Dunigan Pitches Common Ground, Affordability Through Living Wages in Run for Groton-Stonington Seat

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James “Jake” Dunigan is an unaffiliated candidate running for the State Representative seat for the 41st District, which includes parts of Groton and Stonington, including Mystic. His opponents are Democrat Aundré Bumgardner and Republican Robert Boris. Joe de la Cruz, the incumbent since 2017, is not running for reelection. 

Dunigan worked for Electric Boat for 10 years, and took night classes for four years at the University of Connecticut School of Law. He recently graduated and has left Electric Boat this year to pursue a career in law.

Previously, he earned degrees in civil engineering and architectural engineering from Drexel University in 2008 and has worked in the defense industry for most of his career.

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In conversation with CT Examiner, Dunigan emphasized the importance of good governance and finding common ground. He said that as an unaffiliated candidate he will answer to the voters rather than to a party. He also said that the way to make Connecticut affordable is to provide jobs that pay workers enough to cover the costs of housing and healthcare. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

CTEx: What are the main points of your platform and your key goals?

DUNIGAN: I think my main reason for running is that I got to the point where I was just fed up with the way that we talk about politics and the environment that we’re in that actually prevents us often from really talking about the policies themselves; from really engaging in a conversation about the issues themselves because we’re afraid of a sort of tribalism that’s out there. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing and really set somebody off. It really does a disservice to democracy. I really think that it’s dangerous.

I’m running because I think that when you do start breaking down those walls, when you do start talking to your neighbors, that we agree vastly on a majority of issues, like, treat people well and run the government honorably. If you start there, that we’re all doing this in good faith, and if you are actually doing it in good faith, we can really get a lot done. I think the values are a lot more aligned than either party in particular is willing to admit. 

I want to end the way that we draw districts because I think it’s the source of this both nationally and on a local level. If you draw a safe district for either party, what you allow is a representative who only really has to be accountable to members of that party, which means that their views can color shift in whichever direction that district is, which just leads to evermore extreme positions. So the safer the district, the more extreme the position that can be taken. 

And the way that we do it in Connecticut, it’s a bipartisan — not a nonpartisan — system. You get both parties in the room together drawing these maps and they just horse trade for, essentially, as non-competitive a district as they can get, because there’s no incentive for them to create a district where there might be a significant amount of competition. Because why would they want to do that?? It means more money, it means more work and it’s probably coming closer to the center, where the vast majority of us are.

CTEx: Where do you see yourself as an unaffiliated candidate running against a Democrat and a Republican?

DUNIGAN: So I think, from a policy perspective, I’ve been to 2,500 doorsteps now and I started with the description that I’m sort of left-of-center on social issues and right-of-center on the fiscal things, but it turns out that left and right – they really don’t mean anything anymore and they’re really just words of division that don’t particularly align.

I talked to a woman who said she didn’t agree with anything on the left and that we’re going in the wrong direction… and I was like, strong safety net, Medicaid, Social Security, disability benefits, those kinds of things. And her response was, oh, yeah, well, I agree with all of that. It was an eye opening moment for me that we use these terms as sort of offhand ways to perform a litmus test, which is literally red or blue when it comes out. Since then I’ve stopped using these terms because they’re just no longer accurate. 

I think that we’re not having a broad enough discussion about what it is to try and raise a family in America and particularly Connecticut on a minimum wage of $15 an hour – it just doesn’t do it and that’s part of fiscal responsibility. Where that comes in is that we’re subsidizing a ton of businesses by ensuring that our workforce is healthy –  a quarter of Connecticut residents are on HUSKY. Those are the people who are working a lot of part-time jobs and sometimes full-time in places that don’t provide benefits. Those employers are taking the tax dollars by relying on the decency of the Connecticut taxpayer to ensure that the people who need it get health care. That’s just putting money in a rich person’s pocket and that is not okay – it’s essentially corporate welfare. As a taxpayer, we should be outraged that these businesses — some of them very big businesses, including Walmart, Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s — are relying on the taxpayer to foot the bill for benefits that they should be providing. 

Whether or not the idea that employers should be the source of healthcare is a good idea, at this point, I’m sort of beyond that because it’s the system we have. So for the system that we have, we’ve got to get everyone to hold up their end of the bar. Right now, we’ve got major employers relying on – counting on – people being poor, on state services, so that they don’t have to pay them what they’re worth.

CTEx: What sets you apart from your opponents, Bumgardner and Boris?

DUNIGAN: The question itself speaks to the issues that I was just talking about. I am running for state representative. I am not running against Aundré, I am not running against Robert, I am running for state representative. Aundré is also running. Robert is also running. And I think it really is the voter’s job and not mine to say who among the people who are running is going to represent my interests the best. The difference in my campaign is that I am only going to be accountable to the voters themselves. There are no other interests that I’m going to answer to besides people. 

What sets me apart as a person is not much. We are all concerned citizens who are interested in good governance. For a representative democracy to function well, the only feedback the system has is the vote. And that means that voters have to take some responsibility and that’s work.

The real distinction between my campaign and theirs is that, as a principle, the interests of particular groups, especially those that are consistent donors to a particular party, makes it so you can’t approach legislation with a real open mind, and so I would hope to do that. 

CTEx: What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents?

DUNIGAN: Affordability is about what I touched on earlier with real living wages. If you want to make Connecticut affordable, the role of the state is about ensuring workers have funds to afford the things that they need to live their lives. And the only way you do that is to ensure that living wages get paid and to ensure that a part time employment isn’t used to keep people in poverty. I think reliance on a mix of part-time employment has rotted out the bottom couple of rungs of the class ladder. 

If you’re trying to get out, but you’ve got two part-time jobs, you’re still working 50 hours and you’re not making any money and you don’t have any benefits to show for it. Again, the people who are avoiding paying for benefits are relying on benefits to be paid by the taxpayer and that to me is simply unjust. It takes advantage of the taxpayer by sort of implying that the people who were taking these jobs are are unskilled or don’t deserve a secure retirement, or enough funds to put their kids into afterschool programs, or to afford the kind of health care they need, to live well, to feel good. I can’t I can’t imagine why we think it’s okay to let our neighbors live like this.

CTEx: What do you see as the state’s role in providing housing?

DUNIGAN: I don’t think it’s the state’s role to provide housing. other than the people who honestly can’t work. The state has no need to provide housing if people are making what they deserve, then they can afford it. 

CTEx: Are you satisfied with the state’s balancing of energy goals with the costs of electricity and gasoline? 

DUNIGAN: The current model for energy storage that PURA is putting out is a 10 year goal of 1,000 megawatts of energy storage. It relies on installation of these facilities at individuals’, corporations’ and businesses’ property. It relies on a system of people who can already afford it to install energy storage systems themselves and then to be compensated on the back end when the grid needs it in the future. There are higher incentives for lower income people who install storage systems.

But for them to say, straight-faced, that they’re going to get lower-middle-income individuals to install these systems at any kind of scale – it blows my mind. A just system would be for the grid to install a facility that’s capable of 1,000 megawatts. The Northfield Hydro plant in Northfield, Mass., has 1,143 megawatts and that’s more than our 10 year goal — and that’s one facility. 

Make the grid resilient enough so that all taxpayers, all ratepayers, receive  the benefit. The fact that we’re going to spend state funds to incentivize individuals and companies to install their own system – we’re gonna pay up front for them to install these systems – and then on the back end, for them to get paid again when we need the grid to utilize those systems, is a travesty. It’s bad governance.

Not to say that there isn’t a place for individuals and companies to install their own units and attach them to the grid. That’s a great idea. Don’t get me wrong. But that should be the gravy on top. That should not be the core that makes the system work because it just ends up with you and I, who do not have systems installed, paying twice for use of the storage. It just makes the rich richer and it grosses me out.  

CTEx: Is the police accountability legislation effective – are there modifications that need to be made?

DUNIGAN: Qualified immunity is probably a good policy. It’s probably going to be an insurance category for police personal liability insurance because if we’re going to have police officers be liable, we’re going to need them to buy insurance – and we’re probably going to have to carry the premiums because I don’t see any world where you hire a police officer and they have to go and buy their own insurance – that’s a real disincentive for them. 

The bigger point I want to make, starting in 2025, every police department has to get accreditation from a private accreditation company, that’s written into the law. Groton has three police departments: Groton Long Point, Groton City and Groton Town. To establish this accreditation for a police department that’s got more than 20 officers, it’s $11,450 and every year after that, it’s another $4,065. We wrote into law that each police department requires this accreditation. For Groton, you’d have two $11,450 signup fees, and then Groton Long Point with less than 10 officers would have to pay $8,475. So you’re talking about $35,000 in 2025. And then every year after that, we’re talking about almost $12,000 between the three departments… So, just for accreditation, in five years time, we’re gonna spend something like $200,000. 

Why can’t we as a state accredit our own police departments? I don’t understand why we can’t just establish what our accreditation standards are. And then the cost – there’s 169 towns, right? So there’s got to be over 200 police departments, easy. You’re talking about almost a million dollars a year going to this private company just to maintain accreditation. it’s just insane. And does anybody really think about the long term costs to the towns? Because that’s just not okay. 

CTEx: What are your key goals and priorities for improving the educational outcomes for Connecticut students? 

DUNIGAN: Education first and foremost is about getting a person to a place where they know how to learn. More than anything else, it’s about critical thinking skills and basic societal norms. You learn how to get along with people. Hopefully you do enough different things in high school to sort of figure out what it is that you might be interested in. A good educational outcome is for somebody to come out and be confident in their ability to think critically — and that’s tough to do and it’s very hard to measure.

But high school graduation rates are only 90 percent statewide. If we can start tracking who those 10 percent are, I’d love to see us identify those people. We should be trying to catch them and say, okay, how do we get you over the hump? 

In terms of higher education, I’d like to see a service program – graduate high school and then if you can’t afford college, if you want to do two years working –  as a teacher’s aide or working for the department of transportation – and then go to community college for free. We shouldn’t require them risking their life and limb to go fight in a desert somewhere just to get education. There’s just no reason that we shouldn’t be rewarding commitment to community.

CTEx: What are key priorities for improving healthcare for CT residents? 

DUNIGAN: People on HUSKY are having a difficult time with the healthcare system, they’re having problems finding doctors who will accept HUSKY and getting appointments. I would not want to make it mandatory for the doctor to accept HUSKY at any kind of particular ratio but I would want to work with the healthcare community to figure out what a good incentive structure might be. 

One of the things that I really think this is an issue with healthcare sort of on a national scale is that preventive and curative treatments aren’t as readily pursued because long-term treatment that requires medicine every month is a better business model.

I’d love to see Connecticut invest in biopharma. I’d love to see an industry start up here that that focus was on curative medicine and preventative care.

CTEx: Is the marijuana bill adequate as it’s written? 

DUNIGAN: I had been griping about this particular bill. In particular, my issue and this ties back to the police as well, is section 98, about employment, in the original house bill and the excluded employers who can make hiring and firing decisions based on cannabis use. 

Section 98 of the original 2020 bill lists out essentially all the worthwhile industries as being exempt employers – all manufacturing, transportation, defense, hospitals, schools, education, anything with national security, anything in healthcare, and anything in the justice system. Anything with national security, anything in healthcare, and anything in the justice system. 

Essentially, it decriminalizes it, but it still allows for employers to make these employment decisions based on cannabis use in essentially all of Connecticut’s major industries. And what that means for equity, is that if you want a good job with a decent career prospects, you still can’t smoke marijuana, or eat it or however you want to consume it. 

This gives employers cover in a way that’s not necessary in writing the law. What a person does in their own time is totally irrelevant to meaningful employment in 99.9% of cases. We can’t write laws like this and expect people to have respect for the rule of law, when we have all these interests who made specific requests to have legal cover to exclude users of marijuana from employment. 

And as far as the equity piece goes – basically you get 50% off of the fees, if you qualify. What does that do for equity? Nothing, it does nothing. 

Exclusionary policies don’t work work, the same goes for abortion. You try to outlaw something – people can do anything. For things that people really want to do, a law is really not going to do much.

And here instead of simplifying the law by removing the thing that was illegal, and making it legal, we complicated it. I just don’t think that that’s a philosophy that ends up with a citizenry that really trusts the law. Overall, you could see fingerprints of every major industry all throughout.

CTEx: Are there other issues that are important to you or would you like to make a final statement?

DUNIGAN: Connecticut needs you to vote. It needs you to think about how you’re going to vote and it needs you to vote well, and that takes work and the party system is relying on you not to do the work.