JT Lewis (R) is a 19-year-old from Newtown who recently began a campaign for Connecticut state senate in the 28th district, mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Tony Hwang (R). On Dec. 14, 2012, he lost his brother, Jesse, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now a rising sophomore majoring in political science at the University of Connecticut, Lewis hopes his campaign will bring change to the state.
Taylor Harton: I know you lost your little brother Jesse in the Sandy Hook shooting. What was your process for turning that grief into advocacy?
JT Lewis: A few weeks after the shooting, we were connected with Rwandan orphan genocide survivors. These are kids who lost their entire families, and they called on Skype and said, “You’ll be happy again.” That was a message that no one else could really convey to me and my family, because they had not been through something like that. But these kids had been through tragedies worse in scale than we had. I was then able to go back to school because I decided I wanted to raise money to send one of them to college. It turned into a much bigger organization- some big names came in and helped us. That is really how I got my voice- through raising money for people all around the world. More recently, my advocacy has been school safety, which started right after Parkland. I wanted to do something, and everyone just jumped on the gun control bandwagon. As noble as their cause is, I wanted to do something today that would stop the shooting tomorrow- and it was not gun control, it was not getting done fast enough for me. I started advocating for school safety measures like armed guards and mental health reform.
TH: You are going to be running against Tony Hwang (R) and he is in his third term representing the 28th District. What do you wish that he had done in the wake of Sandy Hook that you believe he fell short of?
JTL: Our leadership in general here in Connecticut has failed. And for me- running against Tony Hwang is an example of the failed leadership. Tony became 28th’s state senator in 2014, and my mom had a program called the ‘Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement.’ She called and asked Hwang to take a look at the program because Connecticut had just experienced a tragedy of that scale and it could have been prevented. He never returned the phone call. Leadership in Connecticut will not even return a phone call from a victim’s family who says they have a solution to the violence. Obviously Connecticut is in a crisis of its own debt-wise, but as a state that experienced a shooting like that, you would think we would become the nation’s example of how to prevent shootings like that immediately, but we did not. I just want strong leadership that can affect change.
TH: You are going to also be entering your second year at UConn. How do you plan to manage the demands of college and this campaign?
JTL: The state senate is a part-time job. I want to give college as much focus as possible of course, but as far as the campaign goes, I have announced over a year before the election, so I have given myself plenty of time to campaign and get around to my district and the state in general while focusing on school. If I win, I will pull back and go to UConn Waterbury during my term and I will take night classes. Not more than I can handle. But the overall message there is that state senators also have day jobs, and I will also have, in theory, a day job.
TH: I know you have met with former President Obama and President Trump. Can you tell me a little bit about what meeting with both of them was like? What common ground did you find with them? How did those meetings affect your advocacy efforts?
JTL: When we met them, we shared the story of my brother, Jesse, who saved nine classmates, and they both got emotional. That is the one thing I have ever seen connect these two totally polar opposite men- Jesse’s story of heroism. I realized that that story alone could connect two people on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum. As a state senator, I am going to use that story to bring us all together.
TH: Your school safety efforts started after the Parkland shooting. There are other advocates down in Florida such as Andrew Pollack, who lost Meadow Pollack and Ryan Petty, who lost Alaina Petty. How has interacting with them affected your goals, since you are all in this club that nobody wants to be in?
JTL: Andrew, Ryan, and also Max Schacter- all great guys. We all had been in touch, but we actually met at the release of the federal school safety report in December. After a shooting like that, everyone picks their own angle. They go down the road of gun control, mental health, or school safety measures. They have their own parties and beliefs, but we all want the same thing. We are going after it for a good-hearted reason. There is no reason to fight; we can come together and do something positive. That is how I look at it.
TH: Do you have a final message for your potential voters?
JTL: If you are voting for me, you are voting for strong leadership. The previous leadership in Connecticut has failed. They are not doing what Connecticut needs. I am not attacking any party or any person, but it is time for strong leadership and I think that I can bring that. Though at a young age, I have definitely had more experience in the political game than they have at a national level, and I think I can bring that experience to Connecticut.
Images provided by JT Lewis
Taylor Harton is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.