Economy Dominates Discussion In 89th District Campaign

A lot has changed in national politics since 2012, the year Lezlye Zupkus first flipped the 89th House District from Democrat Vickie Orsini Nardello.

Since that first victory, Zupkus, a Republican, has won her subsequent races by comfortable margins, including running unopposed in 2016. After the 2020 redistricting, the 89th now encompasses small sections of Cheshire and Waterbury along with parts of Bethany and Prospect, where both Zupkus and her Democratic challenger Kevin O’Leary have their homes.

Zupkus is aware that keeping her seat and earning votes is not a given, but thinks her record shows that she can be trusted with the responsibility. She voted on all 265 pieces of legislation presented during the 2022 Legislative Session, something only about 40% of legislators can claim. “We owe it to our constituents (to show up in Hartford),” she says, “because they depend on us to be there for them.”

O’Leary is no stranger to political challenges. In 2021, he entered the Prospect mayoral race, taking on incumbent Robert Chatfield who was seeking his 23rd consecutive term in office. Although O’Leary failed to unseat the longtime Republican office-holder, he points out that it was one of the Democrats’ best showings in years in conservative-leaning Prospect.

As a family law attorney and partner at a New Haven firm, O’Leary sees plenty of the bitter conflict that characterizes many divorce proceedings. His campaign, by contrast, seeks “common sense, practical” solutions that reflect the District’s demographics.

O’Leary has some political experience earned by serving on the Prospect Town Council and its Inland Wetlands Commission. A husband, and a father of a young daughter, he also serves as Chair of the Prospect Democratic Town Committee. The top political concern of his campaign is a lack of funding for local emergency services, like police and volunteer fire departments.

“The state budget needs to prioritize allocation of funds to smaller towns to hire additional law enforcement officers and increase implementation of community policing initiatives to combat crime,” O’Leary stated. He adds, “The state should be stepping up and funding these initiatives. In Prospect, we have the issue where we don’t know if the volunteer fire department is going to be able afford a new truck. We’re buying second-hand, and it’s still expensive. The state needs to be doing more to help smaller towns get their share of the budget.”

Zupkus shares the concern that the lack of resources, for police especially, is contributing to rising crime rates in the state. Zupkus also sees the state making it difficult for police to do their jobs, pointing to the 2020 Police Accountability Act, which she opposed. “I’m hearing from police officers who are retiring, asking, ‘Why should I put my life on the line? It’s not good for public safety in our state.’”

Speaking on recent events, such as the killings of two officers in Bristol, as well as gun violence in Hartford and Waterbury, Zupkus says, “(Democrats) are putting criminals’ rights over victims’ rights. (Police) know who the 10 to 11 kids are who are doing these things but their hands are tied and they can’t hold them accountable.”

At the heart of her platform is a focus on the family. “If you peel back the onion, in a lot of these juvenile crime cases, there’s a lack of a family unit. We should be building up the family unit,” says Zupkus. She raises a concern with recent legislation that allows minors to seek mental health care without informing their parents. “Parents need to be involved in raising their children and in charge of their children,” argues Zupkus. “You have to have parental consent to get a tattoo but not for mental health treatment? The state should not be getting in the way of the children and the parents and the family unit.”

O’Leary first became interested in working on environmental issues, like global climate change, back in law school. Now, his focus is more local. “Around 70% of town land is owned by the water companies. When they want to sell it off, by statute they should offer it to the town first, but the town can’t afford it,” he said.

O’Leary would like to see more grant opportunities coming from Hartford so that smaller towns can invest in keeping open space and “revitalizing” it for recreation, as Cheshire was able to do with the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, he says.

On environmental issues, such as Hartford’s clean school bus mandate, Zupkus questions the math, not the intent. “Aren’t we all for Mother Nature and the environment? But how are towns going to pay for electric buses? I’m for green energy but we need all kinds of energy.”

Electric cars, she points out, are expensive to purchase but there are other costs too. She asks, “How are you going to pay for the electricity for electric cars? Everybody wants to feel good but we need to see how it’s going to work.”

Economic issues that affect voters are of heightened importance to Zupkus.

“We need to make Connecticut affordable for people to live, work and retire here. Lower the gas tax, stop trying to take every penny out of our citizens’ pockets through fees and taxes. People cannot afford to put food on their tables, fill their cars with gas, heat their homes and live a comfortable life in our state,” according to Zupkus.

O’Leary contends that, if Democratic Governor Ned Lamont should win another term, it would be beneficial to have a Democratic Representative to work with the executive in securing money for towns and other initiatives. O’Leary advocates for a greater degree of local control over finances, schools, and planning decisions.

“State budgets must prioritize the needs of the towns and ensure fair allocation to the smaller towns to ensure public services are being maintained without the need to increase local taxes and mill rates,” he states.

Zupkus is also in favor of greater autonomy for local governments but adds, “Parents should absolutely be involved in what their kids are learning in school, and any medical or mental health decisions.”

“We need to build our families, not have government get in between them.”

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