Democrat J. Colin Heffernan is running against incumbent State Rep. Devin Carney, a Republican, for the 23rd District seat, representing Old Saybrook, Westbrook, Lyme and Old Lyme.
Heffernan is a general practice attorney with Heffernan Legal Group. He grew up summering in Old Saybrook and moved to town full-time in 2008 after graduating from Tulane Law School. He serves as chair of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission and the town Aquifer Protection Commission and previously served on the Zoning Commission. He and his partner, Victoria, have three children — Casey, Meriel and Colin James.
In an interview with CT Examiner, Heffernan spoke about the state’s transition toward green energy and the need to help less wealthy residents with increasing energy costs. He said that that all residents need to have access to affordable, worry-free health care in order to be productive citizens in the state economy.
He said that Carney had voted far to the right on a number of issues, which was out of alignment with the district. Heffernan emphasized the need for the state to to act as a bulwark in defending its citizens’ beliefs on abortion rights and gun control, especially against the changes brought by a conservative federal court.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are the main points of your platform? What do you want to accomplish in Hartford?
HEFFERNAN: I want to apply the skills of identifying problems and finding solutions, which I’ve honed as a private practice attorney, at the legislative level. That involves answering both short term needs and long term solutions. A good example particularly important for our district would be sea-level rise and coastal erosion. We have places that used to rarely flood that now flood frequently, so we need to address the short term issue of how we get the resources to address that problem while at the same time recognizing the long term solution, addressing things like climate change and overall sea level rise — so there is that dichotomy.
Inflation and fuel prices – short term we have people in our community facing real problems at the gas pump and worrying about home heating oil in the future. The long term need is how do we change our views on fossil fuel transportation, so that we are less likely to suffer those consequences?
Another thing that I’ve looked at is how our country is moving on a national level – decisions that are coming out in terms of abortion rights and reproductive freedom, as well as gun control coming from the state, the federal government and from our judiciary — and seeing a lot of things that are just not in line with what I know our community to represent.
I don’t think that our community represents a place where abortion can be outlawed. I don’t think that our community would support the gutting of gun control laws. I think that we need to recognize that our state government needs to be a bulwark against that. We need to be able to stand up for our state’s beliefs in what our rights and our freedoms are, and to stand up against the national view that’s pushing us in directions that don’t line up with what we need here in the state.
CTEx: What sets you apart from your opponent?
HEFFERNAN: Look, Devin has been a state legislator now for eight years — and a voting record for a legislator is a bit like a batting average — it tells you the truth as to what a person’s positions are.
Lately we see that Devin Carney voted against the reproductive rights bill this term. He voted against fixing loopholes in our red flag gun laws in 2019. He voted against a budget that cut taxes, provided for better funding for mental health and provided for fiscal oversight for our government. He voted against adult use cannabis. He voted against the Connecticut Clean Air Act.
You take a look at the voting record of what Devin’s done and it doesn’t line up with the market of being a centrist representative of the district — these votes are kind of far to the right, especially on some of the big issues that have come out lately, like abortion rights and gun control.
I don’t know if that matches up to what our district is. I think that’s the difference between Devin and I – his voting record versus where I stand. I can certainly say I’m always going to vote for abortion rights in our state and I’m going to stand up for women’s health and for reproductive rights and freedoms. I’m going to be for allowing our state to decide what our gun control future is.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in today’s Democratic party?
HEFFERNAN: I see myself probably as a centrist Democrat, firmly Democrat on the liberal side of things, but to the centrist degree. We need to bridge some gaps that we have ideologically amongst each other and also to recognize that we are, as a group, politically more united than we are divided — and that seems kind of counterintuitive in today’s environment. We think of ourselves as very polarized, everyone in their bubble — but when I go to the grocery store or the transfer station, or a concert on the green, I’m not in my bubble, and I’m not agitated at my neighbors. There are common ground solutions that get us to what we all want — largely things like safe schools for our kids, a healthy environment and an economy that allows us to raise families here, retire here and live here no matter what our chosen walk of life is.
CTEx: What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents? Is there a state level response on inflation for CT residents?
HEFFERNAN: There should absolutely be a state level response for inflation in terms of trying to find ways to help people save money where they can in this immediate crisis where wages have not risen as fast as costs. At the same time, we need to take a look at macro causes especially with regard to things like fuel prices and what is causing us to have these vulnerabilities in supply and demand.
I think that there’s a role for the state on both of those. Unfortunately, we find ourselves being caught a little flat footed as to what exactly that response is to look like. We really need to recognize that these sorts of booms and bust cycles of inflation happen and probably are going to happen more, so we need to start thinking ahead of time when we’re flush with cash and when fuel prices are low and the market’s up — we need to start thinking about that rainy day.
CTEx: What do you see as the state’s role in providing housing?
HEFFERNAN: The affordable housing issue is a problem — and it is a problem in our district, and there really isn’t a great solution to it. We’ve tried 8-30g for a long time and we’ve met with some successes but also a lot of controversy. It hasn’t been a great solution to a tricky problem.
We need to figure out what we’re going to do about it because it’s not going away. It’s like climate change, it’s like coastal erosion, it’s not going anywhere. We have to find a way where we can have a community where everyone can live here and work here to make it a whole community.
I think the state does need to be involved in fixing that — I don’t know necessarily what that looks like. We’ve tried a bunch of different models and we need to keep exploring to see what’s going to work — what’s going to get buy-in both from property owners and the community so that we can all reach this goal.
CTEx: Are you satisfied with the state’s balancing of energy goals with the costs of electricity and gasoline?
HEFFERNAN: I don’t think you should ever really be satisfied about that sort of thing, especially not where we are now. But we now have a transitional period where, again, we’re looking for an answer and we’re looking for a way to solve the short term crisis, which is that the vast majority of people in this state are not going to be able to afford electric cars and geothermal heating units. As promising as the goal of having a future in sustainable energy is — and that is a lofty goal, and that is where our direction should be — we shouldn’t at the same time ignore the people who aren’t able to get there yet and who are still going to be dependent upon legacy systems as we move forward. So, while we have our eye on that future, at the same time we need to be looking at how we can help lift up people who are going to be transitioning out of that phase maybe a little slower than other people.
CTEx: Is the police accountability legislation effective? Are there modifications that need to be made?
HEFFERNAN: I think there’s always modifications that need to be made, but I do think that it is a step in the right direction. We need to come to an understanding that the police forces that we have are necessary, they’re part of our community, a central part of our fabric, but historically, on a statewide level, they’ve not served every community. A person in one part of town who’s part of a certain demographic, or who’s a Black and Brown person, may view the police very differently than somebody else in another part of town and that’s certainly true on a statewide level in terms of urban centers versus suburban centers.
Within every town, the view of what kind of police reform we need is going to vary by the individual experience and I think we need to listen to all those voices — and again, I think this is another area where we’re not as far apart as the narratives that get driven might lead us to believe.
CTEx: What are your key goals and priorities for improving educational outcomes for Connecticut students?
HEFFERNAN: It’s not a surprise to anybody in Connecticut that we have a tremendous education gap. We know the difference between our wealthiest school districts and our most economically disadvantaged school districts. That doesn’t mean, however, that just throwing money at all the problems is the answer.
Education and kids — it’s a mosaic — a lot of parts go into producing a student who’s going to be ready for the real world. When you talk about what you want to do to fix education, that spans everything from pre K to senior high school — that’s a lot of time and there’s a lot of different parts that go into that equation.
One of the things that we need to do when looking at educational solutions is providing resources to the parents and to the teachers that they need — everything from nutrition to mental health counseling to appropriate career guidance. It can’t just be test scores, and it can’t just be a dollar assigned to a student because that’s only a small part of what the answer is.
CTEx: What are your priorities for improving healthcare for CT residents?
HEFFERNAN: That is a tricky question in Connecticut. If you take a look at what our palliative care plans are, independent of employer health care, you’re looking at a lot of very expensive premiums along with a tremendous deductible. And that’s a real problem. How much money are we going to take out of somebody’s paycheck and say that it’s healthcare, and then expect them to go on and have the sort of individual freedoms that they need to to be thriving citizens if someone has to worry about losing a job or losing their health care if they leave their job? How do we expect them to be entrepreneurs? How are we going to get that sort of spirit going?
We need to make sure that the basic health needs of our people are met, so that they can go out and be fully productive. We all need access to regular primary care, access to wellness, access to doctors that we can go to see when we’re sick. We don’t have that in all of our communities, or sometimes it’s prohibitively expensive or it’s tied to employment in such a way that it can be restrictive.
That is a bit of sand in the gears as to what we need to do to have people feeling fully engaged in their community and in their economy. If they’re worried about losing their health care and they’re worried about going bankrupt because of health care choices, then that can be really prohibitive on their ability to reach their full potential.
CTEx: Is the marijuana bill adequate as it’s written?
HEFFERNAN: I do support the bill — cannabis is a good thing both for the state in terms of its balance sheet as well as for the people in the state. I don’t think that marijuana is any more harmful than something like alcohol. In fact, a lot of studies out there show that it’s less and I think that is a choice that people in Connecticut should be allowed to have.
The social equity parts of the bill — there’s no way that one bill, especially a cannabis bill, is going to fix all of the problems that the war on drugs brought to Black and Brown people in Connecticut. However, recognizing that when you pass a cannabis bill, you need to address that problem, is a really good step in the right direction.
There are obviously going to be hiccups and problems with the implementation of that goal because it is a grand experiment to create a new product line that has previously been subjected to some really draconian laws. It’s been two years now and we haven’t even had retail stores opening yet. We’ve had problems trying to find what exactly social equity partners means and who gets to decide that. And, we haven’t fully funded the social equity divisions of the Department of Consumer Protection to get that system going. I think that you can’t just have a bill and then say, well, it’s passed and that’s it — you have to tweak and adjust the bill to fit the reality when you start to try to implement.
CTEx: Any final thoughts?
HEFFERNAN: A couple of things. One is that the solutions to our problems are more important than any sort of ideology. Ideology isn’t useful if it doesn’t result in a better outcome for the constituents, so you have to be able to blend those two things and that’s kind of a central focus of what I want to bring to the statehouse up in Hartford.
The other thing that I do want to emphasize — because I think it is tremendously important for every race that’s going on out there — is that if you take a look at where our court is going and where our national politics are going, it is more and more incumbent on the state legislature to be protective of what we value in Connecticut because it’s going to get steered and shifted away by national forces that we don’t want to affect and to take our rights away here in Connecticut.
So we need to be really vigilant about what kind of message we send out to Hartford because ultimately, Hartford is going to protect us more than the federal government does. While I think that our Connecticut representatives are doing a great job in Washington, we need to be vigilant about who we send to the statehouse.
Editor’s Note: Heffernan said Carney voted against “adult use” cannabis not “don’t use” cannabis, and his middle child’s name is Meriel, not Mario. This story has been corrected.
Cate Hewitt is a reporter and Associate Editor for CT Examiner. Hewitt covers planning and zoning issues.