In 2018, Democrat Norm Needleman of Essex won the long-held Republican State Senate seat for the 33rd district by just 0.2 percent of the vote. This November he faces Republican Brendan Saunders of Westbrook in what may well again be a close race in a district that stretches from Clinton to Deep River to Portland.
For Saunders, who formerly pastored a Baptist church in Old Saybrook and currently works full-time at a hotel in Colchester, the number one reason he’s running is because he believes the district needs a voice in Hartford more representative of the district.
“When I looked at current representation it felt like a lot of people’s voices weren’t being heard or represented in Hartford,” he said. “One party has a super majority and I’m all about balance. I just didn’t see any balance. The last time we got close to balance was in 2017 when a great bipartisan budget was passed.”
If he were to be elected, Saunders said his top priorities would be reducing the cost of living and creating a better business environment
“The cost of living is killing businesses here. We need to stop putting such a burden on these businesses. There is a reason why they are going to other states,” Saunders said.
Needleman, who currently chairs the Energy and Technology Committee, said that if he is re-elected, he wants to keep the focus on energy.
“I’ve committed to bringing forward a bill to change the regulatory framework that UI and Eversource operate under. We are negotiating with the Republicans, we want a bipartisan bill,” he said. “What we hope for is more accountability, performance-based standards for how we evaluate utilities and it needs to include customer service because it is devastatingly bad.”
According to Needleman, work toward this bill, bringing restitution for constituents who lost food and medicine during the summer storms and handling residents’ COVID-19 related issues, has consumed every minute of the past five months.
Needleman is hopeful that his bipartisan track record on energy bills he has championed during his first term will assure voters that he is working with all of their interests at heart.
“I’m trying to live up to my word, that I always work to reach across the aisle,” he said.
For Saunders, the idea that the current senator had the residents of the 33rd district in mind when passing his energy-related bills is hard to believe.
“For the chair of the energy committee to act like he didn’t know these rate hikes were coming when they had reached out to PURA in December to okay these … is bad. He contributed to it,” said Saunders. “I have no problem seeking out renewable energies and things that will do a better job of not being detrimental to the environment, but I will not be placing the financial burdens on the backs of our people.”
According to Saunders, a 2019 bill intended to move the state toward a green economy also included a fiscal note that the bill would raise rates for energy consumers – as has occurred this summer. That bill was co-sponsored by Needleman and overwhelmingly passed in the Senate, by a vote of 32-1, and in House, 146-0.
Budget Cuts and Redlines
In addition to energy, Needleman said he wants to insure that government agencies do not receive any more drastic cuts as the state works to balance the budget post-COVID-19.
“We have witnessed first-hand what massive staff cuts have done when a crisis hits,” Needleman said. “The age and obsolescence of the unemployment compensation system hit this spring and it was a perfect example of what the problem is with neglecting state government.”
Saunders, however, said the state needs to be looking at making cuts, especially when it comes to labor contracts.
“We have labor contracts that are going to be up for renewal. This is the time to approach these labor contracts from the standpoint that everybody is suffering and now is not the time to be exorbitant and extravagant,” he said. “When state workers were up for their increase I called for that to be delayed. I understand that there have been a lot of delays throughout the years, but that comes from the private markets. Someone like me had to take a pay cut at the hotel.”
For Saunders, the first step to reducing the cost of living is putting a check on state spending. Needleman, however, said there are opportunities for increasing state revenue without burdening the taxpayers that would allow state agencies to not suffer drastic cuts.
“There have been a lot of conversations about maybe moving away from some aspects of the income tax and toward a payroll tax,” Needleman said. “It’s a win for the state, a win for the taxpayers and an opportunity if done right that this is a game changer and a win all the way around.”
Although the issue is not a priority for either candidate, both Saunders and Needleman said they would hope to see the police accountability bill brought back up at a January session.
“You can see I’m a Black man. I think that bill was extremely important,” Saunders said. “To just simply throw it out there without going through the proper process … I’m insulted. I’m insulted that something this important would be handled so recklessly. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
If it were to be brought up again, Saunders said he would want to reexamine the qualified immunity portion and the changes to the deadly force rules.
“It changed the standard and created a lot of uncertainty when it comes to deadly force,” he said. “It takes a very hindsight approach, but that’s just not how policing works. You can’t have officers trying to mentally check off a list when they’re trying to engage in something.”
Although Needleman voted for the bill in July, he agreed with Saunders that the use of force piece is the most critical portion to be reevaluated.
“The Madison Police Department invited me down and talked about how they manage sensitivity training, live fire training and demonstrated the split-second momentary decisions you have to make,” he said. “It fed right into the idea that the piece that needs to be looked at most critically is the use of force policy. The way it is written goes counter to a lot of the training that police have had.”
Maintaining Local Control
Needleman — who is vice chair of the Planning Development Committee — and Saunders both promised to protect local zoning rights at the State Capitol.
“I live it as a first selectman,” Needleman said. “We have housing issues, but I don’t believe you solve the problem just by moving people around. Putting people in different places without transportation and jobs is like having a one-legged stool. We need to focus on expanding opportunities in the communities.”
In addition, when it comes to affordable housing, Needleman said there needs to be more emphasis on building structures that fit in with the existing community.
“For people who want to develop within more rural communities there needs to be some type of architectural thing in there. We don’t want a tall building in the middle of downtown Essex,” he said. “Also, some people involved in the affordable housing movement forget that a lot of the state is served by onsite septic systems as opposed to sewer, so there are limitations to what you can really do.”
COVID-19 and the legislature
Saunders and Needleman both also said they would have like to see much more legislator involvement in decision making regarding COVID-19 policy.
“The legislators are on the pulse of their areas, they would have been able to tell the Governor what was actually going on and needed,” Saunders said. “How are you going to pay an out-of-state company to guide you through reopening without putting legislators on the task force? I was not and am not happy that the legislature has been cut out.”
Needleman said the Governor has done a terrific job, but he hopes going forward to see the legislature have a larger role, especially when it comes to managing funding.
“We need to have some say over the money,” Needleman said. “But in a crisis you need a strong executive. I believe that in Essex too. I couldn’t have made all the decisions with having to go back to the Board of Selectmen every day.”