Seeking her third term representing the 64th state House district, state Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, a former federal prosecutor, will face Republican candidate Chris DuPont on Nov. 8. The 64th District includes the towns of Canaan, Cornwall, Kent, Norfolk, North Canaan, Sharon and Salisbury, and parts of Goshen and Torrington.
Recently, the district has seen razor-thin election margins. Democratic Rep. Roberta Willis held the seat from 2001 to 2017, but in her 2014 election she narrowly beat Republican Brian Ohler with 51 percent of the vote. Ohler won the seat in 2016 and served one term, but in 2018 was defeated by Horn, who won with 50.4 percent of the vote. Horn won against Ohler again in 2020 with 51.7 of the vote.
When Horn spoke with CT Examiner, she said she wants to ensure her rural district is given the resources to build up its broadband infrastructure, ensure it doesn’t lose critical healthcare access, and invest in mental health treatment for law enforcement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the main points of your platform, and what would be your key goals if re-elected?
HORN: I chair the Public Safety and Security Committee, and one of the initiatives that I’m proud of and that we look forward to continuing to work on is the intersection of mental health and law enforcement. That’s providing resources to law enforcement to address the mental health and addiction crises that we’re facing in our communities, because we haven’t always done that, and we’ve expected them to take on more without the training or resources to do so.
But it’s also looking at helping them put their own oxygen mask on first, and make sure their mental health is cared for. They face tremendous strains, and we all read about the trauma of an event that causes headlines, but they face sort of day-in day-out strains and stress that make their jobs very difficult. And I believe that if we can muster resources to make sure we’re taking care of police mental health, and protect them from repercussions for seeking mental health treatment – which we did pass legislation on this year – they are much more able to contribute to solutions for mental health crises in the community.
I also sit on the Environment and Energy and Technology committees. Energy and Technology I joined because of major broadband deficits in my corner of the state, and there is finally some significant federal money trickling in. There’s a lot of bureaucratic hurdles along the way, but they do provide an opportunity we likely won’t see again for a decade. It’s not clear how much of my work on this will be legislative, and how much will be making sure the communities get the right information and have the ability to band together and put proposals out. But I want to make sure resources flow into the Northwest corner, because if you look at any map of broadband infrastructure in the state, you will see the Northwest corner as a blinking, red light. Part of my job is to convey that to other legislators, which I think I’ve done effectively.
In the Northwest, the environment is connected to pretty much everything. It’s green space and open space to preserve the natural beauty that’s the reason many of them chose to live here or stay here and remain loyal for generations to this part of the world. It also underpins our culture, physical and mental health, and our economy. We have many businesses, including farms, that depend on a strong, clean natural environment. So there are many initiatives relating to clean air and clean water management that I look forward to working on.
I’m also concerned about rural healthcare. We are watching, not just in our corner, but in other areas of Connecticut, as hospital systems grow and resources are withdrawn from rural areas to denser areas. For a hospital watching only the bottom line, I can understand that because it’s always more expensive to deliver services to a rural area.
But we have to make sure that doesn’t leave a healthcare desert in areas like ours. We need to define what it means to be a community hospital and what services should be included in that, and acknowledge there are costs associated with that, and have the state contributing in some way to make sure we can supplement that as necessary so that services are provided to people in rural areas.
This is tied to a lot of conversations about reproductive rights and health care, and I am very proud to have been a part of this group to reiterate and expand our commitment to abortion care in Connecticut. But that committment to choice means we have to ensure that access to maternity and abortion care is available to everyone, in rural and urban areas.
CTEx: What else does the legislature need to do to make sure healthcare is both affordable and accessible in Connecticut?
HORN: I think we need to look at the Certificate of Need process. We’ve seen that it can work. I think the Office of Health Strategy is doing a good job, but they’re under-resourced. That hurts hospital systems and community members because things take way too long to get done there. I also think we need to make sure that the certificates of need have teeth in them and are enforceable. We’ve seen several instances where hospital systems have taken action without regard to them, and we need to toughen up that process.
I think we also need to look clearly at the cost of providing care in various communities and make sure our reimbursement system reflects that. I think the healthcare benchmarking that we passed this year is helpful with that, because I think we also need a lot more transparency about costs and quality of care so consumers are educated and have the ability to access high-quality care with some understanding of what the costs are.
CTEx: What do you think about the job the state has done balancing its renewable energy goals with the cost of electricity?
HORN: Obviously right now the increase in fuel costs is hitting everyone, and those costs flow right through to the cost to purchase food at the supermarket. So we have to look at that,
But on the bigger picture, it would be good to be less reliant on fossil fuel because of the global forces at play and the environmental concerns, which is why I think looking at sustainable energy is not just good for the environment, but could also be long-term more cost effective than fossil fuel. But we do have to balance it out and we have to make sure that we’re looking at people who are vulnerable communities who are hit hard by higher costs – and we do have higher electric costs in Connecticut, so we have to be vigilant.
I think we made some progress with the Take Back Our Grid Act to start to change the way that we regulate utilities in Connecticut, from a guaranteed return model to a performance-based model. That takes time, they’re turning a massive ship, but I believe it’s starting to happen. We have some good people in place there, but we’re going to have to keep a legislative eye on it.
CTEx: What do you think is the state’s role in ensuring residents have access to affordable housing, and are there any policies that need to be changed or implemented?
HORN: Housing is central to drawing and keeping young families here in Connecticut. We don’t have enough housing in Connecticut, but out here housing costs were high pre-pandemic, and they are even higher now.
I have a very politically diverse district, and pretty much across the board, the elected municipal leadership, regardless of their own politics, is trying to create more affordable housing of varying types. They know we need people who are teachers, physicians assistants, volunteer firefighters, people who have lived in our communities for generations, who I get emails from saying they can’t afford to live here anymore. And that’s going to have a real cost on our communities.
I think we need both carrots and sticks. We have to make sure that towns have an actual plan to get to having the appropriate amount of affordable housing in their communities, and we also need to provide resources to ensure those towns can do it.
I have a lot of towns who have a lot of conserved space, so even if they’re committed to affordable housing, it’s very hard to find locations to put it. I would love to see an alliance between land preservation and affordable housing, so when we preserve land, we set aside an environmentally appropriate part of it. Some of my towns are doing that, and I think that’s an interesting way to go.
CTEx: How else can the state make life more affordable in Connecticut?
HORN: To go back to broadband, I think people have a clear understanding that it’s part of our economy, part of healthcare, part of education. And it’s partly an infrastructure deficit – especially here – but it’s also an affordability issue for a lot of people who are frozen out because they can’t afford to get that access. And that freezes them out of educational opportunities, job opportunities, all kinds of things that have long-term ramifications.
CTEx: What would be your key goals for improving education?
Horn: I was part of a group of legislators that wired on a bill that I’ve heard described as fulfilling the promise of the [Education Cost Sharing] funding system. For me, as a rural legislator, part of that focuses on the Ag Ed program, because we have superlative programs here, and they serve not only the kids who will have lives in agriculture, but all kinds of kids: Kids who hated school who found a great way to work with their hands and with machines, kids who were connected to jobs in the community. A lot of my work on that bill was ensuring that we keep funding for those programs.
We have some of the best schools in Connecticut, and some of the worst inequality. If we’re going to be proud of our education system, we have to make sure every kid gets a chance.
CTEx: How effective do you think the police accountability law from 2020 has been, and is there anything that needs to be changed?
HORN: Part of that legislation was a task force that was going to look at what needed to be changed, and we’ve already changed some of those. For example, a main project I had in public safety on protecting officers from repercussions for seeking mental health help grew out of the behavioral health assessments that were in the police accountability law.
So as with most complex legislation, I’m sure we’ll be tweaking and adjusting it. But we have to be careful because there were some changes to standards that you can’t just change overnight. Officers need to understand how they work and get adequate training.
The vast majority of them go into this to help their communities, and do their jobs with skill and grace and courage, but I think it also addressed some very real problems. People have emotional positions on this. This was a difficult piece of legislation because you had people on both sides say, “If you vote this way, you hate me.”
There’s got to be a better space in the middle, and I do think this has created opportunities for a lot of conversations between various groups who are involved with it. Because the truth is that the communities most affected by racial incidents in policing are also the communities that most need policing, and the leaders within those communities will tell you that.
I think we moderated that bill a lot, and I think we have moderated it since passage, and I’m sure we’ll continue those conversations. I have spent a lot of time correcting misinformation about what’s in that bill, but also just listening to people. It’s important to remember police have tough jobs, and they have to react quickly. And when you change standards, it takes time to work those standards into their work habits. That’s not a knock on anyone, you just need to give people time to get that system in place. So tweaking too much too fast is not good either.
CTEx: What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization, and are there any tweaks that need to be made to how it’s being rolled out?
HORN: I’ve done a lot of work in addiction services, and I’ve done a lot of work as a federal prosecutor, prosecuting narcotics. I’m very aware of the dangers to communities both from addiction, and from over-penalizing and over-policing issues. And I’m very aware of the racial impact, particularly with the criminalization of marijuana, which was pretty expressly racial when it was first passed.
There’s a long history there, and it’s hard to justify given what we know about marijuana versus alcohol or cigarettes. There’s a lot of disparity there, some of which was intentional, which in the end caused me to support legalization.
I think Connecticut’s efforts to create robust social equity programs are laudale, but they do seem complicated. And there are complications just from creating a complex regulatory system to something that remains illegal at the federal level. That makes it hard for these businesses to be banked, which means they need access to capital and sophisticated partners who know how to run businesses. The social equity applicants often need that expertise, but you really don’t want to just make a back door for out-of-state corporate interests to end up controlling those, so I think we have to be very careful with that.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in the Democratic party?
HORN: The short answer is that I would put myself somewhere in the middle. The more detailed issue is that I am a pragmatist. Issues get reduced to binary at the end of the day, but along the way there is nothing binary about this.
I want to understand anybody who comes into my office advocating for certain positions. The first thing I need to know is who do they represent, what is their agenda, what are they trying to accomplish? Then I ask them to articulate the best arguments that are in opposition to their position, and if they can’t do that, that tells me a lot about how much they know about the issues they’re advocating for.
There are always multiple positions, and I think we are always drawing lines. I want to understand the repercussions of doing that. There are some things that I feel passionately about, like criminal justice issues, but I am always going to listen to how it works on the ground for people who are experiencing these issues, and how our policies have unintended consequences.
I’m a detail person. I don’t take ideological stands. I believe in working with my colleagues. I believe you can learn something from almost anyone, even if they’re yelling at you, and I think it’s our job to do that.