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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    In New London, supporting a voice for change

    In seeking re-election, state Rep. Ernest Hewett of the 39th District is facing an unusual challenge from within the Democratic Party in the Aug. 9 primary.

    Hewett seems miffed that Chris Soto would challenge him for the job in the House of Representatives, rather than dutifully awaiting his turn until Hewett decides to step aside.

    "Why run against me now? I've been in Hartford 12 years," Hewett, 60, asked at their July 20 debate.

    Unknowingly, Hewett answered his own question. It is healthy to the process to see a candidate challenged after so many years of easy victories. In this city dominated by the Democrats, a serious challenge could likely have only come from within the party.

    Soto had another good answer why he was running: "Public service."

    Soto, 35, can do the job. Even Hewett recognizes that. He once asked Soto to run his campaign. Soto declined. Hewett concedes he was prepared to endorse Soto if he one day ran for the 39th seat, but only if he waited his turn.

    A graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Soto served five years in that service. He later obtained a Masters in Public Administration from Brown University. He is the founder and director of Higher Edge, an organization that guides the region's low-income and first-generation college-bound students as they pursue a higher education and strive for their American Dream.

    As a member of the state's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, he is well versed in the needs and challenges facing the Latino community, certainly pertinent given the city's large and growing Latino population.

    On many of the issues the candidates are close, hewing to the Democratic line, though with Soto eager to explore new ways of running the government more efficiently and Hewett dismissive of such talk, contending most every idea has been tried and rejected because it didn't work or couldn't get the votes.

    "Those ideas come up all the time," said Hewett at the debate, when Soto suggested adjustments to the state's fee structure. "It just gets squashed."

    Perhaps 12 years in Hartford can jade you. It's why turnover can be good. It's not in our national character to give up on the potential of new ideas. As Soto noted, his program to help students get to college came from a new idea.

    Hewett admitted he introduces very few bills.  He said he has turned down opportunities to chair legislative committees, not seeing it as his job to tackle big issues. Instead, Hewett offered a narrow definition of his role as a legislator.

    "I represent one town ... New London, Connecticut, and I have a track record of bringing money to this district consistently since 2004," Hewett said.

    If every lawmaker had that attitude, how would the state meet big challenges that transcend borders, such as fixing our transportation system, or reorganizing the tax structure to make it fairer, or taking a comprehensive look at spending priorities?

    Hewett makes the case for legislative seniority and the danger that sending an inexperienced representative to Hartford could endanger getting state funding, particularly for New London's conversion to an all-magnet-schools district.

    Experience and wisdom are not one and the same, however. Consider the proposed affiliation of  Lawrence + Memorial Healthcare with the Yale-New Haven Health System.

    In his testimony to regulators, Soto voiced support but insisted on a community benefits agreement to protect local interests.

    At the debate, Hewett criticized his opponent for this nuanced position. Hewett noted he had written a letter in full support of the affiliation.

    "When you spoke, you walked right down the middle of the road," Hewett scolded Soto. "They call that riding the fence in Hartford. You have to take one side or the other."

    Yet a few days later, there was Hewett, testifying at a hearing that he was having second thoughts, expressing concerns about local control, cost and access to care.

    Looks like the new guy had it right.

    In Soto, New London would have a representative shrewd enough to get the ear of legislative leaders, to seek out help from experienced lawmakers, and to use his communication skills — including social media savvy — to sound the alarm when the city is being sold short.

    Unless another challenger arises soon for the general election in November, the winner of the Aug. 9 primary will walk into office. Only Democrats can vote in the primary. That is unfortunate.

    We urge those who can vote to do so and to seriously consider giving their votes to The Day's endorsed candidate, Chris Soto.

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