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Bumgardner ready to become 'the new guy on the block'

Editor's note: This version corrects a photo caption identifying New London Republican Mike Doyle.

Hartford — Aundré Bumgardner knew starting as a rookie legislator in Hartford would be exciting but “nerve racking,” and he wanted to be prepared, so he met former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons for lunch on Tuesday at Muddy Waters in New London.

Simmons offered a few pointers: Speak up when talking to senior citizens. Find a problem you can solve and fix it. Meet your district VIPs ASAP, and introduce yourself as “the new guy on the block.”

At age 20, Bumgardner is not only “the new guy on the block” but the youngest member of the Connecticut General Assembly sworn in Wednesday — old enough to get elected, but not to drink alcohol or gamble.

“As a younger member of the legislature, I think it’s imperative to seek out the people who not only have done it but who have been successful doing it,” Bumgardner said of his meeting with Simmons.

Bumgardner, who lives with his parents and two younger siblings in Groton City, was among eight Republicans who captured a majority of the region’s 15 seats in the state Senate and House in November.

Before the election, Democrats had occupied 13 legislative seats in the region. Bumgardner ousted four-term incumbent Democrat Elissa Wright from the 41st House District, winning the seat by 39 votes. Groton Republican John F. Scott, also sworn in Wednesday, unseated six-term lawmaker Edward E. Moukawsher in the 40th District, campaigning on the premise that voters want more from Hartford, and their primary concerns are jobs and the economy.

“It’s a real honor to be here in this capacity,” Bumgardner said as legislators passed by after his swearing in at the Capitol. “It’s surreal.”

Colleagues gave congratulations, hugs, fist bumps and handshakes.

“They’re all talking about you,” said state Rep. Charles Ferraro, a Republican businessman from West Haven. “You’re a rock star.”

“He’s the star of the show today,” said state Rep. Ed Jutila, a Democrat whose district includes East Lyme and Salem. “I mean, he’s a new member, he’s young and energetic, and we need these new and fresh ideas ... But it’s good to have us old guys here, too.” Jutila is 59.

Though some regional delegates are newly elected, many have known each other for years, and those relationships will serve their districts well, Bumgardner said.

“Our ability to work together and move forward together is going to be very, very strong,” he said.

Bumgardner campaigned in the southern portion of New London with Republican Paul Formica, the former first selectman of East Lyme and longtime operator of a local restaurant, who out-polled Democrat Betsy Ritter for the seat held by Democrats for more than 20 years.

At age 3, Bumgardner was in a commercial for Formica’s Flanders Fish Market. The two met Wednesday in the corridor between the Legislative Office Building and Capitol, while traveling in opposite directions. Bumgardner jogged the wrong way on the “people mover” to catch up with his friend.

“Your mom must be out of her mind,” Formica said, smiling at his colleague.

On Tuesday night, Bumgardner said he couldn’t sleep. He got up at 4:30 a.m. and was on the road by 6:30 a.m. Wednesday to attend a legislative breakfast. His parents, 11-year-old sister and 65-year-old grandmother attended the swearing in at 10 a.m., then found his room in the House Republican caucus office with him.

If some were surprised to see a 20-year-old state representative in Hartford Wednesday, Bumgardner’s parents were not. His mother, Liz Bumgardner, said she’d never been inside the Capitol before, she’d only seen it from the outside. But she recalled that at age 6, her son asked for a birthday cake with a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it.

“There’s always been a drive that’s been different about him,” Liz Bumgardner said.

Pierre Bumgardner, Aundré Bumgardner’s father, said his son wrote at age 9 or 10 that he wanted to be president of the United States when he grew up.

“He’s ambitious, and he takes on challenges, which is a great thing,” Pierre Bumgardner said.

Bumgardner brought a few things to the Capitol with him — the medals that belonged to his grandfather, who served for 30 years in the Navy and also as a Marine in Vietnam, along with the flag folded at his funeral; a collage of campaign and election-related photos, including a front-page story featuring him, that his parents framed and gave to him for Christmas; and a bobble head of “The Governor” from the television series “The Walking Dead.”

“My sister and I religiously watch ‘The Walking Dead’ every Sunday, so I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the governor,” Bumgardner said. He plans to add bobble heads of Theodore Roosevelt, Cleopatra and Thomas Jefferson to build a collection.

Bumgardner had hoped to attend the state Board of Education meeting Wednesday to support Groton Superintendent Michael Graner, who presented a plan to correct the racial imbalance in the district, but was unable to do so.

He met Graner on Monday, along with Jim Butler of the Council of Governments. On Tuesday he had breakfast with former state Sen. Cathy Cook before joining Simmons for lunch and attending Formica’s going away party at East Lyme Town Hall.

Bumgardner said he will do all he can to represent the district.

“I think, quite frankly, the district deserves it,” he said. “The New London-Norwich area has recovered only 10.5 percent of the jobs they had prior to the recession.” By comparison, the City of Stamford has recovered 95 percent, he said.

He plans to introduce at least three bills. First, he’ll propose to reform the car tax — instead of having car taxes levied as personal property taxes payable to the municipality, he’d make the levy a state tax with a flat rate of 25 mills, and have the money go exclusively to the special transportation fund. Taxpayers in New London, where the tax rate is 38 mills, would save substantially, he said.

Second, he’d propose that the state pay 100 percent of its tax obligation for state property, instead of the lesser amount given to municipalities in PILOT money.

Third, he’d require colleges and nonprofits to pay a tax on the land value of their property to their municipality.

“My rationale is that the building which serves the charitable property should not be taxed, but the land it sits on does not serve a charitable purpose,” he said. He’d exempt open space owned by colleges, so the Arboretum and Mitchell Woods would not be taxed, he said.

“To shift the burden onto our distressed municipalities is frankly irresponsible,” Bumgardner said. “Our state has not made the hard decisions, resulting in a budget loaded with gimmicks that kicks the can down the road.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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