New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart talks Trump, economic responsibility and her run for governor

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(Via Erin Stewart)

(Via Erin Stewart)

Campus correspondent Andrew Miano interviewed Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut Erin Stewart over the phone on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. Stewart, age 30, is currently serving her third term as mayor of New Britain. In the interview, she addressed the 2018 Election, spending cuts and her White House meeting with President Trump about inner-city aid. The full transcript of the interview follows.

Andrew Miano: If elected, you would be the youngest sitting governor and one of the youngest governors in our nation’s history. What do you say to someone who doubts your ability to govern the state due to your age and relative inexperience?

Erin Stewart: You know, listen, age, I think, is not a factor here. It’s about experience. I’ve spent the last five years as mayor of one of Connecticut’s larger cities. I’m mayor of a community of about 75,000 people. You know, I manage over 5,000 employees and a budget that’s about $250 million. We don’t have a weak mayor form of government here in New Britain. We also don’t have a town manager, I am it. So when you want to talk about experience or people who think there’s a relative lack of it, I ask them to think again and take a look at my record, my record of success with running one of Connecticut’s cities. While I think that being a millennial is certainly an intriguing factor this year, it’s certainly not the only factor of what makes me a unique candidate.

Miano: It is true that you have turned New Britain’s economy around and taken their bond rating up to A+, but in a crowded field of qualified Republican candidates, why are you the best person for the Party’s nomination?

Stewart: So I think when we think about what it’s going to take to bring our state back, you never hear anyone saying anything good about the state of Connecticut. You know, when you ask someone to say something good about the state, they look at you like you’ve got three heads. And you know, I think having a positive attitude is half the battle, and that’s what sets me apart from a lot of these other candidates. Everyone else is talking about doomsday – how Connecticut is doomed, how we’re failing. And you know, we know those things. But how ‘bout someone who brings a different perspective, someone who looks at things with a positive light?

I’m looking at this as an opportunity for a fresh start for our state. And we talk about how horrible the condition our state is in, well let’s look at it with a positive lens. I know that we are racing towards the future and that there’s a clear path forward, but we’ve got to look at it in a different light instead of portraying that doomsday scenario that everyone else is portraying. You know, I did that in the city of New Britain. I inherited a city that was in bad shape. There’s no doubt about that. But when I came in, I came in in 2013 and looked at things in a positive light and told everyone, hey, give me some time to do my job, to get the job done and we’re going to be on a very different path.

And the story that we tell today (is) very different than the story that we’ve been telling five years ago, and I’m going to translate that directly to state government. It’s one thing to go from being a legislator or perhaps a businessperson to the executive branch of government. It’s another thing to go from an executive branch of government to another executive branch position, and I think that’s where my talent is and my experience is and will prove my ability to change this state around.

Miano: You mentioned how you inherited New Britain in a bad financial state, and it’s fairly well known that Connecticut too is in a bad financial state. What is your plan to turn Connecticut’s economy around?

Stewart: So, I’m in the process of putting together a very detailed plan as we speak. We’re going to be unrolling that within the next couple of weeks, but there’s three main things that we need to do to fix our state. And there’s three very similar things that I did to fix the city of New Britain. One, you’ve got to grow the economy. You’ve got to create prosperity, you’ve got to maintain, but improve quality of life within that too. Quality of life is something that not very many candidates are speaking about either. That’s what everybody wants. Everybody wants to see a better quality of life in the state of Connecticut.

You’ve got to streamline government operations so that we can live within our means. And we’ve got to fix our long-term pension and retire healthcare obligations. Those are the facts, the things that absolutely need to happen. Connecticut is a great place to live, but we’re wedged between two incredible mega-cities – Boston and New York. And like you, I’m sure, I see many of my friends, they graduate college and they go to Boston or they go to New York. It becomes kind of depressing. We don’t see people staying in this state.

We’ve got to revitalize our economy through connectivity. We’ve got to talk about quality and affordable education. We’ve got to create innovation hubs. We have to make sure that we’re keeping future talent in the state of Connecticut. But then we have to talk about the other items as well, you know, whether we’re talking about housing or focus on small business – embracing qualities that allow businesses to thrive, not turn them away.

And a lot of that comes with digging down deep into the state budget. I always say that there’s two areas that need to be focused on; short-term problems and long-term problems. And you have to tackle both of these issues simultaneously and it’s going to take a large group of people. Like I said, a large group of people – this is a team effort. While I may be applying to be the captain of the team, it’s going to take a large group of people to be able to tackle those two items.

In the short-term, looking at the state budget and digging through it line-item by line-item, department by department, and getting rid of unnecessary waste and unnecessary spending. Consolidations will have to happen and we have to talk about things that we just can’t afford. When your expenses are more than your revenues, you’ve got a little bit of a problem there. But then you have to talk about the long-term stuff. Long-term is what I just talked about with looking towards the future, retaining talent in Connecticut, ensuring that we’re growing our economy and that our business and our tax policies reflect an opportunity for those things to happen.

Miano: So you mentioned going through the budget and cutting out things that are unnecessary. What would some of those things be? Could you elaborate on what you plan to slash?

Stewart: One thing everyone always talks about is the Department of Motor Vehicles. You know, what’s the need for having a DMV when we can offer these services in other areas and nobody really gets excited to have to go to DMV because of the long wait lines. All of these things can be automated, reducing that customer service burden, if you will, by looking at some better ways to offer services.

A lot of these things can be done online. And sometimes we’re often behind the eight ball when it comes to bringing services into the 21st century. You’ve got to look at systems and policies and implementation programs that can make this user-friendly, but also save us money on the back end of the budget. DMV’s just one, you know, there is an awful lot of consolidations that I think can be done by allowing… a lot of people talk about social services as another hot-button issue.

I’m on the board of directors for Community Mental Health Affiliates, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on mental health services in the central Connecticut area. This is an organization that is very good at what they do. When I look at the success rate that we have with treating patients and getting people into programs and services for the help that they need. When you look at, on the flip side, what the state tries to do with mental health and addiction services, I may be a little bit biased, but we do it better than the state does.

So why doesn’t the state just allow an organization to strive in what they specialize in. So I think that another area we can definitely focus on saving money in the state budget, by empowering our nonprofits to do what they do best, instead of thinking that the state can provide the resources imaginable. We have to admit that there are other people, professionals and not bureaucrats that can do it better.

Miano: In part of your platform you mention raising revenues without raising taxes. Could you explain to me how you plan on doing that?

Stewart: That just comes with business growth. You raise revenues without raising taxes by increasing and improving the environment for organic growth to happen. In the city of New Britain, I have consistently cut budgets, year after year after year, while also growing our revenue side by creating systems that allow our businesses to expand and allow new businesses to open up. I’ll give a unique little story, an example of what I did.

New Britain is very land-poor. We are 98 percent developed. Out of all of our developed property, 48 percent of it is not taxable. And that’s just because, you know, maybe a cemetery, a school, a hospital, something that falls underneath the state’s statutes for a non-taxable piece of property. Which makes it very difficult to provide for an entire city with only half the people that serve it paying taxes. You have to get creative when you want to build your economy. We decided that we were going to put a focus on our business community and partner with our chamber of commerce and build this little tool we called the economic development toolbox.

What we did was we went to all of our businesses, our larger employers, and basically went around to them and said hey, here’s every incentive that the city is going to be able to offer you as an incentive to stay here, to expand here and to employ our residents. And we need to look at using our Department of Economic Development in the state to do just that.

You’re always working on two ends when you’re talking about economic development. You’re either trying to retain or you’re trying to grow. And right now we’re in retention mode. We need to get into the mode of growing and sometimes that does mean that you have to provide incentives for businesses to make it palatable for them to stay here. You know, we’ve got all sorts of taxes. You’ve got to pay a tax for everything you want to do when you’re in business. Let’s talk about maybe a little innovative idea.

If you have a small business and your business is worth under one million dollars, you’ve got to collect the sales tax on all of your revenues and give that back to the state. Well why don’t we implement a program where out of the first $250,000 you do in sales per year, you get to keep five percent of that. Do you know how much a small gesture like that could do for a small business in our state? That could be the difference between hiring an additional employee or not. Something small like that, that’s where we need to get thinking.

I’ll say another thing that really frustrates me is that Connecticut is infamous for studying everything. We study the heck out of everything. And we study and we study and we study, but we never do anything. Like, we’re really good studiers, but then when it comes time to implementing, no one ever has the guts to implement what the studies suggest. So, I don’t think that solving our state’s crisis is not something that hasn’t been put to paper already. It’s going to take a leader who will actually do the job.

I say this, and I guess I’m not afraid to say it, but I don’t care about being in politics forever. I don’t want to be in politics forever. If I am so lucky enough to get this job, I am going to do my best, I’m going to fix our state and I don’t care if I’m a one-term governor because of it. I’m sure I’ll be able to go off and find another job. But at least I’ll be able to go to bed at night knowing that every move that I made was in the best interest of the state of Connecticut. And I’ve taken that with me as the mayor of the city of New Britain.

I did some really controversial things when I first became mayor in order to help the city survive. And I was very honest with people and forthright and said to them, listen, if you don’t want to vote for me again, I’m fine, but I know what I’m doing is right.

(Via Erin Stewart)

Miano: Shifting to education, given the vast funding cuts to UConn and the state university consolidation, what do you believe needs to be done to protect higher education in Connecticut?

Stewart: So, I’m a graduate of that system. I started off my college career at UConn, but transferred out to go to (Central Connecticut State University) because I got offered a job in New Britain and wanted to be closer to home. But you’ve got to talk about keeping education affordable first and foremost. And there’s two sides to every coin here and sometimes you have to make consolidations in order to continue to provide a service. But you also have to make sure that the students that you want to attend your university can afford to go there.

You know, we talk a lot about… there’s a lot of heated discussions that are happening right now that have to do with the CSU system and the cuts to UConn, and I don’t doubt that some of those cuts probably do need to be made, but it’s all about your delivery and your approach like phasing changes in. But you also have to make sure you’re keeping education affordable. Listen, I represent a community where my students that are graduating high school can’t afford to go to UConn without a scholarship. You know, they can’t afford to attend a state university because they’re coming from nothing, with no support system.

How are we ensuring that education is continuously affordable in the state? I mean, we’ve got how many universities just outside the CSU and UConn system? You know, you can talk about reducing non-teaching administrative staff, you can talk about increasing our partnerships with more high schools, moving more classes to online, but also one thing that I see is what we lack is the alignment of skills and workplace needs with our education programs that we offer. Doing things like that are going to hold the line on tuition increases because you have more students that are going to be able to be enrolling in the school itself.

Miano: I’d be remiss not to ask, but you were one of two mayors to meet with President Trump back in February to talk about Opportunity Zones. Do you have any idea why you were chosen? And did anyone at the White House bring up the governor’s race?

Stewart: So, I was one of two mayors that were chosen. I was invited on a Monday to go there for a Wednesday. It was myself and the Democratic mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. New Britain was chosen because we receive a substantial amount of federal dollars in what’s called Community Development Block Grant Funds, CDBG. It’s part of the Housing and Urban Development office. Every year we utilize those funds, they are aimed to benefit low to moderate income neighborhoods in implementing programs all aimed at increasing the quality of life in the neighborhoods that fall below the poverty line in certain Census tracts.

So long story short of it, New Britain, almost every Census tract in New Britain with the exception of two, would qualify to register under these upper community zone programs. It is very similar to the Promise Zone initiative that President Obama put forward, except the Promise Zone initiative was supposed to be funded with federal money and the Opportunity Zone program aims to be funded with private dollars and private investment.

So that is why I was ultimately asked to go and to provide my input on the program. I said that I didn’t think they would be inviting me back there anytime soon after I said what I needed to say to them. Because the way that the program was written would not benefit a city like New Britain in the way that I think they were intending it to. So I sat around a table and had to tell all of these people from the White House why it wouldn’t work for New Britain and how I felt that they could change the legislation so we could qualify. At the end of the day they did end up changing the regulations on it so that our city could apply for it and we just submitted that application not too long ago.

I didn’t go there with the intention of speaking about the governor’s race, I was actually told by one of the White House staff not to mention it at all because I wasn’t there to talk about it. But I don’t know if you saw the video when we walked into the White House and they were like, oh by the way, you’re going to have to talk to the President and kind of summarize what we talked about in the work group, and [Trump] made the comment about, “if you were governor, GE wouldn’t have left, would they.” I said, “No, sir they would have not.”

Then afterwards, once all the cameras left I said to him, did you know I was exploring a run for governor of the state of Connecticut and he looked at me and said, “no, I had no idea. Well, you got yourself a little sound bite then I guess.” So it was quite the experience. It’s an honor I’ve had the opportunity to meet two Presidents while I’ve been mayor. I met with President Obama in 2014 when he came to New Britain and that was an honor, and then to step foot in the White House and into the Oval Office was just a very humbling experience.

Miano: And finally, Governor Malloy recently laid out his vision for Connecticut in his state of the state address. What is your vision for the future of Connecticut?

Stewart: You know, I think that when he laid out his vision for the state he painted a much rosier picture than what our reality is. And he failed to mention much of what we are struggling with and grappling with on a daily basis.

However, my vision for the future of this state is a future that is prosperous. A future where people from our generation want to stay and can have access to good paying jobs and careers. A place where we want to raise our families and stay here. Connecticut is a beautiful state. My vision for the future of the state does not have to do with politics at all. I think that politics is what’s been bringing our state down for many years.

Unfortunately it’s the adults in the room and the decision makers that can’t get along and can’t come to any agreements. Unfortunately, that’s affecting the millions of residents that we have here. The future of our state is bright with the right person at the head of it. And I think it’s time for something different, and it’s time for a new generation of leadership to take over and to start implementing policies that are going to create the state of Connecticut that we want to live in.


Andrew Miano is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at andrew.miano@uconn.edu.

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