Race for 143rd District seat is a study in contrasts
Incumbent Republican Gail Lavielle and Democratic challenger Ted Hoffstatter are locked in a zealous race for the 143rd District seat in the General Assembly — a race that could prove to be closely contested.
The 143rd District seat, which includes parts of Wilton, Norwalk and Westport, is one that has changed party hands twice in the past four years — when Democrat Peggy Reeves defeated Republican Susan Bruschi in 2008, and Ms. Lavielle then unseated Ms. Reeves in 2010. Both elections were won by slim margins.
Along with the clash of political parties, the race in the 143rd District is most visibly marked by contrasting styles.
Mr. Hoffstatter, a lifelong Wiltonian, is a social studies teacher and former actor on Broadway and in television soap operas, who is serving his third term on the Board of Selectmen. Ms. Lavielle, a native of Houston, is also a member of the Wilton Board of Finance. She has a background in finance, marketing, and communications, including posts as chief executive of a subsidiary of the Interpublic Group and senior vice president of Suez Environment, the world's largest water and wastewater services company. She has also taught classes at the University of Connecticut.
Both candidates describe themselves as "fiscal conservatives," and both were endorsed by the Sierra Club in a rare cross-endorsement for both a Republican and Democrat in the same race. Mr. Hoffstatter actually spent the first part of his life as an active worker for the Wilton Republican Town Committee.
"Community participation is my blood," said Mr. Hoffstatter, who graduated from Wilton High School, where he played ice hockey. "My mother, Judy, was a member of the Republican Town Committee, and had me stuffing envelopes for them at a very young age. She also worked to save historic Old Town Hall, and was known as 'Joan of Arc' on this issue. She had me knocking on doors by the age of 12 for issues that affected local small businesses."
His mother and father, Ed, both still live in town, not far from where Mr. Hoffstatter lives, with his wife, Debra, and their two small children.
With politics as a recurrent theme in the Hoffstatter home, Mr. Hoffstatter remembers admiring "how former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill worked well with President Ronald Reagan, even though they were from different sides of the aisle. That was special, and I think we have lost that nowadays."
Should he be elected state representative, Mr. Hoffstatter, an alumnus of Eckerd College, said he hopes to "change the tone of political discourse and partisan divisiveness that marks many current political debates, so that both sides can work together in a constructive way." Mr. Hoffstatter also has a master's from Sacred Heart University.
When asked why he left the Republican Party to become a Democrat, he said it was out of concern "for environmental issues" and his disagreement with GOP "Latin American foreign policy."
But the top issue now is the economy, Mr. Hoffstatter said. "Connecticut has a budget problem. Connecticut has a spending problem. While serving on Wilton's Board of Selectmen for the past five years, I fought to create sustainable budgets that keep taxes in check yet while maintaining the services we all depend on ... I've yet to see a budget presented where I could not find places to cut responsibly." However, he added, "If Connecticut is to attract new businesses, create jobs, and keep our young people here, we do need to invest in research and development projects and infrastructure, and green energy, which is an investment in our future. Connecticut could be a leader in renewables."
On the Board of Selectmen, Mr. Hoffstatter spearheaded a reusable bag initiative that became an education campaign in town under the auspices of Wilton Go Green. This issue reflects his desire to "make Wilton a truly green town," he said.
He has also been an advocate for seniors to stay in town, and fought for "needs-based relief" for seniors on the Board of Selectmen, he said.
"A community needs continuity," he said. "We don't want to be a transient boarding school for families who simply leave when the kids go to college."
As a social studies teacher, educational issues have also been a priority he said. "Having taught in both Bridgeport and in Wilton, I know that none of us live in an educational vacuum ... I will support programs that build connections between students in Wilton and the outside world."
Mr. Hoffstatter has been endorsed by the Connecticut Education Association (CEA).
He also served on the Water Pollution Control Authority Board, the Wilton Library Board of Trustees, and as chair of the Democratic Town Committee. He has been the Democratic State Central Committee representative for the 26th District since 2008.
To Ms. Lavielle, the major issues facing the state are about jobs and the economy. "It's about people getting back to work and jobs they value," she said. "The job situation is not improving. And, after the largest tax increase in state history, people are paying way too much in taxes and not getting anything back. The transportation situation is not improving. People are frightened and worried, and feel we are not moving forward."
Ms. Lavielle said she decided to take on the challenge of running for a second term because "I am not finished ... there's way too much to do," she said.
In the legislature, she is a member of the General Assembly's Appropriations, Education, and Transportation committees. She also sits on the Higher Education Consolidation Committee and is a member of the Long Island Sound Caucus.
Ms. Lavielle said she led the House debate for the 2012 education reform bill, and introduced an amendment that called for mandate relief for high-performing school districts like Westport and Wilton.
She describes herself as an outspoken legislator, citing examples such as when she questioned the transparency of the process by which the final version of the 185-page education reform bill — with new language — was posted online just after midnight, and legislators had to vote on it that same day. "We were, quite literally, making laws in the dark," she said. "I read it as fast as I could in the time we had, and questioned the education co-chair extensively during the House debate that afternoon."
A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Lavielle also has a master's in French from Yale and a master's in finance from the University of Connecticut. A former music critic, she wrote reviews for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of a book about opera. She lives in Wilton with Jean-Pierre, her husband of 27 years.
In 2011, Ms. Lavielle received the Tip of the Cap award from the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, and she was also named a legislative champion by the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters in 2012.
A former member of the Connecticut Public Transportation Commission, she said improved rail service for commuters is a high priority.
"We need a high-speed rail system, and we need to fix the signal system," she said. "This is the busiest rail line in the country and we need to fix the infrastructure ... and not tax the commuters."
With her experience in the corporate world, Ms. Lavielle said she also knows "what is worrying small business owners. I know what it is like to run a business and lie awake worrying about the jobs and futures of your employees."
To Ms. Lavielle, who recently won a perfect score from the Connecticut Business Industry Association (CBIA), state Democratic leaders are "spending money they do not have ... They are violating the cardinal rule of every responsible household. They are in total denial, and the hole is getting too deep."
However, Ms. Lavielle said, "I'm not giving up ....This should be the best place in the country to live. So let's do it, let's get on with it."