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Yes, there will be a Democratic state senator from Greenwich

December 31, 2018

Alex Bergstein joins the Connecticut Senate next week as a curiosity in the large new class of Democrats: She is a Greenwich Democrat, the first elected to the state Senate since the mid-term elections of 1930, when Republicans were wounded by a deepening Depression and an unpopular Herbert Hoover.

One of nine freshman Democrats, Bergstein and her classmates offer an opportunity for a reboot of a frequently dysfunctional Democratic caucus, weakened by personal and philosophical conflicts and an evenly divided chamber. With a net gain of five seats, Democrats won a solid 23-13 majority in November.

The new class has two women on opposite sides of the debate over how Connecticut should shrink its massive unfunded pension liabilities — Julie Kushner of Danbury, a former UAW official and one-time leader of the leftist Working Families Party, and Bergstein, one of the Democrats not cross-endorsed by the WFP.

“We’re still in the stage of getting to know one another,” Bergstein said. “I have a deep respect for my colleagues, and I want to learn from them and their perspectives — from Christine Cohen; a small business owner; from Julie Kushner, a formidable labor leader. We’re all fighting for the same thing, which is fairness and opportunity and security for every one.”

Bergstein, 51, once practiced law at the white-shoe law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, stepping away from corporate law to raise three children. Currently, she is a Ph.D candidate in environmental science at Yale. Her husband is a Morgan Stanley investment banker. Her mother was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 1984.

When she first considered a run for the Senate, Bergstein was an unaffiliated voter. She enrolled as a Democrat in April.

“I would truly say that I am not partisan,” Bergstein said. “I am just focused on solving problems for the greater good and crafting long-term solutions based on best practices, based on actual fact. You know, doing what we’re supposed to do, what grownups are supposed to do for the benefit of children in the next generation, which is being the wise elders.”

Bergstein said the state needs to stabilize its finances and grow its economy, two broader issues that she sees making the state more attractive to business investment and modernizing an aging transportation infrastructure that threatens to choke the Fairfield County economy.

She co-authored a Bloomberg opinion piece in August that suggests a radical new approach to public pensions in the U.S. — negotiating a “shared risk” plan with unions that would guarantee a base level of benefits for retirees and higher benefits if regular stress tests show the pension funds can support them.

A coalition of state-employee unions agreed to concessions in 2011 and 2017 that imposed pay freezes, raised the retirement age, increased employee contributions for pensions and health care, and created a hybrid pension/defined-contribution plan for future employees. But Bergstein says the benefits still are not sustainable.

Bergstein said Kushner already has called her on the language she’s used in describing a need for pension reform.

“I said something like we have to address the pension crisis with bold, structural fixes — not just little temporary fixes, and very calmly she said, ‘Alex, you may have meant that well, but people who have already taken cuts don’t think about them as little fixes.’ I immediately apologized. Point taken.”

The median pension for retired state employees was $32,108 as of November, but more than 1,000 retirees have six-figure pensions, with a few topping $250,000.

“So, will I have different views than my colleagues in the caucus? Absolutely,” Bergstein said. “And that’s OK, because we’re building trust, we’re building respect for one another, and we will agree on many more things than we disagree on.”

Three of the five freshman Democrats who won Republican seats are from suburban districts with significant numbers of college-educated, relatively affluent voters, a demographic that rejected President Trump in 2016 and effectively rebuked him in the 2018 mid-terms.

Bergstein is one, defeating Republican L. Scott Frantz in a district that covers Greenwich and portions of Stamford and New Canaan. Another is Will Haskell of Westport, a 22-year-old Georgetown University graduate who unseated Republican Toni Boucher in the other big Fairfield County upset. The third is Norm Needleman, a wealthy business owner and Essex first selectman who won an open race for a seat that had been held by Republican Art Linares.

Bergstein and Needleman largely self-funded their campaigns. Final reports are not yet filed, but as of last count Bergstein had loaned her campaign $260,000; Needleman spent at least $426,000. Haskell participated in the voluntary public financing program.

Kushner and Mary Daugherty Abrams of Meriden also unseated Republicans: Kushner beat Michael McLachlan in a long-held GOP district composed of Danbury and the suburbs of Bethel, New Fairfield and Sherman; Abrams, a former special-education teacher and school administrator, defeated Len Suzio in a district that seesaws between the parties.

Kushner, 66, who says she never entertained seeking elective office before this year, described the incoming freshman Democrats as “people who are absolutely willing to have deep conversations about what’s better for us as a state.”

“I feel excited about that,” she added. “I’ve enjoyed my conversations with Alex about that.”

The other new Democrats are: Christine Cohen of Guilford, a former Stanley Black & Decker executive who owns Cohen’s Bagel Company; Matt Lesser of Middletown, now a state representative; Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport, a lawyer and school board member; and James Maroney of Milford, an educational consultant and former state representative.

“I don’t think we have any wallflowers in our caucus room,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Bergstein will not be the first voice in the caucus offering a more conservative view on state finances and taxation.

But over the past two years, a trio of fiscal conservatives felt marginalized, and they ultimately voted with Republicans to block a Democratic budget. Gayle Slossberg of Milford and Paul Doyle of Wethersfield did not seek re-election. Joan Hartley of Waterbury remains.

Attorney General George Jepsen, a former state Senate majority leader, said the chamber is a relatively intimate institution, where the tone and effectiveness of the majority rest on personal relationships, not just politics and policy.

“It will be interesting to see how this group comes together, given the diversity of their backgrounds,” Jepsen said. “Having grown up in Greenwich, represented Stamford and worked politics at that end of the state, I never dreamed there would be a Democrat from Greenwich or Westport.”

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