State Sen. Christine Cohen, a Democrat, is running for a third term in the state legislature to represent the 12th Senate District which includes the towns of Guilford, North Branford, Branford, Durham, Madison and Killingworth.
Her challenger Republican Paul Crisci opened Park Group Solutions, a multistate consulting and marketing firm, in 2005.
Cohen owns Cohen’s Bagel Company in Madison, and served on the Guilford Board of Education from 2015 to 2019. Before starting the bagel company, she worked for Stanley Black & Decker. She lives in Guilford with her husband and three children.
Cohen talked with CT Examiner about the opportunity that federal funds gave the state to invest in electric vehicles and electric vehicle infrastructure, the need to invest in mass transit that is better connected and more environmentally friendly, and why she still believes that a public option is the best way to improve health care affordability in Connecticut.
Cohen also reflected on the legalization of marijuana, which she originally voted against, the importance of regulating THC levels and her support for giving local hemp farmers a way to enter the marijuana market.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the issues that are most important to you in the next election?
COHEN: There’s talk about reproductive healthcare, certainly, — obviously most recently the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Gun safety in light of, unfortunately, more mass shootings — I’m hearing a lot about that. And I certainly hear about the environment. I really think that’s something that’s incredibly important, specifically to the 12th State Senate District here in Connecticut.
We have an expansive stretch of coastline. so thinking about coastal resiliency, making sure we’re doing what we can to mitigate climate change. Addressing a waste crisis as we face the shutdown of the MIRA plant in Hartford, which does impact several of the communities here.
Transportation’s a big one that I hear about, day in and day out. I worked a lot with my colleagues and the transportation committee. There is a lot of overlap between transportation and environment. Folks just wanting to improve our mass transit system in the state, improve connectivity, and making sure that we can get people to where they need to go most efficiently.
CTEx: Are you satisfied with the way that the state has balanced its energy goals with the skyrocketing costs of electricity and gasoline?
COHEN: We are seeing these prices at the pumps go up and up. And we’ve been trying to do what we can at the state level to ease some of the burden that Connecticut residents are feeling by eliminating the gas tax and taking a gas tax holiday, if you will. Initially that was slated to be much shorter term. And then, recognizing that those fuel prices were not going to normalize, we took that a step further and extended that through December. And I think it’s something that we’re going to need to continue to look at.
Obviously, we have a war going on that is in fact affecting many prices, not just gasoline and heating oils, but other things as well in commodities. I own a business that obviously deals a lot with flour, making bagels — believe it or not wheat — a good portion of that is coming from Ukraine.
We’re seeing the impacts of inflation and these, while these are all federal issues, we want to be as focused as we can on those issues here in Connecticut by providing relief. I think when we were approaching the budget this year, and I am a member of the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee, it was vitally important that we not only pass a balanced budget, but that we do provide relief in other areas.
We were able to issue over 600 million in tax cuts, which I was really proud of. It’s a historic budget. Increasing the earned income tax credit so that our low income, our working poor families are seeing some relief. Making sure that we’re looking at our senior population — we were going to have an exemption on pension and annuities taxes. That wasn’t supposed to take place until 2025.
We were able to speed that up. So we’ll be able to take that exemption for this tax year. Increasing the property tax, the child tax rebate obviously will be a huge help for families across the state. And other things like the cap on the car tax. So those were all aimed at helping provide relief to Connecticut residents — not only here in the 12th district, but really across the state.
CTEx: I know you also passed the Clean Air Act this year in the state legislature. Is there more that you would like to see done?
COHEN: I obviously am in the camp of we need to go further.
We need to be providing relief to not only our environment, but to our resident’s pocketbooks, ensuring that we can drive energy prices down in an age when we have the technologies available to have more renewables across the board.
But I am incredibly proud of what we were able to do with Connecticut’s Clean Air Act. We had this opportunity like we had never had before in the infrastructure dollars that were coming to us from the federal government. And so for the first time ever, we had these large amounts of money that were able to be used for electric charging infrastructure, the electrification of vehicles, things of that nature.
We really were able to accelerate the use of electric vehicles across the state, making sure that Connecticut state vehicles are also electric. Expanding EV charging infrastructure, which, we’ve heard time and time again, people have range anxiety when it comes to buying electric vehicles. We also hear that electric vehicles are too expensive and now we’re seeing more and more manufacturers coming online, producing affordable electric vehicles. We want to make sure we’re making them even more affordable by expanding the rebate programs and including e-bikes too, which was another important initiative.
We kept hearing from folks, particularly in urban areas, but also people who were going longer stretches but wanting a little bit of a boost on those bikes — but the electric bikes can be expensive. And so providing rebates on electric bikes is another means of more affordable and accessible transportation.
And then of course, school buses and city buses, and working towards providing business incentives on medium and heavy-duty vehicles for businesses that choose to electrify. Because I have heard from several businesses, in district and out, who are looking for options for their businesses in order to be more environmentally friendly, but really to improve their costs long-term.
So, especially in light of gas prices right now, I’m proud of what we were able to get done.
CTEx: What are your key goals and priorities for improving the educational outcomes for the students in Connecticut going forward?
COHEN: We worked a lot on mental health this session, because we saw an incredible need of school-aged children in particular needing access to services for mental and behavioral health. That’s been the focus. Making sure that we are addressing special needs in education, improving access to early childhood education has been a priority of mine. We do know from studies that having access to early childhood education improves outcomes later in life.
And so it just sort of sets up that track for kids to improve outcomes, not only with respect to elementary education and middle education, but higher education as well. And so making sure that we have funding available for that improved access was key.
Also making sure that we’re listening to our teaching staff who are really the heroes. They’ve just gone through such a trying time with the pandemic. Our teachers have really had to pivot and provide flexibility and learn how to teach in a very different way with a lot of these hybrid learning systems and making sure that they have differentiation in their classrooms like never before. Because we saw some kids falling behind and other kids excelling in that hybrid work environment. And so making sure that teachers have the tools that they need — and that’ll require us making sure that we’re getting a pulse and listening constantly and collaborating to ensure that every child has a good education and good outcome.
CTEx: What can the state legislature do to make healthcare more accessible and affordable?
COHEN: Certainly nobody would want this pandemic to have happened. We don’t want a repeat of the pandemic, but we have learned a lot from it.
And one of the things that we learned is being able to provide telehealth visits has increased accessibility options for folks, and making sure that there’s insurance coverage for those telehealth options is vital. We also know that there’s just improved long-term outcomes if we can increase accessibility. And so that’s incredibly important and we’ve had a big focus on making sure that we’re providing telehealth and providing insurance coverage for those visits, both for mental health visits, as well as physical health.
Also mobile units — making sure we have mobile crisis centers when it comes to mental health. Making sure that there’s mobile vaccination clinics for folks and really getting the word out there. making sure that we’re educating Connecticut’s residents on their options when it comes to healthcare.
I am still a huge proponent of a public option in Connecticut. I’m disappointed that we haven’t made the type of progress that my colleagues and I have wanted to see in that regard.
I think we need to work on prescription drug affordability and continue down that road. I think we need to continue to work with our insurance industry here in Connecticut to see how we can be providing relief to Connecticut families, because nobody should really have to decide between putting meals on the table and providing vital healthcare to their families.
CTEx: What role do you see the state having in providing housing for Connecticut residents?
COHEN: There’s no secret we have a housing issue in the state. We see a concentration of affordable housing in certain areas and a complete lack thereof in others. And the key, I think, is making sure all people have opportunities to live in the towns of their choice across our state. We need to balance that, certainly, with an approach that fits the individualized needs of municipalities.
And we also know that, right now, some towns aren’t an option for people, not only because of affordability, but because of transportation. Transportation’s a big problem that needs solving. We just don’t have the connectivity in certain areas to get folks to their jobs and to their medical appointments and things of that nature.
So I think it’s really important that we’re taking a look at the big picture here in the state. I think that’s why you see a huge focus on transit-oriented development. It’s vitally important, making sure that we have affordable housing near transit areas.
Sewerage is just one of the issues that we hear about over and over again when we talk about housing density. Obviously not every town in the state has a public sewer system. There’s a lot of septic issues and these are all complex issues to tackle. And hence we have these working groups designed to look at all angles and obstacles to development.
CTEx: I want to ask you about the Police Accountability Act. Is it working as it was designed to work? Are there modifications that need to be made?
COHEN: There’s a task force working on that. I know one of our local police chiefs is actually on it, so I get updates from him regularly. So I have a pulse on it and I’m making sure through his reports and the reports of other police chiefs in the area, what needs to be done, what we could address and do better. I trust those working groups to bring the issues to the legislature as they see them so that we can really work with law enforcement on how to improve that.
They’re working on, not just that piece of legislation, but on the whole, how to make law enforcement and communities work well together, have a cohesiveness. One thing that I’ve been working a lot on is crisis intervention training with law enforcement. I’ve raised a bill several years now. We’re making progress. We got some additional training dollars put into the budget with respect to crisis intervention. We know that a large percentage of the calls that our officers are being called on are mental health related and we’re hearing from police that they need the tools to enable them to do their job better. That’s something I’ve been passionate about.
Branford has really done such an amazing job of making sure that every officer that comes onto the Branford police force is trained in crisis intervention. Identifying with these police forces where the gaps exist — I’ve heard from other police forces that the training’s not there, it fills up so quickly, they don’t have the funding to do more. That’s been my focus, not just this past session, but really in the four years that I’ve been serving, I’ve been working on that a lot.
CTEx: I also want to ask you about the legalization of marijuana. Do you believe the bill is adequate as written? Are there things about the regulation that need to be strengthened or changed?
COHEN: I think most folks know that I voted no on the marijuana legislation, for a number of reasons. Now that we have this law, I think it’s incredibly important that we are taking a hard look at THC content. There are studies all the time that we hear about on THC levels and the detriment to a developing brain. So I think that’s incredibly important, that we are regulating THC content.
I also was a huge proponent of making sure that our farming community here in the state of Connecticut had access to grow marijuana. And that was not presented as an option in the legislation, nor has it been put into regulation. I was one of the legislators that led and passed hemp legislation in 2019. It was very exciting for us to create this new industry in the state of Connecticut, and we have several farmers throughout the state who do, in fact, grow hemp.
They already know how to grow cannabis. They know how to regulate the THC levels that they’re growing. They’re highly regulated through the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Consumer Protection. And I’d really like to see us help promote our farming industry here in the state by allowing them to grow marijuana. So that’s another important piece that I think can help us further and actually helps with the social equity piece as well.
I’ve always thought that marijuana should be decriminalized. I’ve always had an issue with the equity components in this and making sure that we are not imprisoning people for marijuana. That’s been really important to me and I think that we need to be mindful of the BIPOC community in all of this and how that, in fact, impacts them.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself falling in the Democratic party?
COHEN: I think my record speaks for itself. I take a bipartisan approach. I have consistently worked across the aisle with my colleagues to ensure that we are delivering the best for our constituents. I certainly have Democratic viewpoints, but I don’t always vote with my party. [My vote on] marijuana is certainly an outlier there, and as a business owner, I am often looking at the best approach to businesses and the economy. So I consider myself somebody who wants to take a bipartisan approach and work with all of my colleagues to ensure that we can continue to improve the way of life for the people in our state.