State Rep. Irene Haines and Judd Melón

Melón, Haines Offer Sharp Contrast for Fall Election

Educator and real estate agent Judd Melón, an East Haddam Democrat, is challenging one-term incumbent State Rep. Irene Haines, an East Haddam Republican, for the chance to represent Connecticut’s 34th House district, that includes East Haddam and East Hampton.

Melón taught Spanish literature and language in college and public high school for 10 years, and is a licensed real estate agent, but he said that he put teaching on hold to challenge Haines because he disagreed with several votes she’s taken, including votes against the minimum wage increase, expanding paid family and medical leave, and police accountability bills in 2019 and 2020.

Melón said that, if elected, he would focus on issues of social justice in policing, housing and healthcare. He also said that the response to COVID and fixing the economy will be key issues in Hartford in the coming session.

“As we make policies moving forward, we need to be careful that the economic fallout of this pandemic doesn’t fall on people who are barely getting by right now,” Melón said.

According to Melón, a key piece of the recovery will be helping people who have been displaced from their careers find work, and that accelerated nursing programs and a continuing focus on renewable energy jobs could be part of the solution.  He also supports more transparency in the job search process, saying that businesses should be required to provide the actual minimum salary for a position up front during the application process. 

Haines, who is seeking a second term, said that she’s lived in East Haddam for 25 years, where she raised her children, served as a Girl Scout leader and worked on several small businesses. 

Haines said that it was her work with the East Haddam Business Association that got her to run for first selectman. Haines said she didn’t win the election, but her campaign did get the attention of her predecessor, former State Rep. Melissa Ziobron, who asked her to run as her replacement. 

Haines said that she is committed to fighting to streamline regulations and taxes for small businesses, which will need help as Connecticut hopefully emerges from the pandemic next year. 

She said that there is work from the last legislative session that ended abruptly in March that she wants to finish if re-elected. 

Haines said she was working on an issue in the tax code that treats equipment differently for construction work and excavators, where excavators could list a backhoe as a depreciating asset, but builders would have to list it as a vehicle that doesn’t depreciate.

“That’s a lot of tax revenue the assessors are collecting on the backs of our housing market,” she said.

Haines said she would also like to find areas where private charities and non-profits could do some of the work government agencies are doing, at less cost to the taxpayers.

Zoning and affordable housing

Melón said that both historical practices like blockbusting and redlining, as well as existing policies like acreage minimums have all contributed to a lack of inclusivity in housing in smaller communities.

“I think there’s real issues when people aren’t able to buy into communities, and there’s a huge demographic disparity,” Melón said. “That’s not something that happens by chance. It’s not like people don’t want to live in the community.”

Melón said that it would be a boon for small rural communities to have more people moving in. According to Melón, he would not support “giant developments,” that could disrupt the small-town character of the area, but that there is a need for housing that working people can afford.

“I think there’s real issues when people aren’t able to buy into communities, and there’s a huge demographic disparity,” Melón said. “That’s not something that happens by chance. It’s not like people don’t want to live in the community.”

“I think it’s sometimes this bogeyman, that there will be massive, many-unit, complexes in rural areas, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” Melón said. “Part of the reason more rural areas are in some ways in economic decline, is because there’s not that lifeblood of young professionals coming in, and you have to give people a leg up so they can work their way up to middle-class prosperity.”

Haines said that the beauty of Connecticut is that there is diversity between different communities, and each has different needs. State-wide zoning wouldn’t account for those differences, and would create difficulties for all communities – urban, suburban and rural — she said.

“Local control of zoning and planning is what makes every community unique, and we don’t want to become all the same – we can’t,” Haines said. “We don’t have the same populations, we don’t have the same infrastructure, we don’t have the same social needs.”

“Local control of zoning and planning is what makes every community unique, and we don’t want to become all the same – we can’t,” Haines said. “We don’t have the same populations, we don’t have the same infrastructure, we don’t have the same social needs.”

Haines said that individual communities like East Haddam are already reviewing their zoning rules and deciding what ways they can tweak regulations to make their communities more inclusive, which she said is a good thing.

Haines said that even without building new, large apartment complexes there are housing options in East Haddam that are affordable to people with lower incomes. 

Haines said she has seen a lot of multi-family homes while knocking on doors that people might not even know are there. There is also a tax incentive program in East Haddam for developers to turn old commercial buildings into multi-family housing geared toward people with lower incomes, she said.

“There are different things we can do, we don’t have to put up 30 brick apartment buildings, and I think that’s what people are afraid of,” Haines said. “I think we can be creative with our housing and still provide the charm and rustic look of our towns.”

Police accountability

Melón said that several portions of the police accountability bill the legislature passed in its July special session are important, including barring chokeholds and having an independent entity to review officer-involved shootings. He said policing is an issue lawmakers that requires additional study to see what else needs to be done.

“It cannot be overstated, I acknowledge the risk that law enforcement officers are subjected to in their jobs,” Melón said. “But they’re also empowered to use lethal force, and this is a time of widespread awakening where people realize we need to address how police can best be held accountable when they are using lethal force, and to assess the instances where it has to be used, and not — where it’s used inappropriately or prematurely before there’s a threat that would justify it.”

“It cannot be overstated, I acknowledge the risk that law enforcement officers are subjected to in their jobs,” Melón said. “But they’re also empowered to use lethal force, and this is a time of widespread awakening where people realize we need to address how police can best be held accountable when they are using lethal force, and to assess the instances where it has to be used, and not — where it’s used inappropriately or prematurely before there’s a threat that would justify it.”

Melón pointed to the arrest of former Bridgeport Police Chief Armando Perez, who pled guilty to rigging an advancement exam in order to become chief in 2018, to say that the process of promoting officers needs to be reviewed to make sure it’s an impartial assessment of their abilities.

“I just think it’s a matter of us looking at it from a comprehensive perspective,” Melón said. “It’s an important bill, but I view it as a first step.”

Haines, who voted against the bill, said there are good aspects of it, including the training requirements and requiring police to have body cameras. Other aspects, she said, need a closer look, including the cost to municipalities of having to meet the new requirements. Those costs, she said, which will fall to taxpayers. 

“Clearly, it’s going to get rid of the bad cops, but it’s also already getting rid of the good cops,” she said. “I think the problem was the bill was put together too quickly. We did our best to keep it bipartisan, but there are lots of pieces that we wanted to address further.”

Haines weighed in on provisions in the legislation that drew the most controversy from police advocates, and which were intended to limit qualified immunity for officers.

“Clearly, it’s going to get rid of the bad cops, but it’s also already getting rid of the good cops,” she said. “I think the problem was the bill was put together too quickly. We did our best to keep it bipartisan, but there are lots of pieces that we wanted to address further.”

Energy

In an interview before performance-based energy legislation was finalized and passed in the September special session, Melón told CT Examiner that it seemed reasonable to have more accountability for the companies when power outages last several days.

“It seemed that with Isaias, they just didn’t have the planning in place, in terms of the number of people they needed to address the issue promptly,” Melón said. “Being without power for a week during a pandemic is deadly, and people lost medication and were scrambling to get generators for oxygen machines.”

As with the police accountability bill, Haines said the electric distribution bill was rushed in special session when it should have been given a more thorough review in regular session. Haines said the bill doesn’t do enough to address the underlying issues of reliability with the electric grid, like overhead lines running through heavily-wooded East Haddam.

“It’s a big problem, we need to modernize our grid,” Haines said. “We can trim more trees and get reimbursed because we don’t have power for another day, but where does that leave us? It just kicks the real problem down the road.”

Budget cuts

Melón said that cutting services is not an answer during a pandemic and recession. He said the state should look first to its budget reserve “rainy day” fund to address COVID-related budget shortfalls, something Gov. Ned Lamont’s office has said it will do, along with some proposed cuts and a hiring freeze.

“That’s the point of rainy day funds,” Melón said. “If it’s not raining now, I don’t know when it is.”

Melón also said it’s important to see what the actual budget impacts are, as there are only projections now. The state should “plan without panicking,” and avoid cuts to services that could help people at a time when they are facing so many challenges.

Haines said cuts are always hard to talk about because you’re talking about people’s jobs, but in any budget, you have to be aware that you can’t buy things you can’t afford. One silver lining of COVID is seeing how some government functions could be streamlined because state employees couldn’t go through the normal administrative processes. 

“Those are maybe some of the things that we can look at with these cuts if it’s working fine, then we’ve actually gotten rid of some red tape that gets in the way of people doing business,” she said.

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