Saying she wants to continue to advocate for vulnerable people and make Connecticut more affordable, State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme – executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Children’s Museum – is running for a fourth term as State Representative for the 37th House district.
After Cheeseman lost her first bid for the 37th district seat in 2010, she served three terms on the Board of Selectmen in East Lyme. After Democratic State Rep. Ed Jutila retired, Cheeseman ran again for the state house in 2016, flipping the seat to the Republicans for the first time since 1992.
After winning in 2016 by nearly 1,500 votes, Cheeseman has held on to her seat by slim margins in each of the last two elections She defeated Hugh McKenney by 310 votes in 2018. And in 2020 she defeated Cate Steel by 200 votes, with Steel earning 251 more votes in East Lyme.
Since then, the district has been redrawn. Instead of representing the towns of East Lyme and Salem, the new 37th district cuts out part of Salem – where Cheeseman has earned the majority of votes in every election – and now includes part of Montville.
What would be your main goals if elected to another term?
Affordability. And affordability both with the tax burden that Connecticut places on its residents, and also affordability when it comes to housing, and healthcare.
I was very proud to be a co-sponsor of the bill which capped insulin prices for Connecticut residents. My late husband was a type-one diabetic, and I know only too well: one, that is what keeps you alive, and two, that there should not be artificially-created barriers.
I think when we look at the whole question of healthcare in Connecticut, the increasing consolidation with two major hospital networks buying up so many local practices, that drives up costs.
I was pleased that the Insurance Department is going to convene a meeting of all the stakeholders in early October, and bring in the hospital groups, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurers, and sit down and say, “What is driving these huge cost increases? And is there some way we can address it,” because whether you’re buying insurance for yourself on the exchange, or you’re a small business, we have to address this issue.
One of the things I am most proud of in my time at the legislature is being honored by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence as their Coalition Champion and Crusader this year. One in four women, and one in seven men are victims of domestic violence, and the pandemic only saw that increase. So how do we help the victims? How do we prevent it in the first place.
How do we ensure that everybody from cradle to grave in Connecticut has a safe, healthy way of life? And that’s a huge concern of mine, and something I want to continue to concentrate on.
Are there any particular policy changes you think would make healthcare more affordable?
I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this Insurance Department hearing. Nobody talks about the insanity that is medical pricing. I remember when my son was about 2, he stuck a bead up his nose and couldn’t get it out, and we had to take him to the emergency room. They gave him a little shot of neo synephrine and took the bead out. This was 30 years ago, and we were charged $50 for that little thing of neo synephrine. How is that supportable? You get your explanation of the benefits, and the insurance is charged $40 for something, and the rack rate is $250. Where is the sensible price point?
I think the whole issue of pricing needs to be looked at. I think that if we’re going to talk about price controls, it doesn’t disincentivize new drug development. I know one of the areas that the state is trying to do is increase our bio-pharma sector. When you look at holistically the fact that we can now treat so many diseases with drugs, that’s a trade-off. How do we find the sweet spot between new drug development and making sure our residents have access to the drugs they need to keep them healthy?
One of the other things we need to look at is – we passed legislation to make sure insurance companies treat mental illness the same way they treat physical illness in terms of co-pays and availability, so how do we make sure that continues to be the case? How do we help expand provider networks? I’ve talked to constituents who have children who are struggling with mental health issues, and finding a provider who will take their insurance without a three-month wait.
How do you think the state has done balancing its renewable energy goals with the cost of energy?
I think we need to look very seriously at how we pass the cost of renewable energy to our residents. With Millstone, the fact that we were able to put in place a power purchase agreement to guarantee a price for a plant that provides 90 percent of our carbon-free power is huge. That’s the kind of affordable energy we need more of.
As we look at things like wind, if it’s going to be developed, it needs to be in a way that’s affordable for our residents, and that is something we can’t lose sight of as we attempt to achieve our carbon-free goals. Because at the end of the day, people need affordable power and power that’s going to be there.
I think we don’t know what technology is going to come along that makes renewables like wind perfect. Currently, industrial scale battery storage is so expensive, and so short term, but there are other kinds of storage being developed. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are trying to be a hydrogen hub and if you can use wind or the power at Millstone to create hydrogen, fuel cells can be a great way to power trucks and take diesel out of the environment.
Do we look at some of the small, modular [nuclear] reactors that are being developed? I mean, how many do we have sitting over in Groton powering our submarines? This is an existing technology that is 99 percent reliable. If you look at our energy use as a puzzle, we have a lot of the edge pieces, but we don’t really know how we’re going to fill in the middle.
What is the state’s role in ensuring that people have access to affordable housing?
As we talk about housing and the need with our large employers, I’d love to see more employers exploring things like employer-assisted housing plans. If you’re Electric Boat or Sikorsky or Prat & Whitney, do you incentivize employees to purchase and rent in the area? Do you provide a five-yhear, low-cost loan toward your down payment that’s forgiven if you stay at the company?
I think, as much as we as a state want people to live and work here, employers should have some skin in the game as well. And are there tax incentives we can give to our large employers to help them help their employees find affordable housing?
One of the issues we see with 8-30g, we’ve seen in East Lyme with the Oswegatchie Hills development that’s been under litigation. It was going to be high-end housing, and then all of a sudden because they say, “Oh, I’m going to put 700 units, but 100 are going to be affordable,” all of a sudden, absent a true public safety or health issue, the developer has a green light.
You’re talking about a pristine area at the mouth of the Niantic River with limited sewer capacity, and too often [8-30g] becomes a way for a developer to get past local zoning. And if you add 700 units, and only 100 are affordable, you’re not getting much closer to 10 percent affordable housing. There have to be ways that towns can have some control, I don’t believe Hartford should determine it.
But I also think we need to bring in all the stakeholders. Let’s work with our nonprofits like the New London Hospitality Center, which is going to be providing a housing advice center. The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority has a great program called Time to Own, which is low or no cost toward your down payment if you’ve lived in Connecticut for three years. What are we doing to publicize those avenues that our residents could use to access affordable housing?
What else do you think the state needs to do to make life more affordable?
I like what the Connecticut Republicans proposed in the contract with Connecticut. We’re looking at record surpluses, and the bipartisan budget [in 2017] established very good fiscal controls, where for the first time in decades, we’re consistently paying down pension debt, and keeping money where it should be and reducing our bonded indebtedness.
That’s all very important, but if we’re going to save $350 million a year that we’re not going to have to pay into the peinsion, why not look at a statutory way that some of that has to be returned to the residents or the municipalities. Property tax is a huge burden, and the state has never fully funded things like special education or the PILOT program, so I’d be happy to discuss, if we create x amount of pension savings, a certain percentage has to be returned to the taxpayers. I think we can pay off pension debt and give people relief at the same time.
[Gov. Ned Lamont] commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to look at the retirement cliff, and ways we could use this as an opportunity to improve the way we carry out government functions, whether it was increased digitization or reformed hiring process, whether it was increased use of our nonprofits to supply a lot of the social services that the state does. If you can save money that way, you have more freedom to make people’s lives more affordable.
What does the state need to do to improve education outcomes for students?
I think one of the greatest disservices during COVID was the amount of time children spent locked out of the classroom. Even in affluent communities, we saw huge issues both in learning loss and mental health. I think it’s even more so in our cities, where for months on end children who relied on school not only as a place to learn, but as safe space where they often got their meals, were not able to attend.
I think we need to dedicate ourselves to really smart practices in the elementary grades. That’s really the tipping point to be able to read, write and perform at grade level. I think you look at the practices that have been determined to work, and also look at our education schools – are we equipping the teachers of the future with the tools they need to produce the citizens we need for the 21st century?
How do you think the police accountability law has played out, and are there changes that need to be made?
I think one of the things we need to make sure we’re doing is not tying the hands of our officers as they attempt to keep us safe. They put their lives on the line every day, and I think we’ve created a situation where they have to second guess themselves. You don’t see pursuits anymore, you don’t see officers able to search cars. How are we ging to be safe if our officers are constantly second guessing themselves?
I think we have to ensure we have systems in place to stop officers who are going to abuse their power. To be frank, there’s nothing more frightening than power being abused by a government official. People in a position of responsibility and power have an obligation to exercise tha tpower in a moral, legal and ethical way.
With the police accountability bill, there was the assumption that we are addressing a problem that is rampant, and not realizing that police are the ones who are most invested in making sure they do their jobs ethically and legally. But they also need to know what when they go out and put their lvies on the line and make a split second decision to protect other lives, that the default assumption is not that they’ve done something wrong.
I also think we need to be aware that victims of crime need more support. As we concentrate on ensuring that criminals are treated fairly, what are we doing to help the victims?
What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization and how that has been rolled out?
I fought this tooth and nail.
I was on two of the three committees where it was discussed, finance and general law. If you look at the other states where it’s been legalized, it has not gotten rid of the black market. It has not created more equity or opportunity for the communities harmed by the war on drugs. And it is by no means the innocuous substance that people maintain it is.
We’re talking bout something that has been genetically modified to be much stronger than it was 40 years ago. Big pharma, tobacco and alcohol are buying up the marijuana producers, and marijuana addiction is then number one reason why people are looking for substance abuse treatment. I have constituents who have contacted me with children who have become addicted.
The Social Equity Council is already being sued by 11 of the people who had licenses turned down. This is not the way to bring prosperity to Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven. The way to bring prosperity is to give those residents good education, safety, and access to good paying jobs. And if you want to work at Sikorsky building helicopters or EB building submarines, better not smoke marijuana, because if you test positive, your federal clearance goes away.
I think its a mistake. And I think we’ll find that instead of being a breeder of opportunity and prosperity, we’re going to be paying far more in terms of social costs.
Where do you see yourself in the Republican party?
I see myself as someone who believes in allowing people to live their lives in a safe manner. Where government does what it’s supposed to do, and that the government that governs best, governs least.
I like to think of myself as an Abraham Lincoln Republican. I want to appeal to people’s better angels. I want to sit down and have rational discussions about policy, and are willing to entertain other people’s ideas make sense, but stand up for our core principles when they don’t. That’s the kind of Republican I want to be.