38th District race includes two veteran public servants, newcomer offering third-party option
Waterford — The race for the 38th House District has brought together two longtime civil servants and a political newcomer who says she is in the race to offer a third option for those dissatisfied with the choice between a Democrat and a Republican.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty is defending her seat representing Waterford and part of Montville after a first term that she said took a lot of work but energized her to continue to push for support for education and public health initiatives.
Sharon Palmer, a retired teacher and union president who served for four years as the Department of Labor Commissioner under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, is challenging her from the Democratic side.
UConn Avery Point student Lauren Shaw is presenting a third option as a candidate from the Green Party, which has been gaining momentum in Waterford and been pushing to get candidates on ballots in state and local races.
McCarty, a Republican, was elected in 2014 to fill the vacant 38th District seat, long held by the Democrats. A member of the Education and Public Health committees in the House, she said she worked well with her committee members to support and sponsor bills that reduced mandates on teachers and school districts, limited excessive testing of high school students and supported mental health programs.
But negotiations in the legislature over the state’s budget for the 2016 fiscal year were frustrating, she said, bemoaning House Democrats' strategy of excluding Republican lawmakers from the talks.
“The bill came forward in a special session with no ability for us to interact about the damage it could do,” she said.
McCarty, a retired French teacher who now owns a family business in Brookfield, said voters she has spoken to in the district are just as frustrated.
“I’m hearing the same from all of the doors that I knock on,” McCarty said. “They want to live here, they want to retire here, but they’re worried about the fiscal health of Connecticut and (are asking), ‘Can we please get something done?’”
McCarty said she worked to try to understand why Waterford took a $1 million cut to state education funding, but felt she couldn’t get a straight answer from legislative leaders.
Palmer, 72, has said that McCarty’s Democratic predecessors in the seat would have taken a harder line on the cuts, and promised that she would bring to Hartford the tenacity she learned as the state labor commissioner, chair of Waterford’s Representative Town Meeting, the vice president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and president of the state chapter of American Federation of Teachers.
“I’m like a dog with a bone,” she said. “You’ve got to go to leadership and say, ‘This is what’s wrong and here is why it’s wrong, and what are you going to do about it?’”
Palmer singled out the “Chasing Cheaters” program as one of her successes at the Department of Labor. A joint effort with the Division of Criminal Justice, the program was created to fight unemployment insurance fraud and punish employers who misclassify employees as contractors so they could avoid paying workers’ compensation costs.
“We realized this kind of thing was hurting business for everybody,” she said.
Palmer retired from the department last year, soon after the decision to close several job centers that threatened 95 Labor Department employees’ jobs. She said she stayed on as commissioner until all 95 people affected were placed in new jobs.
Palmer said she has made her case to voters that she would try to help boost the state’s economy and wages.
But, she said, many voters are preoccupied with the presidential election and have not paid much attention to how statewide campaigns could affect them.
“It’s very hard to tell sometimes what’s on their minds,” she said. “It’s not only trying to get elected, it’s ... finding the pulse and have people be interested in what you do.”
Shaw, 21, said she also has noticed apathy among people she’s spoken to in the district, and said she’s trying to represent the Green Party as an option for those disenchanted with the two major parties.
“A good portion (of the campaign) has been not so much defending the idea of third parties, but promoting it, and saying there are alternatives that we should explore,” Shaw said.
Shaw grew up in Waterford after her father was stationed with the Navy in New London. She first became involved in politics as a volunteer on a U.S. Senate campaign at 16, and said she partially was inspired to run for the General Assembly after seeing state budget cuts to Department of Developmental Services programs for people with disabilities.
Seeing her brother, who has Down syndrome, and the residents in a dementia care unit where she worked lose access to programs was “very frustrating,” she said.
“I couldn’t understand why certain programs were getting funded while these people, our most vulnerable citizens, were being left in the dust,” she said. “I think it’s really because you can’t make a profit off of it.”
Members of Waterford’s Green Party, which has been growing in influence especially among the town’s younger residents, pushed her to put her name on the ballot in the race for the 38th District seat, she said.
“I definitely stepped up to fill the line — I didn’t think I’d be this involved, I thought I’d just be a space filler,” she said.
Shaw, who plans to graduate in December from UConn Avery Point with a degree in maritime studies, said the campaign has been another “civics lesson” both for her and the voters she meets.
“The majority of people have no clue who’s running, that’s pretty normal,” she said. “It’s good to be able to give them new information and hopefully get them more involved. ... you spend half the time explaining your opponents, on top of yourself.”
Shaw has said she’s disappointed in the bipartisan nature of statewide conversations about the economy and the budget, and argues a third-party legislator would be able to break through the lines that have been drawn between Democrats and Republicans.
And, she says, support for third-party candidates can pave the way for even stronger alternative candidates to have more access to campaign funding and the support to win seats in future elections.
"It's a pretty blue state, but ... in the future we can run and win," she said.
To watch the candidates debate local and state issues in a forum sponsored by The Day earlier this month, visit theday.com/section/lunchdebates2016.
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