An Army veteran and West Point graduate who worked in the U.S. Department of State before his current role as a federal government consultant, Democrat Christopher Rivers is running to represent the 48th District in the state House of Representatives. The district includes Colchester, Bozrah, Franklin and Lebanon.
In an interview with CT Examiner, Rivers said he wanted to run so he could use the skills he learned as an Army engineer and a diplomat to make the state government more efficient and better at providing services to Connecticut residents.
Rivers said he realized while he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 that he didn’t know enough about government to understand why the U.S. was still there, and since then he’s worked to understand how government is supposed to work.
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Rivers is running against Republican Mark DeCaprio to succeed incumbent Democratic Rep. Brian Smith in the newly-redrawn 48th House district.
When Rivers sat down with CT Examiner to discuss his priorities, he emphasized improving government processes, making smart infrastructure investments, diversifying energy sources and investing in education.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What would be your key goals if elected?
RIVERS: I want to put my skills to good use by making our government a little more efficient, while providing better services overall. It sounds like your classic political promise, but it’s honestly my day job. I spend all day every day trying to make government processes better, more efficient, and a better experience for people who need to use them.
I think making government make sense and making it work will dramatically help small business owners. That includes farmers. Making sure government has checks and balances on the food we eat is important, but farmers should also only need to call one phone number to get all their questions answered, and not have to worry about which part of the state government they need to talk to about a particular issue.
People in Colchester, Bozrah, Franklin and Lebanon, and across the state are really hurting from the economic pressures of inflation and gas prices. A lot of that is driven by what’s going on nationally and internationally, and I think we as a state need to make sure that we’re providing people the help they need in the short term.
In the long term, I think we need to minimize the effects of these things by making the right investments – that means being smart with infrastructure money that’s coming into our states, and making sure we’re set up to diversify where our energy is coming from so we aren’t so reliant on oil.
I also think the state should be doing better in education. It is absolutely on the rise, but I think we need to make sure we make the right investments so that communities like Colchester and Lebanon – which are set up to lose the most state support with the reformulated [Education Cost Sharing] grant program. The communities here deserve the level of investment just like if they’re living in the richest part of Connecticut.
CTEx: What can the state do to make life more affordable in Connecticut?
RIVERS: The state-level government is not the end-all be-all solution, but I do think it has a role for this. If you look at the current inflation, 70 percent of that is driven by energy prices. If you look at our state government and what we do with Green Bank and others to help diversify where our energy comes from, and using the federal infrastructure money to invest in things like our energy grid and more diverse sources of electricity, that will help overall affordability.
It’s not just what we can do for people in need right now, it’s making wise investments for the long haul. I think right now with the surplus of money we have, it’s a rare opportunity to make investments that will pay for themselves in 30 years. We’re all talking about a short-term view because we’re running for election, but we need to roll up our sleeves and come up with a long-term plan.
CTEx: What do you think about the job the state has done balancing its renewable energy goals with the cost of energy?
RIVERS: I think the state is doing better than most. The gas tax holiday has been important for a lot of people. I think holding Eversource accountable to be more responsive for things like blackouts and getting back up and running is an improvement. But I do think there is more room for improvement.
I think one area we’re missing out on is the public sector. Most rebate programs target residents, which I understand, and residents could use better incentives to help make energy efficient decisions, but we’re lacking programs to make school systems and municipal buildings more energy efficient. Those are decisions that can pay for themselves over the life of the building.
CTEx: What do you think is the state’s role in providing affordable housing?
RIVERS: This is a tough issue because there is genuinely a balance between local control and state support. I think when we’re talking about any blanket policy, not every community can make that work, especially smaller farming communities. So I think we need more of an incentive-based structure, rather than a mandated structure.
In the four towns I am running to represent, there is one town that is probably well-situated to absorb more affordable housing, and would welcome more workers and have employment nearby, and then there’s other towns that are more traditional farming communities that don’t have the same resources.
So if the state is going to mandate, I’d like to see population requirements so we don’t put that burden on small towns that don’t have the resources to support affordable housing in the way it should be implemented. Because it’s not just having a house to live in, it’s also access to healthcare, a decent job and a good transportation network. Not every small town is able to provide that.
So there’s a balance: there’s a role for the state to help local governments with incentives, but ultimately those local governments have to be on board or it’s not going to work.
CTEx: What do you think needs to be done to make healthcare more affordable and accessible?
RIVERS: I am very happy to see that Medicare is going to be able to negotiate its own drug prices, which will help drive down costs for the entire market.
I think there’s a lot of effort in recent years to consolidate hospitals and clinics. I understand the efficiencies, but we also need to make sure that we’re geographically spread out enough, that we don’t overly consolidate and just think our residents can always get there, especially from smaller towns.
In towns like Colchester, not everyone owns a car and the public transportation network is not enough to get the healthcare some people need. So it’s making sure that we focus not just on the big government programs that everyone likes to debate, but the logistics of how people get the healthcare they need.
CTEx: What would be your key goals for improving education?
RIVERS: I think there’s three big things. One, I think we need to make sure our metrics of success align with what we actually want. Right now, one of the main metrics we use is SAT scores. Well, not everyone should have to go to college, and if you aren’t going to college, is that the best measure of success?
We have companies like Electric Boat that has more work than workers. We need welders, plumbers, tradespeople. It is perfectly acceptable in my mind to have an education that allows students to go to college, or a trade or public service. And our metrics should align with that philosophy.
Second, I think we really need to invest in teachers to make sure they have the support they need coming out of the pandemic. They’ve been on the front lines, just like the EMTs, firefighters and police, and I think we need to make sure they know we support them. Make sure their pensions are secure, make sure we invest in them and provide the best training we can, and make reaching a profession people want to join.
There are so many passionate teachers out there, but we make education so political that it turns people away. And we need more teachers.
Third is that I think it’s about time we look at education as a system. A lot of the backbone of our education comes from the post-World War II era mentality. I know every district looks at curriculum every year, but I think the legislature needs to ask more fundamental questions: How can we do education better? I don’t think that needs to be a political issue, just a question we’re constantly asking ourselves.
CTEx: What do you think about the police accountability legislation from 2020, and are there any changes that need to be made?
RIVERS: What I’ve heard is that people think we have a lot of good police officers in Connecticut. I think we are very fortunate in the type of people who want to go into that.
There are some bad apples, and I think that legislation has allowed us to go after the bad apples while still protecting the good cops. From my understanding, implementing that legislation has been in partnership with police officers, and as long as that continues to be how we go about it, I think we’re doing it the right way.
I think sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture that needs to change with the criminal justice system, and that’s not just focusing on policing. It’s making drug use a health care issue instead of a criminal, legal problem. It has to include how bail works, how the rehabilitation part works, how people have an avenue back to being a productive member of society after they pay their dues. I think we really need to make sure the entire system is improving.
CTEx: What do you think about marijuana legalization, and do you think there are any changes that need to be made to how that is being rolled out?
RIVERS: I think we’re seeing a sea change in how people view marijuana, and quite frankly drug use in general. I don’t use any drugs personally, but I think an adult should be able to. And I think keeping up with our neighboring states so that it’s less confusing was probably a smart thing to do.
I think it’s going to have a lot more questions at the local zoning level that have not been answered yet. One of the things I go back to is that when local zoning boards have questions, you often hear that they get different answers depending on who they ask. I think our municipalities deserve a government that they can call and get one answer that is true across the board.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in the Democratic party?
RIVERS: I am overall, relatively moderate. I’m a really hardcore engineer at heart. I like to look at the entire system, and make sure it’s working how it’s designed, and go from there. That’s my starting point, and that leads me to be relatively moderate – there is generally a balance we need to achieve in systems across the state.
Rushing to failure doesn’t do us any good, so if you’re talking about big systems like healthcare, criminal justice, education, I would rather measure twice and cut once.
But the reason I’m proud to be a Democrat is that the party is a large caucus with a lot of different perspectives. We’re constantly debating each other, we’re rolling up our sleeves and trying to do work that helps the working class. I think as long as the government is thinking how the middle and working class can be supported, it’s on the right track.
Whenever ideology becomes dogma becomes how you approach government, it falls apart quickly. That’s true for different countries I’ve been to, different communities I’ve been to.
At West Point, we have a cadet prayer, and in it we ask for wisdom and courage to always choose the harder right over the easier wrong, and I think the Democratic Party, especially in Connecticut, is very much choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.
Do we always get it right? No. But we go back to the drawing board and keep at it, and that’s how we all improve together.