Cate Steel (left) and Holly Cheeseman (right)

Cheeseman and Steel Offer Contrasting Views in Race for State House

Cate Steel, an East Lyme Democrat and retired speech pathologist, is challenging incumbent two-term State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, a Republican, and executive director of the Niantic Children’s Museum, to represent East Lyme and Salem in the 37th District.

Cheeseman is a graduate of Mount Holyoke and a former selectman of East Lyme. In 2018, she defeated Democrat Hugh McKenney 51.4 to 48.6 percent, a margin of 310 votes.

Steel, who worked 35 years as a teacher and educator, currently serves on the East Lyme Board of Education.

Asked about how they would prioritize state budget choices — in August, Gov. Ned Lamont directed agency heads to plan for deep cuts in the state budget of 10% — Cheeseman said that said she is focusing on how to help businesses stay afloat, particularly small and medium ones, which she said make up 80 percent of the businesses in the state, 

“In the face of the pandemic, what can we do as a state to help them survive?” she asked. “I know we have budget issues, but businesses that survive employ people. Businesses that survive return revenue to the state in terms of sales, tax and income tax.”

Cheeseman, who sits on the Finance, Revenue & Bonding and Energy & Technology committees and is Ranking Member on the General Law Committee, said that she wants to see every state governmental department start with zero-based budgeting.

“We have structures in place that should allow us to get better value out of state government. If we’re going to look for 10% cuts, let’s find out what’s working and what isn’t. In any business if you are faced with budget constraints, you take a fine-toothed comb to where you’re spending and ask if it’s delivering value. If it’s not, you can get rid of it,” she said.

“In the face of the pandemic, what can we do as a state to help them survive?” Cheeseman asked. “I know we have budget issues, but businesses that survive employ people. Businesses that survive return revenue to the state in terms of sales, tax and income tax.”

Cheeseman promised that before looking at any tax increases to make up for revenue shortfalls, she would have to be assured the General Assembly hadn’t exhausted every other means to save money. 

Steel said that it was important to maintain high-quality services “regardless of age or stage,” from pre-kindergarten through secondary and post-secondary education and human services including nursing homes and nonprofits. 

She said that the state needs to commit to reducing costs and maximizing efficiencies and to seek out “new ways to improve our financial situations and thinking creatively to decide how we can conduct business.”

According to Steel, COVID requires a new paradigm to evaluate education and business.

“I think we need to help people to get back to work and stimulate the economy. I think what they really need is to have almost like job coaching to just see how they could reimagine their business during this time,” said Steel.

“I think we need to help people to get back to work and stimulate the economy. I think what they really need is to have almost like job coaching to just see how they could reimagine their business during this time,” said Steel. “I think that the online industry has really shown itself to be a viable option. You know, it’s just like looking at it from a whole new lens and I don’t think we’ve even begun to do that. We had, we were forced to do that with the school systems, but I think that businesses should be able to do that as well.”

Energy

Cheeseman said that her biggest concern before voting on a bill — especially an energy legislation — is the effect it will have on her constituents. “How is this going to affect the ratepayer?” 

She said she was disappointed that Eversource has attempted to blame its July rate increases on the state’s power purchase agreement with Dominion Energy. That agreement, Cheeseman said, guaranteed a set price of 4.99 cents per kilowatt hour for 10 years of carbon-free energy and saved local jobs.

“Everyone wants to move to a carbon free future. The current price being paid for offshore wind is close to double that, so this is a very inexpensive carbon free resource,” she said. “We have to be honest with the residents of Connecticut and the ratepayers. If our goal is carbon free, then that will come at some cost, which will come down as the technology improves.”

According to Cheeseman, Tropical Storm Isaias exposed major weaknesses in communication between Eversource and municipal authorities. Said that she wants the company to implement major improvements in storm preparation and response time, with penalties  if power hasn’t been restored within 48 hours. 

“Everyone wants to move to a carbon free future. The current price being paid for offshore wind is close to double that, so this is a very inexpensive carbon free resource,” Cheeseman said. “We have to be honest with the residents of Connecticut and the ratepayers. If our goal is carbon free, then that will come at some cost, which will come down as the technology improves.”

She said that she was only in favor of future rate increases if energy distribution companies fulfill certain goals.

“If they hit those standards then yes, you might get the rate increase. If you fall short, then obviously any request for a rate increase would be looked at far more skeptically,” she said. “We have to make sure that this is working as efficiently as possible because at the end of the day, I think what this has revealed particularly during the pandemic is just how incredibly dependent we are.”

Steel said she wanted to explore alternatives that include renewable clean energy that will prevent power outages, especially because of climate change and the predicted increase in the severity of storms. 

She said she saw a lot of “pointing fingers” when Eversource raised rates in July and then failed to restore power quickly after Tropical Storm Isaias.

“That’s not how you get anything solved. You need to come to the table and have good conversations and look at what it’s doable and how to do it,” Steel said. “I think we need to look at it from the customer’s vantage point and think about it in terms of what we would do in terms of power outages.” 

Police accountability 

Steel said that she wanted to add training and mentoring to the police accountability bill, which was passed by the legislature in special session in July and likely the subject of further revisions in the regular session.

“I really think that it begins with training and that goes back to my educational background … There needs to be more opportunity for them to understand the variety of experiences that they encounter every single day,” Steel said. “I think that we ask way too much of them. I think that other people should be taking on some of the roles of police officers, like social workers or counselors or psychologists.”

Steel said that when a police officer returns from a stressful experience or situation, post-traumatic stress syndrome may manifest itself, and she there needs to be an opportunity for them to process the event and recover.

“I really think that it begins with training and that goes back to my educational background … There needs to be more opportunity for them to understand the variety of experiences that they encounter every single day,” Steel said. “I think that we ask way too much of them. I think that other people should be taking on some of the roles of police officers, like social workers or counselors or psychologists.”

“Helping them to stabilize afterwards. From a teacher’s vantage point, if there’s a planning or placement team meeting with a parent that was perhaps somewhat contentious, the teachers meet afterwards and talk about it and really focus their energies on good ways to use policy and practice to meet the needs of the student, the parent and the family within the school situation,” Steel said. “I think that same model needs to apply to the police.”

Cheeseman, who voted against the bill, said that any legislation should be crafted in a thoughtful manner and that this bill was rushed through. 

“With something as important as this, with something that affects the men and women who every single day go do a very hard job and attempt to do it to the best of their ability and they’re made to feel, even if that’s not the purpose of the bill, that now they are losing the protection that they’ve counted on that,” she said. 

Cheeseman said the bill deserves a full vetting, the appropriate legislative process, with public hearings and input from everybody involved, particularly for law enforcement officers.  

Looking ahead

“I really want to be a strong voice for people in Hartford. I really want to be someone who wants to move things forward and to advance our area of the state — not in a fast mode — but in a thoughtful, careful planned mode so that we can have a better quality of life and sustain it for our children and our grandchildren,” said Steel. 

A mother to three children, Steel’s oldest son died about 11 years ago from a gunshot wound. Steel said that the experience has led her to become a strong proponent of gun safety and safe storage of guns and ammunition. She and her family moved to East Lyme in 1996 when Pfizer transferred her husband, Richard Steel, to the area. 

Steel is board president of Art Reach, a nonprofit in Norwich and also hosts a weekly show on Atlantic Broadband, “Stories Worth Telling.” 

“I think that my life experiences and my career and my family have brought me to this place and build things back and build things up, that’s why I’m running,” she said. 

Cheeseman said she it was important for the legislators to reconvene at the Capitol and resume their legislative work, provided social distancing measures are observed. 

“If businesses are doing it, if schools are doing it, if essential workers are doing it, I think we as legislators, that the least we can do for the people we represent is to be there representing them in person,” she said.

As the executive director of a nonprofit, Cheeseman also said that she understands that people expect responsible stewardship of their funds, whether as donations to the museum or taxes to the state. 

Cheeseman said she is proud of her work legislation that has kept insulin and the cost of diabetic supplies relatively low.  Cheeseman’s late husband was a type one diabetic.

Cheeseman said that she is looking at ways to make health insurance more affordable in Connecticut and to ensure that everyone has access to affordable healthcare. She said she would continue her work in domestic violence prevention and would seek the extra $250,000 the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence has requested for additional hotel funding during the pandemic. 

She added that she has worked with Brian’s Healing Hearts foundation and the American Federation for Suicide Prevention and their Connecticut branch on improving access to mental health care and has co-sponsored a bill in support of mental health care. 

“Particularly during these times, the CDC did a study that found that 25% of 18 to 24 year-olds over the past few months have contemplated suicide as a result of the pandemic. I think if anything we’re seeing far greater need for that good mental health coverage and good services, so that’s going to continue to be a priority of mine,” Cheeseman said.

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