Are you ready? If you’re reading this, I have a special request. On the count of three, I want to hear three cheers for Martin Looney and Josh Elliott. One...two...Who?
If you had that reaction, you’re not alone. Most politically engaged Americans -- and even those who generally don’t care for the civic arena -- could likely name their U.S. senators and Congressional representatives. It’s probable they could name their Governor as well. But state legislators too often fly under the radar of public consciousness.
We tend to gloss over lower-level offcials in our imagination of the political world, and even ridicule them for their perceived insignifcance. On The Office, one fictitious legislator in the Pennsylvania Senate is belittlingly referred to as “the state senator,” as though being a state (as opposed to a federal) senator were a mark of inferiority or irrelevance. Perhaps the belittlers could have learned from sister show Parks and Recreation, centered around the passion and dedication of local public servant, Leslie Knope.
While the infuence of State Senator Martin Looney (New Haven/Hamden) is obviously more limited than that of U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, his work may more profoundly affect the day-to-day lives of Connecticut residents, and he is an indefatigable force for good. In the early 1980s, Senator Looney sponsored the legislation that incentivized employers to create onsite daycare for workers’ young children. A decade later, he ensured the passage of Connecticut’s assault weapons ban. And in May of last year, he led the successful effort to pass the Time’s Up Act, a rigorous statewide crackdown on sexual misconduct, in response to the #MeToo movement. I keep up correspondence with Craig O’Connell, my frst-grade teacher and a fellow Hamden resident, who tells me, “Martin is a hard-working, intelligent, articulate progressive representative...an exceptional human being...and we, in Hamden, are fortunate to have him.”
This past fall, as part of the coursework for Twenty-First Century Democracy, I had the pleasure of working on the re-election campaign of Josh Elliott, my Hamden state representative. In 2016, Elliott, inspired by Bernie Sanders’ progressive campaign for the presidency and backed by the pro-Bernie organization, Our Revolution, challenged an establishment-backed candidate for the General Assembly seat, and rode to victory in the primary and the general. When we met, we immediately bonded over our shared love of Senator Sanders.
On the October afternoon when I spent hours knocking doors with Elliott in Spring Glen, he told me that, although his victory in safely blue Hamden was a foregone conclusion, he was actually glad that he had a challenger. “They absolutely should run someone against me,” he said. “It’s not right if I don’t have any competition...I wouldn’t have much incentive to go out and make personal connections with voters, would I?”
I’ve observed many politicians who pretend to care about the human beings who vote for them, but from my experience as a constituent of Representative Elliott and Senator Looney, they truly think that their purpose as representatives of the people is to look out for them. It is possible to engage with genuinely good politicians, and they’re right here in our backyards.
Those of us who devotedly follow national politics might carry a crushing sense of cynicism after the past several years. Everybody has something to be weary or angry about. A great deal of our national discourse has become confrontational, aggressive, and hostile. It is easy to dismiss politicians as corrupt, out of touch, or coarse. There are, without a doubt, federal politicians with hearts of gold and local politicians who couldn’t care less for their constituents. But I wonder whether the more focused and intimate nature of local campaigns—fewer online broadsides, more knocking on doors—helps them to rise above the manic climate. Their work is more important than the overwhelming outrages that too often consume us.