Wilton rep on leaving state office: 'I felt my old my old self coming back'

WILTON — Gail Lavielle did not step down from her position as state representative for the 143rd District because she is seeking higher office, or conversely because she feared not being reelected.

It was simply time. “I felt it was overdue,” she said.

If there had been any doubt in her mind, it would have been when she cleaned out her desk earlier this month. There was none.

“I was exhilarated,” she said. “It was very much the right time for me.”

Elected in November 2010, Lavielle began to see the handwriting on the wall near the end of her third term, the beginning of her fourth. “I felt 10 years was a good time,” she said. She will be succeeded by Democrat Stephanie Thomas come January.

For Lavielle, leaving state office was about getting her life back.

“It is consuming,” she said Dec. 11. “You have to do it more than full time. It cuts into your social time, your nights and weekends, particularly when you have a seat that’s not safe. I had to be very much in tune with people.”

“We didn’t entertain unless it was politics,” she said of herself and her husband Jean-Pierre. There were multiple events a night for a district that included parts of Wilton, Westport and Norwalk. If she wasn’t in session, she was writing about things she felt her constituents needed to know.

“One of the most important things in my life is classical music, and I didn’t get to play the piano or go to the opera,” she said. She also missed writing for pleasure as she had done in the past as a music critic.

After three terms she began to miss those things. “The more you miss them, the more difficult it is to focus,” she said.

When she finally made the decision and the end was in sight, “I felt my old self coming back,” she said.

Achievements and disappointments

When asked what she was most proud of from her time in office, she pointed to two things.

“Both were stopping something instead of making things happen,” she said. “One was noticing school regionalization was happening. I had been on the education committee long enough to notice things in the blink of an eye. I was the one who noticed it and brought it to the media and the education committee. I do know that’s something I did, with the help of many people along the way.”

The other occurred in 2015, when then-Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed a plan to create a statewide transit authority to oversee commercial development within a half-mile of train stations. Lavielle opposed it, writing it was “eminent domain” on steroids. At the time she said, “local residents (would) completely lose their voice in planning, zoning and development decisions for their towns.”

“Both were attentive to what our district was sensitive to,” she said.

In leaving a job, there is always the thought of “what could have been” as well.

One of the things on Lavielle’s list is that little has improved with the Danbury branch rail line.

“I felt like I was talking into an echo chamber,” she said, adding other towns on the line — Ridgefield Redding and Bethel — are not as concerned as Wilton, “and that’s a big problem.”

She is also upset to see that after 10 years, with the exception of a few small things and the 2017 Republican-initiated budget that was passed, very little has changed with Connecticut’s “huge” issues.

“We haven’t fixed the education achievement gap,” she said. “There are still some terrible districts. It’s not a question of money, there is something else going on.”

Exacerbating state finances, she said, are the approvals “of really outsized raises for state employees. The public sector government unions have a stranglehold over our state government.”

“When everyone was losing their jobs over the summer, they got $350 million in raises,” she said. “When one sector is getting all the fun and you have to pay for it and you’re not, that’s not fair. Every time state employees get a raise, private sector taxpayers pay for it.”

She is also disappointed in the animosity that surrounds politics. For the most part, everyone in Hartford “is pretty nice to each other. It’s out in public that happens. People are terrible to each other. This has got to go. People have forgotten their manners. The things they will hurl at each other in a campaign season. It’s terrible. ... They are not statesman-like.”

Hopes for the legislature

As a private citizen, Lavielle would like to see more emphasis on academics in schools, pointing out that “70 percent of people enrolling in community college are not up to the basics in reading and math.”

Given that COVID-19 has caused such disruptions to this and the previous school year, she believes the legislature should pass a law that would temporarily allow districts to move off the curriculum and focus on what students need to catch up on.

“If it means go more days, weekends, whatever they need. ... Forget special courses for a year. This is serious. ... Catch them up on foreign languages, on fundamental history, science. If they don’t get these things they can’t function in further learning.”

She would also like to see the police accountability bill get more attention. She said she did not vote for it because “there is a specific lack of concern for a victim of crime. That’s got to be fixed.”

She is intrigued by the federal grant WestCOG received recently that will look at ways of funding improvements to the Danbury branch line as well.

“That’s never happened before. We’ve never studied how to get the money,” she said. “The one thing I would say is people should take it seriously and at same time, it’s time to reassess.”

With workplace changes, there may be more commuting within Connecticut rather than simply into Manhattan.

With the 2020 census, legislative districts will be looked at, and over the past 10 years the divergence of interests of Wilton, Westport and Norwalk “has grown dramatically. Wilton’s been kind of gutted and split apart. I think Wilton’s interests have to be addressed,” she said.

She also hopes people recognize that zoning is “a real thing that divides urban and suburban districts and legislators in the state.” There are several bills expected to be introduced during the next session that will seek to increase the stock of affordable housing, particularly in the suburbs.

“I’m puzzled by it because the big draw to Connecticut and the suburbs comes from the fact people like small-town communities and self-determination. How will we govern ourselves, how will towns look? That’s why people like Connecticut,” she said.

The future

What’s next for Lavielle?

“Certainly not running for office,” she said. She’s not looking for a full-time job, but she’s not planning to retire, either.

She wants to bring music back to her life in a big way. Being dedicated to Baroque music, she is enrolled in courses to learn, among other things, how to do Baroque improvisation in order to play chamber music. Being accomplished in the piano, she would like to get a harpsichord.

“One goal is to be able to play chamber music decently from the end of 17th to the late 18th century. That is something that will happen,” she said.

She’s also interested in getting back into critical writing: Classical music, opera, art exhibitions, books, certain films, legitimate theater.

Before moving to Wilton, the Lavielles lived for years in France, where they both worked. She became a citizen of that country in 1991.