Republican state Rep. David Rutigliano has represented District 123 in Trumbull since 2012. He will be facing Democrat Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox for a third time in November.
Rutigliano is a trained chef who owns several restaurants across the state. He grew up in a working class family in Waterbury and attended Johnson and Wales University. He and his wife, Michele have two sons.
Rutigliano told the CT Examiner about his fight for statewide affordability, economic expertise and hesitancy regarding marijuana legislation. He said that he values common sense practices and uses real world experiences to guide him in the House.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the main points of your platform? What brought you to politics?
RUTIGLIANO: I think the focus this year, and most of the time I’ve been in the legislature, is really about affordability and now we have to add a public safety component in that.
One of the main reasons I got involved in politics is because I’ve been employing young people for most of my adult life. So people have sort of an arc to their time working in a restaurant – they usually come in as a teenager and then they go to college and we get them over the summer and the winter. And sometimes they stay in the hospitality industry, but most of the time, they just move on. Invariably, they all come to me at some point and say, “Mr. R, I got a job.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s so great. Where?” They never say Connecticut. It’s always South Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Virginia.
We’ve spent all this time in Connecticut educating our kids with some of the best education systems in the world, and then they leave. So that’s what got me started in politics in the first place, because I like to see these kids stay here or at least have the ability to stay here if they choose to. I think we priced them out so quickly that they don’t even consider staying.
When I first ran, I wanted to volunteer for my community. I thought it was the best way to do it and I thought I could make it better. The state of Connecticut, especially under Dan Malloy, was off on the wrong track and I thought that I had a common sense perspective because I come from pretty humble beginnings. I was lucky enough to be able to afford to stay in Connecticut. I love it here. It’s a beautiful place and I was so tired of all my neighbors and friends telling me they’re leaving. There’s only so much time you can sit there complaining before you have to step up and try to put your stamp on it.
I also firmly believe that everybody should have the ability to go to work. I was a co-introducer on the Ban the Box bill — the one where you don’t have to talk about your criminal record — because I don’t know why we’re prohibiting people from working. I think your self esteem and your self worth is all tied into how productive you are as a human being.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in the Republican Party?
RUTIGLIANO: I am a rugged individualist. I have my own opinions. I work on many issues. You need some sort of structure to get on the ballot and have access, so you’re forced into the party system.
When the fourth graders come up for their capital tour, they always ask why I’m a member of the Republican Party. And I say, “Well, it’s like a coat. Now, you’re a little young to have a favorite coat, but when you get older, you’re going to have that favorite coat that fits you best.” That’s how I describe it. The Republican coat fits me better than the other one. Nothing is perfect. I’m not 100% with anybody. But it just fits me better than the other one.
CTEx: What sets you apart from your opponent?
RUTIGLIANO: I think I come at this stuff from a different perspective. I believe that I have a wealth of real world experience. I live in the real economy, meaning I know about the food shortages. I’ve known about the trouble hiring people for a couple of years now. Everything you see on the news, I live every day and have since the beginning. During COVID, our business was shut down.
The real economy is not the one that people talk about in schools and the theories they talk about on TV. I live it every day, just like you do. You go to the supermarket every day, your bill comes in every day, you understand what’s really going on out there in the world, and how much the extra money we pay for gas has really hurt you over this past year. I have businesses that have struggled. You know, we fight every day to find products and stay open and try to be relevant. So I think my real world experience is what sets me apart.
CTEx: What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents? Is there a state level response on inflation for residents?
RUTIGLIANO: There is a state level response for inflation because we tax people too much. This is where I’ll get a little partisan. Can we all be clear that the governor has been privileged to take over the state right after we made a bipartisan budget that really put the state’s finances back in order? But the downside to that is if we have a $4 billion surplus, we’re taxing too much. That’s your money. We’re not supposed to be that flush with cash. We should have given it back to you. We’ve had an opportunity to reduce the sales tax, we had an opportunity to reduce the income tax, and that really would have helped people keep more money in their pockets.
I also think we make things more expensive in Connecticut just through regulation. It can be a very difficult place to do business. There’s a lot of red tape, and it costs businesses more to be here. So, that means that the product or the service they sell is a variable more expensive, which is inflation. We have a lot of licensing restrictions, making it pretty hard to start businesses. Now, I’m not saying that plumbers, electricians don’t need to be licensed. But there’s people out there sanding floors who have to go through licensing hoops. We should make it a little easier for people to make a living.
CTEx: What are your key goals and priorities for improving the educational outcomes for Connecticut students?
RUTIGLIANO: I think it’s important that we have good educational outcomes, but I have to be honest — I represent the town of Trumbull and I worry about Trumbull first. I feel that Trumbull does a very good job in education. Parents, teachers and administrators all take education seriously. And I don’t think the state needs to consistently come in here and mandate things and make education more expensive in my town. I believe parents and the education system will take care of itself here. These schools have to be able to teach the kids and they need a little bit of freedom. You can’t mandate and do everything. These teachers are professionals and we should allow them to teach the curriculum decided by the local Board of Education. I think we know what we’re doing and this state should not meddle too much.
CTEx: Are you satisfied with the state’s balancing of energy goals with the costs of electricity and gasoline?
RUTIGLIANO: No. Energy is too expensive here in Connecticut. I understand that we are in a transition phase and that we’re trying to get to a place that reduces carbon and makes the air and everything else cleaner. I just don’t think the technology is where it needs to be to transition as fast as everybody wants it to be. We have some of the highest gas and electric rates in the country, which also makes businesses more expensive, and it’s inflationary.
We have to have reliable energy before we can get to full renewable energy. We should have an all-of-the-above approach, but it has to be affordable. I don’t understand why natural gas became a bad thing. Natural gas is better than coal and it’s better than burning wood. Someday we’ll transition out of natural gas, but the transition should be reasonable and achievable. People actually still have to be able to afford to get to work, eat in their homes and light their houses. You know, I’m all for clean, but you can’t just say we’re going to be carbon-free and not have a plan B.
CTEx: How do you think Trumbull is doing in regard to affordable housing? Is there enough state funding for it?
RUTIGLIANO: I know there needs to be affordable housing. But, I’m a big proponent of local control. I feel that the towns should be able to make their own decision – Trumbull knows what’s best for Trumbull, and I don’t believe the state coming in there and forcing things is the way to go.
I’m also a pretty big believer in transit, meaning putting the housing and putting the people where they need to be. You can build a bunch of apartments up here in Trumbull and it might be good and they might sell. But if it’s really affordable, don’t they need to be near their work, or near transportation so they can get to work? We have I-95 and Metro-North and should focus on development for our young people so they can actually get to where they need to go. If you are just starting out or if you are lower income, it’s an expensive place for you to live. You should be near a train station or the bus line so you can get to work.
CTEx: Let’s discuss state marijuana legislation. Is the bill as it’s written adequate?
RUTIGLIANO: I am for the decriminalization of marijuana, but I am against the commercialization of marijuana. I don’t think any of this is going to work. I think big tobacco and big marijuana are getting involved, and they’re going to market to kids. Look at all the ads for other substances. I just don’t think it’s good for society. This stuff is way too strong. It’s much stronger than it used to be. I understand the libertarian sense where people should be able to do what they want, so I have moderated my views over the years and said, “Okay, you want to grow your own or smoke your own? Great. It’s your house, do whatever you like.” But the fact that we’re going to have commercial outlets with the government involved? I just don’t think it’s healthy for society.