Republican State Sen. Heather Somers is running for a third term in the 18th district against Democrat Robert Statchen. This is the second time the two have competed for the chance to represent the towns of Griswold, Groton, North Stonington, Plainfield, Preston, Sterling, Stonington and Voluntown in the State Senate. In 2018, Somers won with 54.7 percent to Statchen’s 45.3 percent of the vote.
Somers said that she has the most bipartisan or independent voting record in the Senate — a consistent theme, she says, of her campaign and time in Hartford.
“For years now, I’m somebody who is challenging the status quo that we’ve seen in Hartford and delivering results for my district,” said Somers. “I try to do my very best to listen to the people of my district, and to vote their voices, not my personal opinion.”
Somers also said that her work on the Public Health Emergency Committee has contributed to Connecticut having one of the lowest the COVID-19 rates in the country.
“We’ve done our due diligence in making sure that our health care professionals have the ability to treat COVID,” she said.
Somers counts among her accomplishments the expansion of telehealth treatment for both medical issues and mental health.
Somers said that in the coming session, she would like the legislature to consider better funding for skilled nursing facilities and additional consideration of how they fit into the “continuum of care.”
Statchen said that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has become the focus of every issue, including the economy and schools. He said he wanted to see his opponent show leadership in addressing the messages of President Trump concerning the virus.
“The president really hid the truth as far as what was happening and more and more of that is coming out and resulted in 200,000 people dying,” Statchen said. “A significant concern is my opponent is on the Public Health Committee, a ranking minority member, and yet she doesn’t speak out against a lot of these lies, whether it’s injecting Lysol, or whether it’s Hydroxychloroquine, or the efficacy of wearing masks.”
Statchen, who is an U.S. Air Force veteran, a judge advocate, and a longtime member of the Connecticut Air National Guard, said the virus has created a national and state emergency and voters need leadership that is “going to speak the truth and leadership that is going to bring truth to power and isn’t afraid.”
“If my party leadership was lying to the American people, you’d better believe that I’d be the first one to step up and talk about it and I think that’s what people are looking for,” he said. “These are dangerous times, this is not a time to play games. This is a time to find out what we need to do and have a clear path, creating an environment where truth, facts and science-based decisions are possible to make sure we get through this emergency.”
After a summer of power outages and rate hikes, Somers said that she that would like for the legislature to revisit the independence of PURA, the state’s energy regulator, which currently falls under the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“The number one thing I think that we could do as a legislature to sort of level the playing field and have energy actually be more impartial, would be to revisit the way PURA is designed — PURA is actually not independent, it’s really underneath the DEEP. And to me, that is a conflict of interest,” she said. “PURA needs to be an independent review agency, or regulatory agency, outside of the guise of the DEEP for us to have a real independent, impartial player as far as rates are concerned.”
Statchen said that Eversource took too long to restore power to residents after Tropical Storm Isaias — which combined with the rate hikes put a spotlight on the company, including the $20 million annual salary of Eversource CEO James Judge.
But Statchen said that the aging power grid is a far more important problem that needs to be addressed.
“It’s like having an old car — you save money this week on property taxes but you have to keep on getting it fixed. The question is at what point do we decide to improve our power grid — because really it’s working on old technology,” he said. “We need a legislature that is going to take these issues seriously and find real solutions and not just put a patch on the tire.”
Police accountability bill
“I support law enforcement — I want them to have tools they need to be able to do their job and do it as effectively as possible and I want to work with them,” said Statchen, who said he had spoken with a number of police officers and police chiefs and learned that they are looking for more clarity on the use of deadly force, among other issues.
“They feel that as drafted it was confusing and that doesn’t come into force until April 1, 2021, so that gives an opportunity to look at that to see if it does need modification. You don’t want to overburden officers as far as decision making but you also want to have guidance,” he said.
Statchen said consent searches are a “valuable tool in the process” and “there’s nothing that stops officers from establishing probable cause when they come up to the vehicle.”
Statchen also said that it was important to consider the history of qualified immunity when crafting a police accountability bill.
“I think the debate on qualified immunity is the result of a misinformation campaign from a variety of sources. The bottom line is since 1871, since the Ku Klux Klan Act, [any] public official, whether police officer or anybody else, who violates constitutional rights of citizens has personal liability, that’s going back to that act in the midst of Reconstruction, and that language was emphasized in the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” he said.
In 1982, the Supreme Court created an exception that unless there was a prior identical, factual case that there was no way for an officer to know there was a constitutional violation, he said.
“You really have to look back not just decades but hundreds of years and to not do it is a disservice.”
Statchen, who is a member of the Stonington Board of Finance, said the board brought in the town’s insurance agent to check whether insurance rates and liability would rise because of the language in the bill and whether officers would need to buy their own policies.
“This [bill] only covers intentional conduct, intentional malicious conduct. Before this act took place, you [couldn’t] buy an insurance policy to cover malicious conduct. That was before the act and now after the act it’s the same situation, you can’t buy a policy that lets you get away with this,” he said.
Statchen said towns are required to represent the law enforcement officer all the way through any litigation until there is a finding of that intentional malicious conduct.
He said that the qualified immunity language has been misinterpreted by some groups.
“That section — people want to create a narrative that I think is a false narrative. I think that section actually does not have significant impact on the operation. Some of these other ones, the consent searches, the deadly search, those are very operational and again I think they need to be explored, but that’s kind of a red herring. The impact that it has has certainly not been fairly projected at this point.”
Statchen said that his perspective is based partly on his background as a prosecutor in the U.S. Air Force.
“I put military members in jail if they failed to live up to our standards. I also acted as defense counsel when members were charged with a crime,” he said. “I think accountability improves quality, especially when you are dealing with taxpayer money,” he said. “I believe these types of measures, I think accountability is appropriate. I also think no legislation is perfect.”
Somers said that she was not in favor of piecemeal revisions to the bill, and did not understand why the legislation was passed quickly in special session without proper procedures including a public hearing.
She said she was in favor of changes to the police accountability bill that would restore the protections guaranteed by qualified immunity and “eliminate the new causes of action that can be brought against police officers in order to protect our towns against frivolous lawsuits.”
Somers said she was also in favor of restoring previous standards for the use of deadly force.
“I think that you can’t just fix one little part of it. The whole thing should be scrapped and revisited, but the biggest issue is the qualified immunity because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about [that]. It doesn’t mean you’re immune from doing anything you want, it means that a judge has to decide if you get qualified immunity,” she said.
According to Somers, the law hurts the majority of police who are good officers.
“We’re designing laws where we’re hurting 99% of the people in that profession for the 1% that should not be police officers,” she said.
Zoning and local control
“I am all for local control,” said Somers. “I think the less the state has its hands in, the better off we are.”
Somers said a solution for better integrating Connecticut is to change the trajectory of the cities by making them more vibrant, which can happen when the state encourages employers to locate in Connecticut.
“They create employment, they create job opportunities. We have a whole generation of millennials that love to live and work and play within a certain radius that they can walk,” she said. “If we create the landscape for large corporations or small and medium sized businesses to want to be in our downtown, it creates the dynamic of people coming in that have good jobs and employment who will demand a nice shop, who demand a restaurant — they’re going to demand that there’s things to do — you’ll see our cities flourish.”
She said the state telling towns what to do with their zoning was not the answer.
“I think we need to work on it cooperatively. Towns need to have a seat at the table. I don’t think it’s right for the state to force that on them in any way shape or form,” she said.
Statchen said housing segregation goes back more than 100 years and the inequalities in lending and zoning need to be addressed, but “to think there’s one easy response is inaccurate.”
“There’s a lot of self interest in creating a more desegregated environment and here’s a lot of economic data to support that segregation is not good for economic development in the long run,” he said. “It would be presumptuous of me to say the best solution is this and this. I think there’s a lot of smart people working on this, I’d like to work with them because I think it’s an important issue for Connecticut.’
He said it was important to consider the long history of home rule in Connecticut and the potential for litigation if state zoning laws are passed.
“I would like to see if there are ways that are collaborative to address this because I think that home rule litigation will go on 10 years down the road.”
Asked about a request by Gov. Ned Lamont that state agencies plan for 10 cuts, given looming deficits into the future, Somers said that a 10 percent cut across the board of the state budget lacked logic and could negatively impact individuals and businesses during the pandemic.
“I’ve always hated that kind of budgeting because I think it doesn’t make sense. I think if you’re going to make budgetary cuts, that you need to look at the areas that are the most important and have the most priority,” she said. “Can you imagine giving the Department of Public Health a 10 percent cut right now? We’re in the middle of a pandemic. This is sort of the lazy man’s way to try to budget.”
Somers advocated zero-based budgeting, especially scrutinizing the results of long-funded programs.
“I think we have to look at it in a much different through a different lens than we have in the past, especially now that we’ve already been the slowest to recover [from the 2008 recession] in the nation — probably because of the policies that we have for small businesses, and how difficult it is to do anything here,” she said, citing the high cost of workman’s compensation and the paid family leave program.
“Quite frankly, we have got to change the landscape that we have here in the state of Connecticut so that we can attract businesses, because we’re not going to tax our way out of this. We’ve already had two of the largest tax increases in Connecticut history, and they haven’t put a dent in it,” she said. “The only way to fix this really is to attract people to want to come here — employers that can provide high paying jobs — and if we’re going to do that we have to change the course and the direction that we’ve been taking.”
Statchen that said it was appropriate to tell state agencies that they need to prepare for fiscal restraint and cuts, especially with a projected $3 billion deficit for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we don’t know if there’s a second surge coming. There are so many unknowns. We need to plan for the worst case scenario,” said Statchen, who is endorsed by the Working Families Party as well as the Democratic and Independent parties. “I don’t support regressive taxes that disproportionately impact working people and I will put any one of those under a microscope.”
He said he would look at the top 1 percent of the tax bracket and compare Connecticut’s tax to other states’ to assess what a fair tax structure could be.
“I will consistently work to make sure that working people are not burdened more and I think the income inequality that we see across the nation as well as in the state needs to be examined closely,” he said. “I think the government’s role is to help provide a safety net when people need a little help — those are my values and I think that Connecticut can do that.”
Note: At the request of the candidate, we included a fuller portion of the recorded transcript to clarify and properly explain his views on qualified immunity.