With incumbent State House Representative Joseph Serra not running for re-election this Nov. 3, 2020, there is strong competition between Democratic candidate Brandon Chafee, who has never run for office before, and Republican candidate Linda Syznkowicz, who has run unsuccessfully against Serra three times prior. I sat down with both candidates to discuss their strengths and weaknesses as candidates, campaign strategies, and policy priorities. While the two candidates have a number of stark differences, from their views on President Donald Trump to climate change, they have some similar policy priorities. For example, both candidates expressed a desire to improve transportation in and around Middletown.
COVID-19 has made campaigning, like everything else, significantly more challenging. However, each candidate has found their own ways to work around the restrictions posed by the pandemic.
“We made the decision pretty early on that I’d be the only person going door to door,” Chafee said. “At this point we’ve pretty much stopped door-to-door contact just because the COVID numbers are on the rise here.”
Szynkowicz reported that her campaign wasn’t able to do as much door-to-door campaigning as they wanted, so instead she gave out her personal phone number to District 33 residents, hoping to make herself as accessible as possible. Over the course of our interview, she received six calls from people wanting to ask questions about her platform or bring up personal grievances they hoped she could address if elected.
“I think one of the big things is that I’ve let people know that I would be working for them,” Szynkowicz said. “I would be accessible even after the election. And I always return phone calls.”
Both candidates see themselves as outsiders to political office, but for very different reasons. Both candidates also present themselves as the analytical, fact-based voice Middletown needs. Chafee, who currently works as a field engineer, has never run for or held public office. However, he told The Argus that his scientific background and lifelong residency in Middletown makes him a strong qualified candidate. His campaign has focused on meeting as many residents as possible to familiarize them with Chafee’s platform as well as hear their grievances, playing to Chafee’s strengths as an organizer.
“I definitely consider myself a little bit of an outsider,” Chafee said. “I’m not really cut from the traditional politician mold. I’ve been very successful in my personal career, or in my activism in town and political activism. I really like to work with people and I’ve been very successful at building coalitions around issues. I look at things very analytically and I feel that we really need people in public service roles that are going to do that.”
Szynkowicz, who served on the Middletown Board of Education for four years from 2013-2017, said she also does not view herself as a typical politician.
“Even when I get elected to office, I still will not consider myself a politician,” Szynkowicz said. “I do what I say and I’m there to serve the people and I will never forget that. Another thing that makes me…a very good candidate for Middletown, is I’m willing to listen to everybody’s views. You can change my mind if you give me facts. That’s what I go on, are facts. I don’t go on rumors or innuendos. I go on facts and I don’t care what party anybody is from, we’re all Connecticut residents and everybody deserves to have a voice.”
When asked what the top three issues facing Middletown are, both candidates said that transportation would be central to their policy priorities if elected. However, the two candidates have proposed very different solutions. Chafee is proposing a network of foot and bike trails that would allow residents to walk or ride to downtown instead of being forced to drive.
“I think in Middletown we really need to modernize and improve our transportation system,” Chafee said. “My vision for the town in the long run would be to build a network of multi-use trails sidewalks and safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians. I’d really like to see a transportation system built where people from various communities and neighborhoods in town could get downtown without needing to drive a car.”
Szynkowicz commented that public officials have been talking about fixing Route 9, but plans have never come to fruition. She envisions a fly over ramp that would bring commuters going north from Portland straight onto route nine. She also suggested a monorail system to replace the current bus system. Szynkowicz hopes that her monorail system would bring more visitors to Middletown. She takes issue with the current bus system, citing that the project was ten million dollars over budget and is underused, with buses operating at 25 percent capacity, which she sees as a waste the taxpayers’ money. While she hopes the monorail system would use efficient energy, however, she declined to label it as an act that would stem the tide of climate change.
“Everybody has their own definition of what it [climate change] is, and whether it exists or it doesn’t exist, is up to the scientists and who you talk to,” Szynkowicz said. “I don’t have a feeling either way. I do know we need to be efficient.”
In contrast, Chafee took a much stronger stance against climate change, expressing his hope that Middletown, under his guidance, could achieve carbon neutrality, including a decarbonized transportation system, by 2030.
“I think too many people frame it as something that’s going to happen in the future, but it already has happened and it’s continuing to happen…we need to make sure that we have infrastructure that could handle the increased storms, and the increased volume of rain water, ” Chafee said.
Szynkowicz’s platform also focuses on the development of the Middletown waterfront, and improving the educational system within District 33. Additionally, she emphasized the need for forensic audits of state government programs to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent efficiently and with discretion.
“A forensic audit needs to be done on every single state agency, to go in and see where the money is being spent,” Szynkowicz said.
Chafee stated that education should be a priority, along with the economy, property taxes, and cost of living. However, his main focuses were on the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and implementing universal healthcare. For Chafee, universal healthcare is particularly important because people of color in Middletown are disproportionately under-insured or uninsured within the current system.
“I would really like to see the state implement a fair recovery, make sure that we put working people, working families, and small businesses first,” Chafee said. “We need to make sure that everybody has health care, you know, not only during the pandemic, but beyond. I’m a big advocate for universal health coverage, [and] guaranteed health care. I think that…nobody should be deprived of healthcare.”
Chafee also commented that universal policies such as universal healthcare appeal to him as they will increase support for communities of color in Middletown because they are disproportionately under-insured or uninsured within the current system.
The two candidates also expressed fundamentally different perspectives about policing in America.
“I think over and over again, we’ve heard from various communities, that there’s been distrust between the community and the police force,” Chafee said. “The police are public servants, they’re given a tremendous amount of power to act at their discretion and I think we’ve seen the consequences of that more than enough to realize that there’s an issue there.”
Szynkowicz wrote a book series about police, called “Police on Patrol: The Other Side of the Story,” where she interviewed over 3,000 officers across the country and went on drug busts with the officers.
“Were there some bad apples?” Szynkowicz said. “Hell yeah. But that’s in every profession. And unfortunately with police, if you’ve got a bad apple, it speaks poorly of all police everywhere. The only time you’re going to encounter a police officer is if you’ve been breaking the law. Usually, I mean, that’s what it comes down to. And if you don’t want to get stopped for speeding, stop speeding. You know, if you don’t want to get arrested for homicide, don’t kill somebody. It’s not the police officers doing it.”
Szynkowicz applauded the work of police officers, emphasizing that while some people should not be police officers, the majority are protecting and serving the community. When asked about the video footage of George Floyd’s killing, she urged that people know all the facts before making a judgement; however, she was quick to denounce the protests against police brutality that unfolded across the country.
“I was upset when I first heard about it too, but you can’t go and then burn down buildings and businesses and destroy and scream and beat other people because of, you know, a situation,” Szynkowicz said. “Burning and destroying other people’s cars and lives and businesses and making people lose jobs and millions and billions of dollars, you know, businesses and the insurance companies have to pay for stuff. It’s not going to bring back the lives of anybody.”
Another salient discrepancy between the two candidates is their opinion on President Donald Trump. While they both stated that national politics were not prevalent to their campaign here in District 33, they were quick to give me their opinion on the Trump Presidency.
While Szynkowicz believes in smaller government, and lower taxes, she claims she is not a typical Republican.
“I’m not your typical Republican-slash-independent candidate. I want to do what’s right for everybody and if something is wrong, I’m willing to stand up,” Szynkowicz said.
However, when push comes to shove, she expressed that she still firmly believes that Trump has been invaluable to the country.
“As far as what he’s done to help the country, it’s been phenomenal,” Szynkowicz said.“A lot of information is coming out on what he’s done worldwide and what he did for the economy and bringing out the COVID stuff back in January and fighting everything all along.”
While she wishes he would Tweet less, she maintains that he has been incredible for the country and his businessman style of running the country is effective. When asked about his widely criticized track record regarding minority and marginalized communities, she stated that the media is responsible for a lot of misinformation about the President.
“That’s the most frustrating part: I listened to a number of different [media] sources,” Szynkowicz said.“When there’s misinformation, as far as you know, against the African-Americans…they’ve never done better in our history than under Trump. I mean their employment rates were up, the same thing with the Hispanics. He’s not derogatory to people of color and all this other stuff that everybody hears: look at his policies.”
When asked about President Trump’s record with the LGBTQ+ community, she staunchly insisted that she was pro-human rights for all, including the LGBTQ+ community.
“I don’t understand why it is separated between, gay rights and black rights and women’s rights,” Szynkowicz said. “We are all Americans. Gays deserve to have the same rights as married couples with spouses concerning social security, death benefits, being able to get, you know, medical conditions when their loved one is in the hospital.”
When asked about LGBTQ+ rights, Chafee explained he sees as LGBTQ+ rights as human rights.
“I think it’s fundamental human rights,” Chafee said. “People have a very basic human right of self expression and being themselves. I don’t think the government should be dictating morality or telling people how to live their lives as long as it’s not harming the community or themselves. I think everyone has a basic human right to be themselves.”
In stark contrast to Szynkowicz, Chafee took a decidedly anti-Trump stance, emphasizing that he does not agree with many of President Trump’s policies.
“I think that he’s probably the worst president in modern history,” Chafee said. “I think time and again, he has not risen to the challenge of the office. He’s shown a complete lack of leadership, empathy, and honesty.”
Katarina Grealish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.