Democrat Rachel Khanna is challenging incumbent Republican state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello for the District 149 seat in the Connecticut House of Representatives.
Khanna, a Greenwich resident who served two terms on the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting, is running her first statewide race.
District 149 includes northern Greenwich and the Stamford neighborhoods of North Stamford and Westover.
Khanna, a married mother of four, said national issues that make daily headlines – challenges to voting rights, healthcare access, women’s reproductive health, and gun violence protections – motivated her to enter politics.
Khanna, 50, worked in marketing in her earlier career, ran a dinner delivery business, taught cooking classes, and wrote two cookbooks.
An activity she took up during the COVID-19 pandemic is helping her handle the rigors of campaigning, Khanna said. In the fall of 2020, she began training as a triathlete.
She had her first competition – swimming, biking and running, in that order – in the summer of 2021. This July Khanna competed in her first Half Ironman – a 1.2-mile swim, followed by a 56-mile bike ride, followed by a 13.1-mile run.
She now is training for a full Ironman competition, which doubles those distances.
“It’s taught me a lot about how to be a candidate,” Khanna said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the main points of your platform? What are your key goals?
KHANNA: My goals are to continue the fiscally responsible policies we have had in the past four years – balanced budgets, paying down our debt, protecting the Rainy Day Fund, reducing or eliminating taxes; prioritizing economic development that creates good-paying jobs in our area and offers incentives to companies when they actually create those jobs; keeping our community safe by passing gun safety legislation as needed; investing in our schools, the physical plant as well as ensuring teachers and students have the resources and supports they need to be successful; adding childcare capacity to help working parents; protecting a woman’s right to to choose, and LGBTQ equality; expanding efforts to combat climate change; and expanding voting rights.
As the mother of four young women, I heard the news about the banning of abortions and all I could think was about their futures, and that motivated me further.
When I knock on doors I hear a lot about reproductive rights, gun safety, ensuring we have the best schools, and preparing children to be the workforce of the future. They are statewide but also local issues.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in today’s Democratic Party?
KHANNA: Following this experience I will want to take on a greater role in the party, but right now I am focused on the election, doing a lot of door-to-door and phone banking. It’s a steep learning process and I am learning a lot. I certainly will join the legislature’s Reproductive Rights Caucus.
CTEx: Describe your background; what are your qualifications?
KHANNA: I served on the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting for two terms starting in 2017, which gave me insight into how ordinances get passed and a look at the legislative process at the town level – concerns with budgeting, school spending, committee appointments.
I started my career in marketing and market research, but I stopped working when I had children to focus on them. I had an organic dinner delivery service, taught cooking classes and published two cookbooks.
I have a political science degree from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University.
My oldest child is 23 and living and working in Chicago; I have 22-year-old twins; and my youngest is 17 and a student at Greenwich High School.
Being a triathlete has taught me a lot about focus and pacing, and I am bringing those lessons to campaigning. It takes discipline not only to train but to prepare by studying training plans. In the same way, you have to study the issues by researching them. In one race my daughter was there to support me and she said, “Mom, someone just stopped; they quit,” and that made me think, “No. I am going to finish.” You have to rely on people to help you get to your goal, you have to reach out when you need information, but you always have to keep your eye on the goal.
CTEx: What brought you to politics?
KHANNA: I saw what happened in national politics in 2016 and I realized that all politics is local, and you can’t take anything for granted. I decided to toss my hat into the ring and in 2017 I ran for the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting.
On the RTM you don’t run under a political party – you work with colleagues in your district to represent the interests and values of the people who are your neighbors. I enjoyed my time there, and worked well with my colleagues. We worked on improving fire coverage in northwest Greenwich, and passed a resolution to create a fire station. But we got funding only for a study, which confirmed we need better fire coverage in the area. Recently the Round Hill Volunteer Station got $500,000 from the state for a renovation, which is good.
CTEx: What sets you apart from your opponent?
KHANNA: I was born in France and came to the U.S. at age 8. After that I went to boarding school in France, then returned to the U.S. for college. My husband and I lived in London for two years, and later our family lived in Singapore for two years. It showed me how to be open to new cultures and ideas, and the importance of respecting different points of view, which helps you find common ground.
CTEx: What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents? Is there a state level response on inflation?
KHANNA: Inflation is driven by the federal government, but Gov. Lamont has helped Connecticut with over $600 million in tax relief. Things like the child care credit and the gas tax reduction are very important because inflation has taken a big toll on families. I think Gov. Lamont has done a phenomenal job of bringing Connecticut back, especially by paying down pension liabilities. The balance will be figuring out spending on programs that attract businesses and families to the state. We have a good number of Fortune 500 companies, particularly in this part of the state, which contributes to our fiscal health and allows us to provide services for families that need them.
CTEx: What do you see as the state’s role in providing housing?
KHANNA: We certainly have to do more. In Greenwich we see the need specifically for teachers and firefighters and police officers. Greenwich has an affordable housing trust, and Stamford has done well in providing affordable housing, but both Greenwich and Stamford need more. I don’t think the state law, 8-30g, is the mechanism to get us there, though. It’s up to local government bodies to address housing and work with the community to decide where to build it, and what tools they have to make it happen.
CTEx: Are you satisfied with the state’s balancing of energy goals with the costs of electricity and gasoline – why or why not, and what would you do differently?
KHANNA: Eversource has failed us in emergencies, their rates are exorbitant, and the service is not where it should be. The 2020 Take Back the Grid Act to hold utilities accountable is important but we need to do more. To make Eversource change, we have to work with the other states it serves, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Wind and solar are great options for Connecticut as a coastal state. We put solar panels on our house, and I’m a big fan. I would like to take a lead on that.
CTEx: Does the police accountability legislation need modification?
KHANNA: The police accountability bill was a sweeping piece of legislation with both upsides and risks. And while it has the potential to improve community trust in policing through increased accountability measures, it also has the potential to discourage candidates from seeking careers in law enforcement due to increased risk of lawsuits. As a legislator, I would be interested in assessing the impact of the police accountability bill, to see if lawsuits against law enforcement have increased and whether the cost of insurance for municipalities has increased, in order to see if amendments to the law are needed. As we move forward, we need to keep listening and learning to build on the foundational trust that exists between the citizenry and those who protect us. I am committed to a strong dialogue and good process.
In speaking to the police chiefs in Stamford and Greenwich, one of the big topics is that policies the state passes need to be funded. With body cameras, for example, the video needs to be stored and that’s very expensive. We have to fund these things in order for police to follow the policy.
CTEx: Education: what are your key goals and priorities for improving the educational outcomes for Connecticut students?
KHANNA: Funding is always the first resource, and ensuring that it’s adequate for all. Stamford just got $200 million to rebuild Westhill High School, which is great, but there are many more schools that need funding, so there is a lot of work to do on that. One of the things we need to look closely at is how to approach mental health within education. COVID took a big toll on students and teachers, and we have to figure out what support is needed.
CTEx: Health care: what are key priorities for improving health care for Connecticut residents?
KHANNA: Connecticut was ranked third in the nation on quality and access to health care, but rising costs are problematic. In August I submitted testimony opposing the health insurance companies’ request to the state for a rate increase of more than 20 percent. We have work to do on decreasing medication costs, and on addressing the health-care worker shortage. I have been speaking to organizations that are bringing that up as a problem in Connecticut.
CTEx: Marijuana: is the bill as it’s written adequate? Does it address social equity concerns and are there things that need to change in the regulatory framework?
KHANNA: This is not something I hear much about when I meet people knocking on doors and making phone calls. The state is still finalizing how this will work, so I have to research what led us to where we are, and where we need to get to. But it’s not much of an issue as I’m out campaigning. I would say that, 75 percent of the time, people are concerned about schools and gun safety and reproductive rights.
CTEx: Are there any other issues you would like to address, or a final statement?
KHANNA: I think when you listen to my opponent she paints the state as being in a bad place, but I think Gov. Lamont has done a fantastic job of putting the state in a good financial position by paying down financial liabilities and getting the Rainy Day Fund where it needs to be. I walk the neighborhoods and see young families who have just moved in. We have to leverage that and build on it. I would like to have a seat at the table as Connecticut moves forward. I think by virtue of my experiences and travels, and my ability to work collaboratively with people, I can advocate for our district and help create positive outcomes for our state.
Editor’s Note: This interview was clarified slightly to acknowledge that both Greenwich and Stamford need additional housing