By Neil Thomas, MPP 2018
John Cassidy at The New Yorker called the October 9th town-hall debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump ‘the darkest and nastiest Presidential debate in modern history’. Trump was on the defensive after The Washington Post published footage of him ogling women and big-noting his sexual prowess. He accused Clinton of silencing victims of her husband’s alleged abuse, and threatened to jail her for using a private email server while she was Secretary of State.
It’s no wonder the PEW Research Center finds that 68 percent of voters believe the presidential campaign is too negative, and another 65 percent think the candidates aren’t focused on important policy debates. But state and local politicians control most of what people care about — roads, schools, police, property taxes. Campaigning door-to-door in their own towns, these legislators have little choice but to focus on what matters. The Citizen sat down with a candidate who’s raising the tone down the ballot.
Caroline Simmons is the State Representative for Connecticut’s 144th District, in Stamford. First elected in 2014, she worked at the Women’s Business Development Council and was previously at the Department of Homeland Security. She graduated from Harvard College in 2008. In an interview she discussed her drive, her strategies, her advice for aspiring officials, and why she wants her campaign to stay positive.
Q. Why did you go into state politics?
A. I grew up in a family where my Mom was a Democrat and my Dad was a Republican, and growing up at the dinner table they were always bickering about different policies. They would take us to political conventions and I always just thought it was so thrilling to try and make a difference in people’s lives. My parents spoke about the 1960s and how John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of Americans to give back to their country, and they urged me to do the same through public service.
9/11 had a big impact on me in high school and led me to a career in counterterrorism working for the federal government, but I felt an urge to go back home and do something local after the Newtown shooting in Connecticut [in 2012]. I was fed up with inaction in Washington and the fact that Congress couldn’t pass common sense gun safety legislation. It felt like the momentum was shifting towards the states. The Connecticut legislature that year passed a major gun safety bill, so I was inspired to work at the state level.
I went to the Women’s Campaign School at Yale and they really encouraged me to run early and often, because it can take one or two times for a woman to get elected. They really encouraged me to just go for it, and not wait until I was older and had more experience. So I gave it a shot!
Q. From your experience, what are some challenges that women face in state politics?
A. The first challenge I faced was that the man I was potentially running against in the primary was the same age as me, had the same amount of experience as me, but people were telling me to step back and wait my turn and encouraging him to run. So I think women are not necessarily being courted and encouraged to run as much as men are. We haven’t done a good job at filling higher roles in government with women. The average proportion of women in legislatures across the country is around 25 percent. To represent the voices of all people in this country, we need more women in office.
Q. Your re-election campaign relies heavily on canvassing, why is this?
A. First, face-to-face contact with voters is so important to understand what issues they care about, their emotions, their hopes, their challenges and their concerns. Second, a one-on-one connection is a really effective way to get your message across. Third, it’s a way to directly solve people’s problems — a lot of the issues I address are ones I’ve learned about through meeting voters, their kids, and their dogs! Canvassing is the sure-fire way to win local elections, where the districts are so small.
Q. National politics is very divisive at the moment, and your own opponent has started using negative tactics — how do you respond to negative campaigning against you?
A. I am not a fan of negative campaigning. I wanted to get involved in public service because there is such disillusionment with government, lack of faith in our institutions, and lack of trust in politicians. There is too much attacking each other rather than attacking the problems facing our country. So I’ve tried to lead positive, forward-thinking campaigns. But if an opponent is going negative and saying things that are untrue or attacking you personally or your family, then you have a right to respond. But I think it’s more important to articulate the contrast between you and your opponent on policy positions and voting records.
Q. What are your priorities for your district?
A. My top priorities are to support Stamford schools, small businesses and safety. I want to improve graduation rates, close the achievement gap and support students with special needs. I want to support job creation and grow the local economy. I want to increase pedestrian safety and reduce petty crime. I also want to make Stamford more affordable, as many people can’t afford to live here anymore.
Q. Do you have any advice for people interested in running for state office?
A. Work out why you want to run and what is driving you. Figure out what your passion is and what issues you care most about. Then think about where it makes the most sense for you to run — whether that’s where you’re from or a new community you’re living in where you feel you can make a difference. Then just get started. Put your name on the ballot, even if you think you haven’t got enough experience or won’t win. Even if you’re not putting your name on the ballot, run a campaign or volunteer for a campaign.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.