Menapace Runs on Affordability, ‘Move Away From Car Culture,’ Mental Health in Race to Unseat Cheeseman

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Nick Menapace, a Democrat, said his decision to run for State Representative was a culmination of his 11 years as a middle school social studies teacher in Norwich, where he has taught his students that it’s important to be involved in their government.

Menapace is running for the 37th State House district, representing East Lyme and parts of Salem and Montville, which has been held by his Republican opponent, State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, since 2016. 

He is seeking to win back a district that was held by Democrats Ed Jutila and Gary Orefice for 24 years, between 1992 and when Jutila retired in 2016 – and by other Democrats between 1974 and 1990.

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Menapace – who said he has always been interested in public service, from when he earned the rank of Eagle Scout, to his career in education – said he wants to be State Representative to help the people of East Lyme, Salem and Montville in any way he can, and that he would seek to improve safety and mental health for students and teachers, and make towns more bikeable and walkable.

Tell me about your platform. What are your goals if you are elected to the state House?

The biggest goal is to help the people in East Lyme, Salem and Montville in any way I can. I really like to get involved and get my hands dirty.

But I think the biggest issue for me right now is affordability. We need to do more about the cost of living, about the cost of housing. We want to help seniors, families, young people – all these people that we want to make sure are staying in Connecticut, we need to be doing more to make the state an appealing place for them. I also want to lower the cost of prescription drugs and make healthcare more affordable.

Environmental issues are big, especially for a shoreline community. I want to do more to preserve open space, because that’s really going to help our shoreline communities dealing with the effects of climate change. I think people sometimes don’t see that connection in the rush to build new houses and build new things. I think open space is hugely beneficial to our health – it keeps our communities cooler, and our air cleaner.

I also want to make sure that we’re doing more to defend and expand reproductive rights in Connecticut. We have codified reproductive freedom, but it frustrated me how many Republicans said that it wasn’t necessary, including my opponent. That was before the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, and since then it’s been frustrating because the Connecticut GOP is hoping that people forget about this because they know Connecticut believes in access to reproductive health.

What do you think the state needs to do to make it more affordable to live in Connecticut?

A lot of these things that we talk about are short-term solutions to a long-term problem. One thing I’d like to see is more of an investment in moving away from some of the car culture that we have. And I don’t mean that I don’t want people to own cars, but I want to provide the option to people. 

If we had more sidewalks and bike lanes, I think people would choose to do that more. But people I’ve talked to here tell me they’d like to walk more, but they can’t because the sidewalk ends. And it can be really dangerous to bike here where there aren’t bike lanes, because you’re basically just in a lane with cars. We’re not going to ask children to do that if they want to go ride their bike to see their friends.

It’s the same thing with public transportation. If we have better options, then people won’t need to drive as much, and gas prices are going to affect us less. I only know a few people who are able to commute without a car, but that’s not always an easy feat, and a lot of times they have to take a ride share to get hope.

What do you think is the state’s role in controlling the cost of energy, and how has the state done balancing renewable energy goals with costs?

The gas tax holiday is obviously a short-term help, but it’s not a solution to all of our problems because it will eventually end. I do want to keep us consistent with these targets we have of reducing carbon emissions – and some of what I said before about public transportation and making places more walkable are ways of trying to reduce that.

I think that these long term goals we have of moving to renewable energy and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important, because we’re seeing the effects of climate change. We need to be looking at it as a real threat to our way of life, especially living in a shoreline community where we have an increased risk of flooding. 

I just want to see that we’re using every tool in our toolbox to try and combat that.

What do you think is the state’s role in ensuring people have access to affordable housing?

I want to make sure that people know how affordable housing would benefit our communities. We’re seeing it here in East Lyme, and in Montville and Salem, how understaffed a lot of places are. And if we don’t have access for people to live in those communities, it’s going to remain the same.

We have to make sure there’s enough people to work some of these jobs, and it doesn’t matter if they live in other towns if they can’t get here. I just think that if you work full time in a town, you should probably be able to afford to live there.

I think the state should not just offer incentives for people to build this type of housing, but also to educate the communities, because they have these fears about things like it lowering the cost of other housing and other things that are just not true based on every study. I know the town’s are not going to respond well if the state comes in and tries to force them to do something, so I want them to be aware of why this is going to benefit them, and I want there to be an incentive for them to do it.

What does the state need to do to make healthcare more affordable and accessible?

I think we’ve really seen that this greater marketplace for health insurance has not worked to greatly reduce our healthcare costs, as we ust saw health insurance companies raise their rates dramatically despite how much money they have made.

They chose to jack up those rates because that’s what a company does, and that’s what a health insuance company is likely to do. I think one of the first things that we really need to consider is the public option. 

I want to see that back on the table. I’m not saying it’s the end all be all that will fix all our problems, but it will give us an option that is not a for-profit option. I think it would be cheaper not just because the government is offering it, but because we are going to see savings from shared pharmaceutical plans.

I think we need to roll out every option we can think of at the state level. I’d like to see Connecticut and some neighboring states consider what California has done, trying to put money into producing its own insulin. And can we push this to start manufacturing some of our own low-cost generics? Maybe that’s an idea that we need to put out there and consider if this is going to save us money long term. We need to be trying every single option and seeing if it is going to help reduce those costs.

What would your key goals be for improving educational outcomes in Connecticut?

It’s so important right now to acknowledge how much we have to put into helping the mental health of our students, but also our teachers. I saw last year just how much kids were dealing with, and how unprepared a lot of them felt for dealing with some of these issues.

I see this year that the schools have done a lot to help out, and that’s definitely improved. But it’s not just something we can snap our fingers and fix. We need to keep working on it, because if they graduate and they’re still dealing with this trauma and these issues, they’re going to have that experience in society as well. So the more we invest in it now, the better our society will be for it.

It’s the same for our teachers. We all see the news, we see what people are saying, and so much of it is us being told as teachers that we are the bad guys. I just think it’s a ludicrous idea that Bob Stefanowski knows better than our Board of Education, superintendents and teachers do.

I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect our children, and keep our teachers in school. And we can’t do that if we’re saying these teachers are out there to get your kids and teach them things you don’t want them to know.  They’re trying the best they can, and we need to be doing more to help them in the classroom. 

I’d also like to see us invest more in some of our programs to help make up for this gap we’re having with available teachers. I know a lot of teachers who have left the field because they felt like they were being used as a political tool and a culture war issue. And that was even before COVID, but it’s turning into a lot more. So we need to be doing more to support the teachers who are there and get more teachers involved.

We also need to make sure students are feeling safe from violence in school. They see what’s happening in schools around the country, and I just find it tough that our solution has been to teach children how to hide in the classroom if a gunman comes in.

It’s also protecting our students from being victimized. We’ve seen trans students used as some type of boogeyman. I understand that the idea of the LGBT community makes people uncomfortable, but that’s just something they’re going to have to deal with, because our students who are trans or gay are just as much one of our students as anyone else.

Another part is just the physical infrastructure of our schools. Making sure we have a better situation with our buses so students don’t have to be on the bus so long. We’re trying to make sure our schools are better insulated and have better access to air conditioning, and that air quality is better so that they’re not dealing with health issues.

How effective do you think the police accountability legislation is, and are there any changes that need to be made?

I really want to see that we’re doing more to have police set up for crisis intervention. We wouldn’t send police to fight a fire, so we shouldn’t send them to a situation they aren’t trained for, like mental health crises that would be better served by a social worker.

Police officers have a very difficult job, and I want to make sure we are putting in more support to make sure they are able to focus on public safety instead of dealing with crises they aren’t trained for.

School resource officers have been a big topic, and I will say that every one I’ve known has been a wonderful person and has been someone people feel like they can talk to. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily an effective program. 

I have seen issues in other schools where you see children arrested for issues that should not have been elevated to that level, and should have just been handled in schools. I want to see us do more with those resources, and I don’t know if the SRO program is as effective as a social worker would be in many cases.

But I think it’s important that our government is held accountable, and I want to make sure our resources are used properly. I don’t think that East Lyme needs military hardware for our police. I think our police do a great job, and I would much rather they have adequate resources for public safety. So I don’t want to hear they don’t have enough personnel to deal with an issue, and then we find out the department has an armored personnel carrier.

What do you think about marijuana legalization, and are there any changes that need to be made to how that’s rolled out?

I think it’s pretty obvious that the entire country is moving toward marijuana legalization, and that is something that makes sense. 

When I first heard about the bill, I had some hesitation because I wasn’t sure if the way we were issuing these licenses was the best method. I want to make sure that we’re having equity. And the communities that have been hurt the most by the drug war are poor communities and communities of color, and I wanted them to be able to benefit. I don’t know if having a license fee as high as they had was the best way to promote equity.

There have been concerns from people about how this will change their communities, but I tend to think that in a few years, we will be used to them. But I want to make sure that this money is going back into our communities and isn’t just leaving the state. That’s my main concern.

Where do you see yourself in the Democratic Party?

I think of myself as a pretty progressive person. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m pretty young, but my students did think I was 60 at the beginning of the year, so that was wild.

I’m a pragmatic person. I want to view this through every lens and scope that we can. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know many teachers who think they have all the answers. I’d like to be able to speak on education issues in the legislature, but if I’m not on that committee, I’m ready to do whatever I need to . 

I want this job to be able to help people, and that’s the biggest thing is that I’m going to do everything I can to help people.