple of years, but DOT said if you expand further and add more employees then you need to pay for traffic lights for the off ramps at Exit 64 and that would have been over $1 million,” Carney said. “So it’s, I get it, but how much revenue and how much prosperity could the Lee Company produce over a long period of time and the state is saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you have to pay for this — I don’t want them to say we’re going to do it somewhere else, that’s the big worry for me and a lot of legislators up in Hartford.”

Carney said one of the things Connecticut does well on a number of fronts, is education, especially in Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, East Lyme, and Waterford. “We are very fortunate that we have a great public education system … we’re extremely supportive of the arts, athletics, academics, and making sure kids are able to succeed in whatever their future holds. A lot of kids get into very good colleges, a lot of kids graduate and go on to good careers.”

He also cited the environment as a particular strength of the state, adding that he was one of only three Republicans to be named an environmental champion by the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.

“People might not always like what you say and what you stand for, but as long as you believe it, you have to run with it. It’s definitely not for the thin-skinned … I’ve gotten criticism before. It’s frustrating at times.”

“I think we’re a leader in trying to move to a cleaner future … it’s definitely something that’s really important to my district — with all this open space, the Connecticut River, the Long Island Sound,” he said. “And to me, I look at it, a good thriving, healthy environment is actually a positive thing for the economy. If the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound were dirty no one would want to use them, so having a vibrant maritime economy is good, but it’s dependent on people wanting to go for a swim in the Sound, wanting to go fishing, wanting to go for all the tourism. So that’s why I’ve always been a strong supporter of the environment.”

Health care is also a strength in Connecticut, he said. “I think the quality of healthcare in Connecticut is good and wherever you live you’re pretty close to a facility that can take care of you.”

On running for office

Carney said his advice for anyone thinking about running for office is to be prepared to work really hard. “People might not always like what you say and what you stand for, but as long as you believe it, you have to run with it. It’s definitely not for the thin-skinned … I’ve gotten criticism before. It’s frustrating at times.”

If there is frustration, it hasn’t stopped Carney, who has a perfect voting record.

“I’ve never missed a vote,” he said, smiling.

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