Republican Kimberly Fiorello is running to keep her District 149 seat in the state House of Representatives.
Fiorello, a Greenwich resident serving her first term in the House, faces Democrat and fellow Greenwich resident Rachel Khanna, who is running for state office for the first time.
District 149 includes northern Greenwich and the Stamford neighborhoods of North Stamford and Westover.
During her two years in the House, Fiorello was a member of the
Judiciary, Education, and Planning & Development committees. In a term dominated by debate over Connecticut’s affordable housing shortage, Fiorello emerged as an outspoken advocate for local control of zoning regulations.
Fiorello, 47, was born in Seoul, South Korea, attended West Point Military Academy, earned an economics degree from Harvard, worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, and worked on Wall Street at Salomon Brothers.
Fiorello, a married mother of four, said her life has been inspired by her late grandmother, who escaped communist North Korea to live in freedom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the main points of your platform?
FIORELLO: The economy, education, zoning and crime.
In the second quarter of this year, personal income growth in Connecticut was 2.2 percent, the lowest in the whole country. At the same time, the cost of living is outpacing personal income growth. We have to cut taxes, control our spending appetite, and reduce regulations and red tape. I campaign door to door and the singular thing I am hearing from everyone is a real nervousness about what is happening to their savings, whether in a bank account or the stock market. Their savings are disappearing before their eyes. We just heard that our water bills are going up, the cost of home heating oil is going up, along with health care or just going to the grocery store. In Connecticut there is a great burden with taxes. Something is not right in Connecticut when our growth is so stagnant compared to other states.
It boggles my mind that Gov. Lamont cites a poll that says the state is No. 2 in public school education, because that is out of touch with the real experiences of parents in Stamford and Greenwich. Test scores show that the quality of education in our state is declining. I hear from parents constantly, saying they are not respected by boards of education when they ask questions about curriculum, as if their interest in their child’s education is not valid.
There is a similar thing happening with zoning. There’s an accusation that those who question affordable housing policies are racist. But questions about the effects of development on the environment, water tables, sewer capacity, leaching fields, are fair questions. When people ask about the blunt zoning mandates that are coming from Hartford, the first go-to comment is, “You must be a NIMBY or a racist.” That is not a conversation. I think more and more people are beginning to see that some of these zoning bills are shills for massive developers, and they have nothing to do with affordable housing. I will be there to lead the effort to make sure damaging zoning bills are not passed in this state.
With crime, I have common-sense questions like why judiciary bills lean favorably towards criminals and lack consideration for victims. Things are buried in these huge bills and they don’t make sense. I think we pass too many bills in a session. We need to slow down because we are not always solving problems. My “no” votes reflect that these are not clean bills, and the names of them don’t honestly show what they are about. I often find things in them that I can’t vote for.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in today’s Republican Party?
FIORELLO: I want to make a meaningful impact on education, which I think is the most important thing. Attracting business or young people, making life more affordable – to me, none of that matters unless we teach children, improve their minds, make sure they know how to read and write and make scientific calculations. We are not just competing with 49 states – we compete with the functioning economies of the world. Connecticut won’t have a fighting chance if we continue on with a monolithic education system, with just a little bit of choice on the side. We must have options for parents and welcome education entrepreneurs from everywhere. There is a renaissance happening in other states that has to happen here.
CTEx: Describe your background; what are your qualifications?
FIORELLO: In our American system, government by the people and for the people, you don’t need special qualifications. As a citizen, you are qualified. My grandmother escaped North Korean communism, survived poverty, came to the U.S. and lived beyond her wildest dreams. My grandmother would tell you she was American. I was very close to her, I took care of her until she died in our home and we buried her in Greenwich. She went from a village in North Korea to Greenwich, Connecticut.
I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the U.S. when I was 10. My family went to Virginia, and I was in public school in English as a Second Language classes. I remember thinking, “I will be American.” When it was time to pick a college, I wanted to go to West Point. There were very few women at the time. After I was there about 18 months, I realized they had my entire life planned for me. I transferred to Harvard and graduated with a degree in economics. That time when I wore a uniform was hard, but I look on it now with great fondness.
I love Connecticut because it is one of the original founding states. There is no county government, so each of the 169 towns rules itself. When my state representative resigned, I thought, why can’t I run? I had served on the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting, but I wanted to help lead our state.
I am the first person of Korean descent to serve in the state House. After a while I realized it meant a lot to Korean Americans. Many reached out to me and told me that Connecticut has the oldest Korean American society in the continental U.S. It was a wonderful discovery for me to be so American and love the American system, and then to also realize I have the Korean heritage to tap into.
My husband and I have four children – one son, who is 16, and three girls, who are 14, 10 and 8. They attend Catholic school in Stamford. We did home-schooling for a while, they went to different schools in Greenwich, we did online school. I began to understand that each child can be so different, and one school can’t fit the whole family.
CTEx: What brought you to politics?
FIORELLO: I think it’s not so much that we should be brought to it; we should all be involved in it. We should all take a turn. It’s not great when people go up to Hartford and grab the seats for decades. I think more regular people should go there and see how they make laws, and how little attention is paid to the results of the laws, which we have to change.
It’s a part-time job, six months in the first year of the term and four months in the second year of the term. You drive to Hartford, read bills, talk to experts to understand what you are voting on.
The purpose of government is to protect your life and property and make sure you’re free. You just can’t infringe on someone else’s rights. I think many people want to tune out politics because it’s divisive and nasty, and it is. But the other side is really beautiful. You’re serving your community, getting to know all kinds of people, helping to pass a good clean bill, which I did as a freshman.
I introduced the Connecticut Food Donation Bill, which encourages food corporations to donate the food they don’t sell. It’s not a mandate to donate, it’s a mandate to educate about what to donate, how to donate, who to contact. Government should be persuading people, not forcing them, and education is persuasion. I worked on it with Democrats. We built a task force to look over implementation of this bill and get donations flowing. It passed unanimously.
CTEx: What sets you apart from your opponent?
FIORELLO: My opponent characterizes me as someone who says no to everything that comes before me. But my no votes are because I read the 90-page bills and find things that are government overreaches, and will not solve problems.
One example is the governor’s small business program that says you have to hire a certain number of people, keep them for three years, then you can apply for a tax credit. That is not a job growth program. It’s a weird government coercion program. A better way to support all businesses is with a broad business tax cut – even a little will make a big difference.
Another example is the conveyance tax that the state takes from housing sales and puts in the General Fund. We need affordable housing, so why not take the conveyance tax revenue and send it back to the towns to put in affordable housing trusts? That makes sense.
CTEx: What are your accomplishments as a state representative?
FIORELLO: I helped build a grassroots movement to push back on the huge spate of zoning bills that came out of a group called Desegregate Connecticut. We were able to do things like pass them with an opt-out, such as with the (accessory dwelling units) bill. Now Democratic communities such as Stamford and Norwalk are exercising their opt-out and passing their own ADU regulations that respond to local realities. That is a victory for people to have a voice.
I was probably the only legislator that stopped double funding in education from being codified into law. That’s when we pay for a student to go to a magnet school or vo-tech or STEM school, and also send money to the district school the student would have attended otherwise. This is funding the system when we should be funding the student. There is no accountability for how the money is spent. Stopping it freed up $300 million that can stay in education and be spent in a transparent way.
CTEx: What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents? Is there a state level response on inflation for CT residents?
FIORELLO: Connecticut is expensive because of how our state government acts. We have a utility tax, car tax, estate tax – so many progressive taxes. If our income tax is flat, if there’s no car tax, no food tax, things will be more survivable. That would be a state that really looks out for its people. If state government genuinely has a surplus, it should be returned to the people. Gov. Lamont says he has a $4 billion surplus but he’s not returning it to the people. It’s because he is facing a fiscal cliff next year when the federal funds run out, and he has expanded programs he won’t be able to pay for. So he has to hang onto it.
CTEx: What do you see as the state’s role in providing housing?
FIORELLO: The state’s role should be to provide an equal-opportunity economy, so that anyone willing to work is able to afford an apartment or a mansion or anything they want in between. I think we should use the revenue from the state conveyance tax to address local housing needs. It’s a good, clean policy. Let’s try it. That bill can be three pages long. Then we watch it for three or four years and see how it works, see if it helps towns meet their needs. We don’t need another massive bill, like 8-30g, which forces mayors to figure out, how many housing units do I have? What percentage is affordable? How short am I? How do I get there? The mayor doesn’t own the land. The mayor is not a builder, or a bank that can loan the money. There’s not much the mayor can do about it. The 8-30g statute is not good, affordable housing policy.
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?
FIORELLO: Our energy policy is to go full speed ahead to a zero carbon electric grid. You can and should imagine it, but you have to be intellectually honest that it is not possible quickly. We say that is our future, but there’s no way to get there with solar and wind right away, so we’re doing a carbon tax.
We are going head-on into wind and solar, which has to be subsidized by government, which is taxes. We are suffocating economic possibilities because residents and businesses pay so much to keep the heat on. Our energy policy is making life more expensive. If your heating bill goes from $250 a month last winter to $600 this winter, that’s suffocating.
CTEx: Does the police accountability legislation need modification?
FIORELLO: Yes, the police accountability bill needs fixing. It’s been a long process doing all the many, many fixes to that terribly flawed bill. It is a travesty the amount of time and energy that has gone into fixing the Democrats’ misguided bill, but the damage to the morale of the police force is done and it will take a lot of time to undo that hurt.
We must restore qualified immunity, consent searches, and ensure that our officers who are now required to take regular mental health examinations will be covered by workers comp should they be deemed unfit. But it’s more than the police accountability bill. We cannot pass the bill to remove SROs from schools. We should not pass the anti-deceptive interrogations bill, premised on the idea that our police are engaging in abusive tactics in interrogations. Where is the indisputable evidence that the way our detectives do interrogations is a problem that needs to be solved by a state law?
We need morally good, street- and book-smart, brave and courageous men and women to be police officers so we are safe in our communities. We need to restore public respect to the profession and that starts with leaders showing that respect. We must provide the resources, equipment and training officers need to be the best at their work. We should be asking them, what kind of support do you need from us? What task forces to get fentanyl off our streets do you need? What kind of top-notch equipment do you need to get these gangs? I will always listen to police officers to make sure they feel supported and appreciated. Without them, we will have a lawless society. And I am incredibly grateful to every man and woman who chooses this profession of serving the public safety. We cannot say thank you enough to them.
CTEx: Education: what are your key goals and priorities for improving the educational outcomes for Connecticut students?
FIORELLO: We have 1,000-plus public schools and 19 charter schools, which are public. We have half a million kids that we educate and we’re putting most of them in a public school system dictated by their zip code. There should be tons of choices, a blossoming of types of schools. Parents need to be able to choose what school best fits their child. Each child is unique and we can’t limit solutions.
CTEx: Health care: what are key priorities for improving health care for CT residents?
FIORELLO: First, stop mandating. The only thing politicians can affect is the 25 percent of people who go to the public market for health insurance – contract workers, self-employed people, certain individuals. We have 68 mandates now, which drives costs up. We are not hurting people working for big corporations; they get insurance through their companies. We are hurting small contractors and individuals who have to go to the public market. Second, we should be passing clean, simple bills to increase transparency. We could pass a hospital pricing transparency bill, which would tell consumers that one hospital charges $30,000 for a knee replacement and another charges $13,000, and why. Having hospitals justify their prices would be the beginning of pushing back on pricing. That would be huge 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?
FIORELLO: The bill is so needlessly complicated. I thought we would do what Vermont did – decriminalize marijuana and let the market do what it does. We turned it into a hugely regulated industry, with very expensive licenses that have to have a social equity partner. I’m not sure what it does to address social equity.
CTEx: Are there any other issues you would like to address, or a final statement?
FIORELLO: I love the job of going to Hartford, reading the bills, taking hard votes, trying to get to better solutions. I have been speaking about them. I write a lot. I believe in sharing ideas. Ideas are really powerful, and I try to promote the ones I think are right. I hope people will think my body of work shows a strong work ethic and integrity. I love to bring people to see the beautiful golden dome of the capitol building, and hope they get interested in what lawmakers do. So please send me back.