The Wesleyan Democrats hosted a Middletown State Legislators Forum featuring Connecticut State Senator Matt Lesser and State Representative Quentin “Q” Phipps on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The two legislators discussed topics ranging from public transportation and the legalization of marijuana to bills they’re working on and their endorsements for the 2020 presidential primary.
Lesser and Phipps began by outlining their paths into the state legislature. Lesser first got into politics when he was a student at Wesleyan after receiving a call from the Middletown Democratic Town Committee Chair asking him to run for mayor. Instead, Lesser decided to run for a seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission—against Phipps—and ended up winning. He then got a job on President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, which strengthened his passion for local and state politics.
“I saw something happening around the country,” Lesser said. “I thought things were changing in a big and meaningful way. At the time, Middletown actually had a Republican State Representative, gerrymandering in a way, so it was a really Republican district. But I thought young people were getting involved, communities of color were getting engaged—the country was changing—so I said, you know what? If nobody else wants to run, I’ll take a stab at this. I’ll run for state elected office. So I ran, and I won.”
Since then, Lesser has served in the Connecticut House of Representatives for ten years, until his election to the State Senate two years ago. During his time in the State Legislature, Lesser has realized the tremendous importance of state politics.
“What really matters in terms of people’s lives happens at the state level,” Lesser said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in Iowa, I don’t know what’s going to happen in November, but I do know that if you want to build real lasting progressive change, it’s going to start on the state and local level.”
Unlike Lesser, Phipps has always been in politics; his first election was in sixth grade, and he’s served in elected office ever since. Phipps is a Middletown native and currently serves as the State Representative for the 100th district. In Middletown, Phipps has served on the Planning and Zoning Commission and was unanimously elected as its Chair in 2011. He has served as City Treasurer since 2011 and was elected to the State House in 2018.
“I see politics and government as a source of empowerment,” Phipps said. “I think many times folks don’t think government can work because they feel disconnected from it, because they don’t know how to reach their legislators. They speak up, and no change happens…. I think when you have Democrats who believe government can and should work, the community goes in the right direction.”
After explaining their backgrounds, Lesser and Phipps answered questions from the audience. One question tackled issues regarding tolls and mass transit in Connecticut and whether or not Lesser and Phipps were working on making transit more accessible to a wider range of constituents.
Lesser explained that the fight for paying for transportation in Connecticut is years old and that the state desperately needs sustainable funding mechanisms for transportation. He also emphasized the need for increased spending on mass transit, bikes, buses, and sidewalks. Phipps agreed, but also argued that Connecticut and Middletown should follow the model of Kansas City and push for free mass transit. They also discussed the need for improving the Connecticut 55 Bus (which runs between Hartford and Middletown) as well as strengthening intercity bus services.
Lesser and Phipps also dove into specific bills and projects that they’re working on in the legislature. As Phipps explained, he’s helped launch the Downtown and Main Street caucus, which specifically works on strengthening traditional Main Streets in towns like Meriden and Middletown. While the caucus has only held two meetings thus far, they have focused on making more affordable housing options, safer walkability, and increased transit options. Phipps has also worked on voting bills that are pushing for the expansion of early voting and access to absentee ballots.
While Lesser has also helped with Democratic voting initiatives—such as a bill requiring college campuses to have a polling place—he’s primarily focused on health care policy. As he explained, his top priority is to cap the amount of money that people have to pay for insulin.
“We’re seeing people die around the country,” Lesser said. “A guy named Alex Smith in Minnesota turned 26, fell off his parents’ health care plan, and died. People have to live with insulin. If you’re a type one diabetic, you can’t go more than 24 hours without insulin or you will die. There are people in this state who are paying $2500 a month because they have high deductible health plans, just to get the insulin they need. We’re going to end that.”
Phipps and Lesser also talked about the legalization of marijuana. Lesser alluded that the legalization seems to be in the works, but Phipps argued that he will not support a bill that does not primarily focus on the expungement and elimination of criminal records regarding marijuana.
“There are suggestions that we could just have [marijuana] legalized and not worry about the expungements,” Phipps said. “For those that aren’t aware, typically when you tell people of color or people that have been oppressed before that ‘Just wait you’re time is coming, don’t worry about your rights,’ that doesn’t work too well for us. I unquestionably will not support any bill that doesn’t have an equity lens, and I will not support a bill that doesn’t have the expungement come first.”
Lesser and Phipps concluded the forum by talking about their endorsements for Senator Elizabeth Warren and asking for students’ help in their offices and on their re-election campaigns.
Kaye Dyja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.