Soto serving as front man for Lamont legislative agenda
Hartford — When Chris Soto entered the Labor and Public Employees Committee meeting early Tuesday afternoon, he thought he knew what was in store. He thought the focus would be on minimum wage and paid family leave, issues that Gov. Ned Lamont — his boss — has made priorities this legislative session.
But then Soto found out there would be a 5 p.m. press conference announcing a public-private partnership to help federal workers impacted by the government shutdown. That altered his plans for both that day and the next day, and exemplifies what it means to be legislative affairs director.
"You never know what's going to come up," he said Wednesday, between a morning staff huddle and a closed-door meeting on unemployment insurance.
Soto announced on Dec. 19 that he would resign his position as a New London state representative to serve as legislative affairs director, a job he began last week. In his first run for public office, Soto had defeated a popular Democrat, Ernest Hewett, in a primary and then two opponents in the 2016 general election. Seen by some as a rising political star at 37 years old, he ran unopposed last year. A special election will be held for the seat on Feb. 26.
"I think that of all the positions, it really built on my skills," he said of his one term in the House, "so I'm coming over from the legislative side, knowing I am going to build on my relationships."
Soto sat down with The Day late Wednesday morning — ducking into an empty room, for a brief respite from getting flagged down for discussions — to talk about his new role.
"My job is to move the governor's agenda forward," Soto explained. Lamont has "approximately 15 priorities that range from education (to) criminal justice reform, and my number-one goal — along with my staff — is to make sure those hit his desk."
Soto said that along with "playing offense" on Lamont's agenda, he'll be playing defense on bills Lamont won't sign, though he said it's too early to tell what those may be. But with Democrats now holding larger margins in both chambers — 23-13 in the Senate and 92-59 in the House — the defensive aspect likely won't be as difficult.
Soto officially began the job on Jan. 9, the day of Lamont's inauguration, though that day was mostly pomp and circumstance. But the next day "was a great day to really understand what the job was going to look like," he said.
He attended meetings of the Labor and Public Employees Committee and the Banking Committee, and met with the chairs of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.
This past Wednesday, Soto began his day grabbing coffee with a Harvard Kennedy School graduate student, who had been helping with the gubernatorial transition for the past few weeks.
He then went to his office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, which also includes policy and communications staff. Soto huddled with Lady Mendoza and Amanda Klay, who respectively are the deputy director of legislative affairs and legislative affairs associate.
Mendoza was policy and government affairs associate under the administration of former Gov. Dannel Malloy, while Klay had worked with Soto at Higher Edge, the college-readiness nonprofit Soto founded in 2011. He is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served five years of active duty. Soto has a master's degree in Public Affairs from Brown University.
In assembling his team, Soto said he wanted a "mix of continuity and new perspective."
'Operating at a different capacity'
His day went on to include the aforementioned meeting on unemployment insurance, a switch from his original plan to attend an Education Committee meeting, and then a conversation with advocates about Veyo, the medical transportation company that has come under fire after complaints, and a meeting with the chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff.
Soto said he typically leaves New London around 7:15 a.m., as to avoid rush-hour traffic entering Hartford, and stays at the State Capitol until about 6:30 p.m.
"This building is my priority," he said, a shift from the split of his former job between the State Capitol and events in New London. Soto added, "It's a little bittersweet. When I go to the supermarket or a bar downtown (in New London), I'm just kind of operating at a different capacity now."
Just the same, he hasn't forgotten the people he had represented. In his new job, he said he will ensure "that when we're talking about statewide policy, that we're not forgetting southeastern Connecticut, or eastern Connecticut in general."
When it comes to investment in State Pier in New London and offshore wind, Soto said he has "been deeply involved in the conversations" but that Deputy Chief of Staff Jonny Dach is the lead, noting that it's important to have an objective perspective.
Soto feels it's helpful to have a former legislator in the role of legislative affairs director, which has not been the case for a while.
The last person to hold the role was Emma Cimino, who worked as a lobbyist for Reynolds Strategy Group for three years before joining the Malloy Administration in 2015. Before Cimino, the director of policy and government affairs was Chris Smith, who rose from the deputy of that position. Before that, he was a lobbyist for Rome Smith & Lutz Government Relations, a company to which he has since returned, and had managed political campaigns from 2006 to 2012, the Connecticut Mirror reported.
Paul Mounds, who joined the Malloy Administration after working in the offices of U.S. Rep. John Larson and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, was the director of policy and government affairs before Smith.
As state representative, Soto was earning $28,000 plus a $4,000 stipend, and he is now making $100,000. He left his job at Higher Edge in June and spent the second half of 2018 helping Connecticut College with education programs.
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