Kavros DeGraw Talks Mental Health, a Public Option, and Police Accreditation in Run for Re-election

Eleni Kavros DeGraw

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Freshman State Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, a Democrat, is defending her seat in the 17th district, which includes Avon and Canton, against Heather Maguire, a Republican.

Kavrosi DeGraw bested Leslee Hill in 2020 with 54% of the vote to win her seat.

She has served on the Public Health and Energy and Technology Committees, and is vice chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. 

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Before entering politics, Kavros DeGraw worked as a journalist for military-focused publications.

Kavros DeGraw spoke about the importance of funding mental health services, her focus on invasive species and meeting the state’s clean energy goals, and her disappointment in the legislature’s failure to pass a public option for healthcare.

Kavros DeGraw said her approach in the legislature draws on her experience with chronic illness as a young woman in high school and college

“I understand deeply that the first ‘no’ you get is just the first. And it’s ‘No for now,’ it’s not ‘No forever.’” she said. “And you often have to find your way around and keep talking to other people.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CTEx: What are your top priorities for the next session if you are elected?

Kavros DeGraw: I have to say considering when I came in, I’m kind of amazed at what we were able to get done in the last two sessions, especially this year in terms of working on mental health. And so I would say that that continues to be a priority, because a lot of what we are doing is based on ARPA funding, and so we have to really make sure that as we’re moving forward, there are things that we are gonna have to continue to fight for, and that we always receive pushback on.  

The school-based health, mental health centers, making healthcare more accessible — we’ve put a lot of good things in place, but I know that we are still going to have to be fighting in the budget for all of those critical mental health measures that we have just worked through. 

I think that mental health has been a challenge, especially for our kids, for over 10 years. I know that because we experienced it in our home, and the pandemic shined a light on so many things. It definitely shined a light on children’s mental health issues, but not just children. We have adults that are struggling that also need the help. 

I feel like, in those spaces, there is always more work to do, making sure that mental healthcare is covered in the same way that physical healthcare is covered, because they go hand in hand. And if we’ve spent all this time destigmatizing when you access or you ask for mental health help, we need to make sure that we’re funding that appropriately moving forward. 

I would say almost anything related to the environment is a priority at this point. And that seems really broad, but there are things that I’m thinking about, like getting rid of some of our invasive species. We were working towards that this year. We’ve seen other states take those ideas and make it a priority, whether it’s in New Jersey or California, invasive species take over and become a huge problem for the communities in which they’re in. And so if we want to keep our environment healthy and keep our bees healthy so that we have food — because no bugs, no food — we have got to make sure that that’s a priority. 

Priority for next year: student loan debt relief. Fascinating, fascinating bill that we had this year. When you start explaining it to people on either side of the aisle, even though they gave excellent feedback to us, we were able to really say, at the end of the day — and it didn’t make it — but we were able to say, this is a really good bill.

We have to work on the funding mechanism, but it is a really good bill that will actually change people’s lives and make them able to participate more fully in the economy. Because that debt that weighs them down is so significant. They often can’t purchase a car. They can’t purchase a house if they want to. That just drags people down so significantly that we have to find a way. It was really structured towards Connecticut students, either kids who grew up here or kids who came here for school and chose to stay here. It even had a volunteer component of 50 hours a year to get $5,000 a year for four years running. You have to be working. It really had so many pieces that so many people liked.

CTEx: What some of your key priorities are in terms of improving healthcare outcomes and affordability in Connecticut? 

Kavros DeGraw: It’s really frustrating because I think that we all can agree that people need access to healthcare, and yet the cost goes up every year. The best I can put it is, I am thinking deeply right now about what we can be doing to continue to control those costs, because we all pay for them. If people are not insured and they show up at an emergency room without insurance, those costs end up coming back to us, which many people don’t realize. So when we think about insuring a broader population, not only does it lead to better health outcomes, which is what we want, but it also leads to better economic outcomes for everyone, because then we, the taxpayers, are not bearing the burden of that. 

It was disappointing to see that what we worked on last session in terms of a public option — that frankly would’ve really benefited small businesses in terms of their ability to buy into those plans — didn’t go. And I’m not saying that it has to be a specific public option, but we know that after the legislation failed, we then were in a situation where the insurance companies came back and asked for a very significant rate hike. So we were told that if you pass a public option, then the cost is going to go up for everyone — when in reality, the cost went up anyway. I think that we have to figure out appropriate, necessary cost control measures, or we are going to get further and further behind the eight ball when it comes to insuring people. 

I was in discussions earlier this year about more research dollars for pediatric cancer. It’s one of the most underfunded cancer research areas in the country. And yet it’s something that, if we have better research – again, better outcomes. I have to say, I think that’s my overarching philosophy, is that if you spend the money up front, then as we go along, things get better, whether it’s investing in childcare, investing in early education, all of those things bear fruit later on in terms of better outcomes in school, less truancy, healthier kids, healthier families — all of those things.

CTEx: What are your thoughts about the way the state has balanced the need for clean energy and its clean energy goals with the cost of electricity and gas?

Kavros DeGraw: We have so much more to do in terms of making sure that our rate payers are not bearing the burden of this cost. We have put in some of the right mechanisms in terms of our “Take Back the Grid” legislation. Our responsibility to our rate payers, our taxpayers is that we continue to put in grid resiliency. 

We hear from ISO New England about ‘We might have to have rolling brownouts’ and it really is challenging. And who I hear from the most is our seniors, they are getting hit with these electricity costs. And when you’re on a fixed income, we can all understand — their income is a flat line and those costs are looking like an ever rising mountain and we have to do better. It’s a matter of coming up with the right solutions that will help us get there for everyone.

We have really, I think, moderate, not terribly aggressive, clean energy goals. But there’s still going to be a challenge to meet. And so we’ve got to make sure that we are doing everything we can between solar and wind and encouraging people, when they can choose where their energy comes from, to make the choices that are going to help our planet.

I’m thrilled we passed SB 4. Some of my e-bike language made it into the bill, and that was something that I decided as vice chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, to pursue e-bikes. People kept bringing them up, interestingly in various legislative forums we would do for groups.

I think right now it may look like a pie in the sky idea, getting people to e-bike more, but I think as more people learn and as the cost is coming down on these e-bikes, that is huge in getting cars off the road, improving our air, improving health outcomes.

CTEx: What do you think the state’s role should be in providing affordability to Connecticut residents? And is there a state-level response to inflation?

Kavros DeGraw: We would love for there to be a state-level response to inflation – frankly, that is pretty much beyond a lot of our control. But that was why we looked at the things this year, as we’re in this temporary period of inflation — we hope it’s extremely temporary — that is why we put these things into place, like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, the Motor Vehicle Tax.

We have a responsibility to look at regressive taxes and figure out how we can best adjust it. I think that there actually is a bipartisan solution out there somewhere. The challenge is that we provide all these tax cuts this year, our friends on the other side of the aisle vote against them, and then they come back to us and say, well, we need all these other tax cuts. Which is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate, when they had the opportunity during session to vote for, frankly, a menu of tax cuts. 

The challenge is, we all know that people need relief. How do we arrive at that relief? And I think we had some pretty good solutions this year for that. They’re not long term, as we hope inflation is not long term, but they are immediate and they are helping people in the now.

As far as moving forward,  we saw our gas prices come down and some of that was a result initially of the tax cut. But we see grocery prices are still high. And I hear from folks about struggling to make ends meet and how we can help people.

So we have to be laser focused on how we make Connecticut more affordable for people. And whether that’s looking at more tax rebates and tax credits, or it’s looking at things like, how do we make sure that more of our folks are employed. We right now have more jobs than we have people for them, but you also have to make sure that the jobs that are open are jobs that people are trained to do.

The student loan debt forgiveness — I think it’s important that there’s an option, if you were to take out a loan, that you could get some kind of forgiveness for vocational training, if that’s where you think you’re headed. Because not everybody needs to go to college. We do need plumbers, electricians, other people who are working with their hands and those kinds of positions that we have seen go unfilled. So that’s definitely more of a priority. And I’m hearing a lot on the doors about our seniors and just how we need to make more of an effort to make it more affordable for them.

So whether that is looking into reducing state income tax in terms of what they are taxed on, whether it’s — we already looked at pensions, but the IRA right now is still a phase-out. That’s something that I think that personal income tax could end immediately on, and also looking at why we’re continuing to tax, as a state, the social security.

CTEx: What do you think is the state’s role in regulating affordable housing?

Kavros DeGraw: I have to say, that’s a tough one, because we do have 169 towns that have very differing opinions on what that should look like. I think the reality is that if you have college-aged children, like if I do — and I have also a middle schooler — I’m looking at the difference between when I moved here 24 years ago and now. And I know that we do not have enough affordable housing for an entire generation of people let alone the generations above them. 

So while we certainly understand when our municipalities don’t want unfunded mandates, we understand that they want to keep their towns unique in some way, we also need to understand that town planners, like the one that we have in Avon are saying, we need affordable housing. We need affordable housing for our seniors. We need affordable housing for our graduates or recent graduates. We need affordable housing for people who are in trade schools. 

No one likes to have anything forced upon them, and at the same time we are going to have to move the needle forward somehow in increasing housing. Because if people think of it as a crisis here in Connecticut — it’s a nationwide crisis, but we could be leaders on it.

CTEx: What are your priorities and some of your goals for improving educational outcomes for Connecticut students?

Kavros DeGraw: I think that we’ve done a lot in the past few years. And I think, again, some of that was the pandemic shining the light on where the resources are needed, where the effort is needed. We do have some uneven funding. I will tell you that I plan to spend more time focusing on the special education funding, because that’s the kind of thing that is challenging our towns, and it’s for towns across the state.

When children who more special education needs move into a town, they often bring a cost associated with that. And depending on the town and depending on the resources the town has, it can be a very uneven experience and it can also cause a challenge in that Board of Education budget. So I think that we have to figure out how best to address that, because we know that we are not going to diminish in what we see for special education in terms of need, but we need to think about what the funding source is, and what does that look like as we move forward.

It’s not, obviously, just special education. It’s tough on school districts to meet their budgets. It’s really challenging. And also to be able to provide the most equitable education across all of the state. Obviously as state representatives, we focus on our district, but we have to have an eye to what is also going on statewide.

If we are not spending appropriately on education for whatever student walks in the door, for whatever their needs might be, then we can expect worse outcomes as we go along their educational life cycle.

CTEx: What are your thoughts about the Police Accountability Law? Do you believe it is effective? Are there changes you’d like to see? 

Kavros DeGraw: The biggest change that I wanted to make happen –  our Canton police chief brought this issue to me – there was a piece regarding how the police departments are accredited. And that was significant because again, that becomes a cost to the town, that accreditation process. 

So if you had already been down the road and gotten whatever tier of accreditation from the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, and then the legislation said, ‘Oh no, you have to be CALEA certified’ – which is the national certification, as opposed to POSTC, which is Connecticut. We couldn’t get it done in 2021, but we were able to get it done this time, and that is a significant benefit, because even though the timeline had been stretched out of when they would actually have to do that accreditation the challenge is, if your town has already spent that money, that’s not very fiscally sound to then go back and say, oh, you’re going to have to spend this money again, or you’re going to have to spend even more money. And I thought that the best point that the chief had actually made to me about that was that our accreditation in Connecticut was actually stronger than the national standards.

I understand why people wanted the law passed. I think that there’s a mistaken thought that we want to defund the police. I just got $550,000 in bond money to get them a better communications console in Canton, which actually benefits the entire Farmington Valley and beyond because of all that coordination that happens.

I think that there are pieces of the law that have been valuable, and as far as I know, I think the biggest concern was the liability piece. And as far as I know, in the time since it has been passed, that has not turned out to be an issue in terms of there have been no suits filed.

CTEx: What are your thoughts around the legalization of marijuana?  Does it do enough for social equity? Are there things that need to be changed?

Kavros DeGraw: I honestly don’t know if enough was done in terms of social equity. I know what the theory was for that, and I know what was set aside, but my hope is that the communities that were most impacted by marijuana arrests and jail time are the ones receiving the most benefit. I think that’s a ‘time will tell’ if that actually happens.

I was, I think, the lone co-sponsor on the bill this year to look back at the gifting portion of that legislation, because we were having situations where the spirit, if not the letter of the law was really being violated. And my concern about the high bazaars that were happening, is, to me, you’re really circumventing the social equity piece of the bill. Gifting was meant to be one person giving another person a couple of edibles. It was not to be that you make a donation, you get a t-shirt and a side of marijuana.

I had a constituent that also expressed that they felt that the high bazaars were actually — and they are pro-marijuana — they were concerned that such an unregulated market also put kids at greater risk. Our law made the packaging and the advertising so clear, and we believe other states are now looking to our legislation to fix some of the things that they didn’t quite get right, or, if they haven’t passed the legislation yet, to use ours as a model. And that’s challenging if you have someone circumventing the entire process in a way that was not intended by legalization,

But decriminalizing it is just the most critical thing of all of it in terms of social equity.

CTEx: What is your position on the Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade? Is there something Connecticut should be doing in response? 

Kavros DeGraw: We did a lot to protect a woman’s right to choose this year in increasing access. That was significant. But we’ve got more that we need to do in terms of making sure that women have access to all healthcare. Our maternal mortality rates are not as good as they could be. That’s something we can work on. 

I have husbands talking to me about their wives’ ectopic pregnancies, and how abortion, for their wives saved their wife’s life. And I think that that’s often lost when we are discussing this, is that it is such a variety of circumstances in which a woman might need an abortion. And not just thinking about rape or incest, it is really, often, the life of the mother. And especially in families where you already have a couple kids and then you have an ectopic pregnancy — we’ve got to make sure that those women are protected.

CTEx: Where do you see yourself falling within today’s understanding of the Democratic Party?

Kavros DeGraw: I don’t fall into the progressive camp entirely and I don’t fall into the moderate camp entirely, but I think that’s what really is reflected in the district. I’m known for knocking doors. The reason I knock those doors is because I need to know what my district is thinking about. It’s the reason why I send out an update every week. It’s the reason why I sent out a survey last year and this year. 

I can have my own personal feelings about issues and I certainly do, but there are things that I know that my district doesn’t want. Online sports betting – it was fascinating. I would say almost 75 percent of my district did not want online sports betting legalized. I voted against it because if that’s what my district is saying, that’s my responsibility. And it kind of comes across the same way with other issues. Marijuana — I had nearly 75 percent pro-marijuana.

I can’t really get the granular details on choice or gun safety by district, but when you look at Connecticut, again, that’s a majority. So when we talk about moderate versus progressive, I think more in terms of, what is the majority looking for? And the majority is looking for common sense from its leaders. The majority is looking for us to stop screaming at one another.


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com