Hello, Rep. Fleischmann, and welcome to Connecticut Local Politics. Most readers don't know very much about you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, and why you're running for Secretary of the State?
I was born and raised in the West Hartford neighborhoods that I’ve represented in the Connecticut General Assembly since 1995. I attended the West Hartford public schools from kindergarten through high school, swam on the Hall High swim team, and played a lead role in the school play – a Neil Simon comedy – my senior year. I earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Princeton and a master’s in U.S. history from Stanford, then returned home to Connecticut, where I’ve lived and worked ever since.
I am running for Secretary of the State because I am deeply concerned about the welfare of our democracy in Connecticut. No one has a greater ability to address the issues our democracy faces than the Secretary of the State – so it seems a natural place for me.
Since first winning a seat in the legislature, I have focused on the key questions facing our democracy: voter registration and participation, fair election procedures, and – most of all – campaign finance reform. In 1999 and 2000, I was put in charge of the House Democrats’ vote count for legislation establishing public financing of campaigns. In 1999, for the first time, a majority voted in favor of public financing. And, in 2000, also for the first time, both chambers passed the bill in concurrence. Governor Rowland vetoed that measure, for reasons which are now all too clear; I have been pushing for public financing ever since.
The Secretary of the State is Connecticut’s chief elections official. He or she oversees all campaign finance records, establishes guidelines for voting machines and administration of elections, and plays a key role in elections with disputed outcomes. Given all of the time I have put into such issues over the past 11 years, it seemed natural that, when Secretary Susan Bysiewicz decided to run for Governor, many friends and colleagues encouraged me to run. When I considered it, I realized that it was part of a natural progression for me. And it’s a pleasure for me to get to seek an office which, at its core, is about strengthening participatory democracy. I can think of few issues that are either more engaging or more important.
You mention on your website that one of your goals is to make Connecticut first in the nation in voter participation. How exactly do you plan to accomplish this?
The problems with voter participation in Connecticut have developed over decades, and no one will be able to fix them with a single, quick step. A complex problem like this will require an array of policy tools – and leaders who are committed to trying out new ideas. At the start of this campaign, my main ideas for increasing participation are:
1. Improving democracy education. I advocated for the civics education law which now requires all CT high school students to take one semester of civics. But that step is insufficient. I believe we need to have programs in the elementary schools – in fourth and fifth grade – that teach children about participatory democracy. I have introduced legislation to set up such a system, and will continue advocating for it in the years to come.
2. Increasing voter registration. Failure to register is the number one obstacle to voting. I have always supported Election Day registration (EDR), since it is the single most powerful way to increase both voter registration and voter participation. There are myriad other steps we can take to increase registration, but EDR is the first and most important.
3. Expanding outreach to communities that feel disenfranchised. In CT – as in every state – there are far too many communities where people feel that politics and government don’t really serve them. Most often these are urban communities with higher rates of poverty and lower rates of educational attainment. We cannot afford to have so many of our citizens disengaged from our democracy; such disengagement threatens the basic principal that all Americans have an equal voice in our system of government. As Secretary of the State, I would work to expand all types of outreach in such communities – through educational programs, community fairs, and collaborations with local, non-partisan groups.
4. Improving state compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Under NVRA, all public assistance offices are also voter registration sites. Voter registration rates at CT public assistance offices have been far too low over the past several years. As Secretary of the State, I will continue work that I began last year in conjunction with two non-profit pro-democracy groups and the Dept. of Social Services to strengthen Connecticut’s compliance, and increase voter registration and participation among low-income citizens.
People whom I have met along the campaign trail have suggested a range of interesting additional ideas. I think that we need to encourage all citizens to think about ways to increase participation. And, as Secretary of the State, I will take the time to listen, learn, and try out the ideas that offer the greatest promise.
One reason I often hear for people not voting is that some people feel that races in their district aren't competitive, and that the incumbents always win. In essence, they don't vote because they feel that nothing will change. Besides campaign finance reform, which you have advocated, how else could the Secretary of the State's office work to ensure that races are more competitive?
The disparity in campaign funds that incumbents and challengers raise is clearly one factor that makes races uncompetitive, but it's not the only one.
Connecticut's redistricting process has tended to create districts that are "safe" for incumbents -- meaning it's very difficult for challengers to win. We need to make improvements to the way we draw districts in Connecticut, so that the best interests of the voters are always the focus.
I am already talking with activists at the grassroots level to change and improve our redstricting process in time for the next census. As Secretary of the State, I will be a lead advocate for such reforms.
One of the functions of the Secretary of the State is to register and keep various records about businesses in the state. What would you do if elected to support the business community, especially in the wake of disappointing job growth statistics?
The Secretary of the State’s office, through its various business support divisions, can set a standard of excellence for all government agencies in assisting and supporting Connecticut businesses – large and small.
The Secretary of the State’s commercial recording division is where businesses go to register as corporations, and to modify such filings as necessary. Business people should be able to contact that division easily and get quick service. As Secretary of the State, I will work to ensure that this is a user-friendly and speedy process.
In addition, I will work to strengthen the connections between the Office of Secretary of the State, the Department of Economic and Community Development, Connecticut Innovations Inc., and the Connecticut Development Authority. For someone who incorporates a new business in our state, it should take just a single phone call or simple keystroke to connect to the state agency (or quasi-public agency) that can be of the greatest assistance.
Such linkages will make it easier for new businesses to receive the support they need. Given that small businesses are the engine of job growth, this represents a tangible way in which, as Secretary of the State, I will be able to work to improve Connecticut’s job growth and overall business climate.
There is a pretty crowded field of candidates right now for the Democratic nomination. Why do you feel that you will win this race? In what ways do you feel you stand out from the rest of the Democrats running?
I like all of the folks who are seeking the Democratic nomination, and enjoy seeing them on the campaign trail. I believe that the large field shows the strength of our party.
To be part of a large field is a familiar feeling for me. In 1994, I won a six-way primary on my way to first winning my seat in the legislature.
In this six-way race, I believe that my qualifications set me apart from the rest of the field:
§ In 2004, my job outside the legislature was to coordinate communications and outreach for a nationwide effort to increase voter registration among low-income Americans.
§ In 2004 and 2005, I was a leading advocate for the establishment of a voter verifiable paper trail for new voting machines. Working in conjunction with TrueVoteCT, this spring I helped enact the bill that now requires these auditable paper trails in Connecticut.
§ As I mentioned earlier, I have put countless hours into the fight for comprehensive campaign finance reform to take the big money out of state politics. As Secretary of the State, I will know how to administer a public financing system if we have one in place by 2007. And, if we don’t, I will dedicate time and resources to winning such a law.
In addition, the nuts and bolts of the campaign have been coming together in ways that give me confidence. Folks have been signing up in large numbers to help out with my campaign wherever I go. I am the only candidate who has already won endorsements from key labor unions. Despite the crowded field, I raised over $100,000 in my first quarter as a candidate. And friends from all over the state have volunteered to help organize support. In short, I think we have all the elements of a winning, broad-based, grassroots campaign.
Would you be willing to give up some or all of the money you've raised should a system for public financing of campaigns be in place for 2006? I realize this is unlikely.
If public financing were feasible for 2006, I would gladly return all contributions in excess of new, lower donation limits. I would then work to qualify for public financing under the new system, and run as a "citizens' election" candidate.
Such an approach would allow me and other candidates to focus more of our time and energies on the key issues, and less on fundraising. Given that our democracy is based upon the principle of "one person, one vote" -- and given how our current approach forces candidates to focus too much on people and groups that can make larger contributions -- I believe such an approach would be fundamentally more democratic than the current system.
I agree with most analysts who believe that, if the legislature acts soon -- which I strongly advocate -- public financing can be in place for the 2010 election cycle. It's theoretically possible that it could be in place for 2008, but virtually impossible for 2006 (because it will take a bit of time to build up the needed funding in the citizens' elections account).
Given this situation, it's my hope to win the 2006 election under whatever rules are in place, and then win reelection as a participant in a new public financing system.
As co-chairman of the Education Committee, you've been active in the lawsuit over No Child Left Behind. How do you respond to civil rights advocates who claim that attacking the law is setting back efforts at closing the achievement gap between minority and white students?
Folks criticizing Connecticut’s challenge to the No Child Left Behind statute (NCLB) on the basis of the achievement gap are just plain wrong. Connecticut has been working hard to close the gap between minority and white students with a multitude of smart, effective approaches: magnet schools, open choice programs, charter schools, rigorous tests and targeted assessments to track the progress of students who are not reaching key goals.
NCLB requires Connecticut to spend dollars the federal government has failed to provide on additional tests for all students in grades 3,5 and 7 that offer no demonstrable educational benefit. Our cities, towns and state government will, however, have to divert millions of dollars to pay for these tests – meaning such funds will not be available for the programs that we know are actually helping to close the achievement gap.
NCLB guaranteed that the federal government would cover the costs of all of its tests and other requirements. Congress has failed to fulfill that guarantee by providing insufficient funds – which means it is breaking the law.
Connecticut’s lawsuit will simply require the federal government either to meet its obligations or else release us from the costly, burdensome requirements of this poorly crafted law. And, when Connecticut prevails in this lawsuit, we will be able to dedicate more funds to the programs that provide the greatest benefits to all of Connecticut’s children – rich and poor, white and minority, rural, suburban and urban.
As The Hartford Courant put it in its recent lead editorial supporting the lawsuit (“Feds Should Pay Up for Tests,” August 26, 2005, page A10): “Connecticut is not being adequately reimbursed for having to expand its testing program, which is already among the toughest in the nation . . . Dumbing down tests, as some states have done to comply with the law, is not the way to close the achievement gap.”