Greenwich delegation talks civility, overcoming partisanship
GREENWICH — For the first legislative session in nearly a century, Greenwich’s representative delegation to Hartford is split by party.
Since the elections of state Rep. Steven Meskers (D-150) and state Sen. Alex Bergstein (D-36), constituents in town have wondered how the new dynamic will play out in a group traditionally monopolized by Republicans, during a historically partisan period of national politics.
The newly elected officials join longtime incumbent state Reps. Frank Camillo (R-151) and Livvy Floren (R-149) in the Greenwich delegation, and a have found common ground on several issues, including gun safety and environmental protections, even some economic matters.
“It’s important we acknowledge there’s going to be some issues we disagree on,” Camillo said during a panel discussion moderated by Hearst Connecticut Media Group Vice President Matt DeRienzo on on Sunday at YWCA Greenwich. “But I hope we can show you we can discuss the issues and still work together on a lot of things.”
Bergstein said she’s not a “politician only thinking about the next campaign.”
“I just want to go in look at the system and see where we can make changes to run things better and tackle the biggest issues facing the state,” she said. “We have to have these hard conversations and really focus on facts in order drive solutions forward.”
When asked if they would buck their party on bills that would negatively impact Greenwich, the Democrats said they would do what’s in the best interest of the people they represent.
Bergstein cited her stance against proposed bills from Democratic leadership that would increase mill tax rates and regionalize schools.
“Those bills would be pretty devastating to our community,” she said.
Among the most polarizing issues between the Democratic and Republican lawmakers right now is the prospect of reinstating tolls on the state’s highways.
Bergstein, who has been targeted by anti-toll protestors because she’s already introduced a toll bill, said the issue is an example of the difficult discussions that need to happen to move forward with solutions to state problems).
Meskers reiterated his support for tolls, saying, “Someone has to pay for use of roads and right now I’m paying for 100 percent of it. We are running a multi-state charity on our highways.”
Both Floren and Camillo said there is already enough money for fixing the state’s transportation infrastructure, and now the newly set “lockbox” for transportation funding will ensure it is spent only for that purpose.
“Now, every dollar we collect going to transportation is going to be spent only on transportation,” Floren said. “If we implement a 4 percent per-gallon gas tax, that would beyond pay for (needed infrastructure improvements).”
Camillo took issue with estimates cited by Bergstein that 30 to 40 percent of Connecticut’s highway traffic is from out of state, saying he knows local business owners who would be negatively impacted by the reinstatement of tolls on highways.
On another matter, an upcoming event at Town Hall organized by Carl Higbie, a Trump administration appointee who came under fire for saying racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic slurs, has been questioned by some residents who object to his use of the Greenwich government building.
When asked about the Higbie event, Floren said she has no interest in Higbie’s “redemption tour.”
“I believe people can evolve and change, I just don’t think this is a case when that’s going to occur,” she said. “Town Hall has its meeting policies and he met the qualifications. We have to honor his right to free speech. What you don’t have to do is attend.”
Camillo, who said he’s known Higbie for many years, said he was asked to speak at the event and only agreed to give opening remarks about civility, tolerance and respect. He has since pulled out, citing a time conflict with his Hartford duties.
“I’m a free speech guy,” he said. “If we as public officials can’t have this discussion, who will? We all make mistakes, and if this thing turns into a circus, then I’m wrong. But we have to be willing to give someone that chance.”
When asked what their hopes are for the current legislative session, Floren said hers is that newly elected Gov. Ned Lamont — her neighbor, constituent and friend — will fulfill his campaign promises.
“My hope is he’s going to keep his word and really listen to people on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “I pledge to each one of you I will be an optimist until I’m not.”
All of the elected officials encouraged their constituents to reach out to them about the issues they care about.
“We rely on you, your expertise and your lived experience to inform us on what the issues are,” said Bergstein.