WATERBURY — A UPS driver who claims to have the pulse of the people is challenging a longtime legislator in a bid for the 15th District state Senate seat.
Independent James Russell will square off against Democrat Joan Hartley for the chance to represent the people of parts of Waterbury, Middlebury and Naugatuck.
Russell, 38, said he doesn’t have an agenda, other than to follow the will of the people. He said he has been a politically-active member of the Independent party for eight years and ran in an unsuccessful bid for Board of Education.
Russell said Hartley, like most politicians in Hartford, is disconnected from ordinary people.
“I’m the one who has drug deals in front of my house every day,” Russell said. “She goes home to Middlebury, doesn’t even know what’s going on in Waterbury.”
Hartley, 66, said her home in Waterbury was under construction for a while because of a water problem, but that renovation is now complete and she now has taken her Waterbury address as her primary residence.
Despite Russell’s accusations that Hartley really lives in her Middlebury home, she said she’s connected to Waterbury.
“I know this district. I have lived here forever. I have raised my children here. It is the core of my existence,” Hartley said.
She said she’s a member of virtually every community club in city and worked to get Starbucks into the first floor of the new University of Connecticut building in Waterbury.
She said she’s working with the university’s Waterbury campus to rebrand it as an engineering powerhouse and worked with Naugatuck Valley Community College to launch a degree in cyber security and match students up with internships in the area. She said she’s in discussions with Chemtura about their shortage of chemical techs to support engineers and is setting up meetings with the community college to create programs to fill the demand.
“It’s about building our talent pool,” Hartley said. “I think it’s about knowing how to get things done and getting them done. It’s about ensuring that our educational offerings meet the needs of our employers. It’s about putting employers and growing our job opportunities on a local and statewide basis.”
Hartley was first elected to the Senate in 2001 and has held the seat since. She is currently deputy president pro tempore.
In her next term, Hartley hopes to identify more job opportunities in Greater Waterbury, work with educational institutions to ensure they are building the skills needed to meet the demands of Connecticut employers. She also wants to shore up the state’s spending cap process.
“Joan V. Hartley has been in office for 30 years … and we’re no more better off than we’ve ever been,” Russell said.
Russell has a lot of passion, but few specific ideas on how to fix the state’s problems. Although he’s familiar with the many shortcomings in the state — high taxes, government overspending, loss of jobs — he said he’ll start finding solutions once he gets his hands on the “treasure trove” of information legislators have hidden from the people.
“My priories would be the people’s priorities. My big agenda would be, I would be the people’s voice, a true outsider,” Russell said.
Russell said not being a politician is one of his top qualifications.
“I don’t want to make a career out of it. I want to do my two years and I want to be out. I want to be a surrogate of the people. I want to be a servant.”
He touts his work ethic, pulling down 12-hour shifts and delivering packages despite a cut gushing blood from his arm. As a UPS driver, he said he hears the concerns of working-class people and has watched manufacturers close all over the state.
Russell filed for bankruptcy in 2004, shortly after he bought a house.
“I was just working three hours a day part-time and it wasn’t working out for me,” Russell said.
He said he’s since gotten his finances in better order.
“Now I’m back and running better than ever,” Russell said.
He said he doesn’t plan on spending taxpayer’s money.
“I’ll handle their money better than the people who’ve been running it the last 30 years,” Russell said. “We’re out there just throwing money away to get things done and nobody’s watching the house.”
He said he’ll get rid of the income tax, reduce regulations, get rid of mandates, and say no to spending.
“There’s nobody there saying no to anything anymore,” Russell said. “Once we start doing that, I think jobs will start coming back to the state.”
Hartley said her record speaks for itself. Before getting into politics, she taught in the public school system and worked as a manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield.
She styled herself as a strong, consistent fiscal conservative.
Hartley rattled off a laundry list of accomplishments in her last term and future legislative ambitions.
As chair of the commerce committee, Hartley said she was able to change some regulatory requirements so manufacturers no longer have to report minor spills of things like Coca Cola.
She said she helped inaugurate an expedited permitting process for bioscience companies and brought together CEOs from hospitals, financial institutions and the IT industry and insurance companies to work on common problems using data.
Russell said he was opposed to the deal the legislature approved last week to give Sikorsky Aircraft $220 million in grants and exemptions.
“We shouldn’t have to bribe a business to stay in this state,” Russell said.
Hartley said she supported that deal because it will almost double the amount of money that goes into the supply chain, supporting small local manufacturers that supply parts to the big aircraft maker.
“This was crucial to them,” Hartley said. “Every dollar that the state invested, they were investing almost $100.”