Greenwich delegation promises to work together
GREENWICH — For decades, the Greenwich delegation to Hartford has been united on a consistent message, sticking together on nearly every major legislative vote.
But that was then: with an all-Republican team. And this is now: For the first time since the early 20th century, Greenwich’s legislative caucus will include both Republicans and Democrats.
When the new term begins Jan. 9, state Reps. Livvy Floren, R-149, and Fred Camillo, R-151, will be sworn in again with two newcomers representing the town. Stephen Meskers from the 150th District, is the first Democrat from Greenwich elected to the state house in a century. And Alexandra Bergstein is the first Democratic state senator from the 36th District since 1930.
But despite the changing party affiliations, the legislators downplayed the notion that there will be partisan fights ahead.
“I think we’re going to make a great team,” said Bergstein, who defeated five-term incumbent state Sen. L. Scott Frantz in a district that includes Greenwich as well as parts of Stamford and New Canaan.
“Fred, Livvy and I and Steve, too, are very aligned on everything as far as I know. I don’t foresee any impediment to our working together to advance the interests of Greenwich and the state,” she said.
A desire for focusing on fiscal responsibility, promoting economic growth and keeping taxes low unite the caucus — regardless of party affiliation, she said.
But for all the talk about bipartisanship, the caucus is already split on one major issue: Tolls. During the campaign, Bergstein and Meskers advocated for the return of tolls in Connecticut. The state is the only one in the region with tolls, and it is losing out on possible revenue, the Democrats said. However, both Camillo and Floren oppose tolls. The Republicans call them a new tax on residents.
“What tolls will look like is something we’re all going to have to give a hard think,” Meskers said. “I campaigned in favor of tolls with the amount of traffic we’re getting from out of state and the amount of damage they’re doing to our roads… I think there is a philosophical issue on taxes here. ... I think without a doubt there can be compromise here.”
Floren said perhaps Connecticut could charge tolls on trucks only, which is done in Rhode Island. And Camillo indicated strong continued opposition.
“We will fight to the end to make sure we make the best deal possible for our constituents,” he said. “But at the end of the day they will be nickel-and-dimed again and there’s no way around it.”
Camillo, who was elected to his sixth term, expressed optimism despite some “uncharted waters” ahead.
During the campaign, Bergstein and Meskers expressed support for Republican budget priorities passed earlier this year — such as bonding and spending caps as well as the establishment of a state rainy day fund, he said.
“I think that’s very hopeful,” Camillo said. “On social issues, we’re not always far apart, but we do have some differences and that’s part of the political process and should be expected.
“They’re new and I will do anything I can to help,” he said of the two newly elected Democrats. “We’re going to talk, and we’re going to work together. There are plenty of people in Hartford that I might not agree with on very much. But we work together on certain things because we have trust, we keep our word when we give it and we try to be friends and understand everyone has a different world view even if you have the same goals.”
There have not been many face-to-face meetings among the lawmakers since the November election, but there have been several phone calls and messages. Camillo has worked with Bergstein in the past on environmental issues, and he recently had dinner with Meskers, a meeting they both said was friendly and productive.
Meskers offered his commitment to working across the aisle within the delegation and the legislature on issues such as the economy and transportation.
“Barring some radical issues emerging, and I certainly don’t consider myself a radical, I can’t imagine that there’s going to be huge disagreements,” he said. “There will be a lot to review, but when it comes to issues like education and job training and coordinating with the community colleges and the universities, there’s not going to be anything that has us disagreeing.”
Camillo recalled how Floren and then-Rep. Lile Gibbons served as mentors when he was first elected in 2008. And he said he would be happy to help Bergstein and Meskers in the same way if needed.
Floren, who was ran unopposed for her 10th term, said the differences in the caucus do not have to be divisive. She pointed to her own experiences in the 149th District, which also covers part of Stamford and which has put her in two delegations throughout her tenure.
“Of course it will be different, but that’s something that I’m used to,” Floren said. “Right now in Stamford, I am the only Republican in the caucus. If you look at the issues, there is a strong reason for agreement. I hope things will work out in a bipartisan way. That’s how things have always worked out in Stamford, which you haven’t seen in the caucuses from the other cities.”
Stamford’s caucus is built upon mutual respect, she said, and Democrats and Republicans have always been able to work together even when they split on policy. Floren expressed optimism it would be the same with the Greenwich team after having productive conversations with Bergstein and Meskers.
“I see no reason why this shouldn’t be a caucus that works together,” Floren said. “We now have had two bipartisan budgets that have been passed, and I’m looking forward to that kind of consensus building going forward. We all want to create jobs and boost the economy. We all want to attract new businesses to Connecticut and make it so people want to move to this state. I know we can work together to do it.”
Camillo said he wanted to build on the bipartisan progress of the past two years. He is hoping his new Democratic colleagues will join him in pushing for an independent commission to handle redistricting after the census and in enacting a law to allow municipalities to ban pesticide use on private property.
For Bergstein, there is far more to unite the caucus than divide it.
“Just because people wear different party labels, it does not mean they have strongly opposing views on taxation or any other issue,” she said. “We have to actually really stop thinking that way and change our mindset. We cannot make assumptions based on party labels and, in fact, it’s our responsibility not just as elected officials but as citizens to unite and work together. We have so much more in common than what separates us.”
The need to work collaboratively and constructively was echoed by all members of the new caucus.
“We have to do what’s best for our constituents,” Floren said. “That’s what we were elected to do.”