WATERBURY — James Russell was eight years old when state Sen. Joan Hartley was first elected to the state’s General Assembly.
Thirty-three years later, Russell, an Independent Party member with a Libertarian streak, is challenging Hartley, a veteran lawmaker known for her independence from the demands of her Democratic Party.
This is the second election contest between the two Waterbury residents in the 15th Senatorial District, which covers parts of Waterbury, Middlebury and Naugatuck. In 2016, Hartley took 82.1 percent of the vote to Russell’s 17.8 percent.
Russell, a 41-year-old driver for UPS, said he respects Hartley, but contends she has spent too much time in Hartford.
“I’m running because I feel the state needs a new course,” Russell said. “I feel the representative is disconnected.”
Russell accuses Hartley of not residing at the 3,250-square-foot house on Columbia Boulevard in Waterbury she’s long claimed as her home address, and rather at the 9,933-square-foot house in Middlebury she’s owned since 2005. The Middlebury assessor appraised that house’s 2016 market value at $1.1 million.
“Thirty-five years of living in a $2.5 million house, I’m sure there’s some disconnect there,” Russell said.
Hartley’s long tenure in the General Assembly and her Middlebury house have come up as lines of attack in prior elections, but haven’t gained much traction. Voters have consistently returned her to office by large margins.
Hartley is registered to vote at her Waterbury address, but could represent the district from either property. The 15th District was changed in 2012 so the boundary shoots to Upper Whittemore Road in Middlebury, where her property overlooks Lake Quassapaug.
For Hartley, her long service is no liability. Hartley, 68, said she’s shown that residents of the 15th District can depend on her to promote fiscal restraint, push business-friendly legislation and bring home large grants for important projects.
It was her legislation, Hartley said, that first brought a four-year nursing program to Waterbury’s branch campus of the University of Connecticut. Her fingerprints are on many of the multimillion grants brought to the city. Most recently she helped negotiate roughly $15.5 million in state bonding for the city to rebuild a portion of East Main Street, demolish an enormous derelict industrial building on Freight Street and to rehab a 40,000-square-foot downtown building.
“I have a very established track record,” Hartley said. “I’d love to talk to anyone, debate anyone, for the positions I have taken. They have borne real fruit for my constituents. There is no learning curve there. I can get it done quickly.”
Hartley said she worked to get independent reporting of the results of state economic development spending. Now, lawmakers get these reports from state auditors, rather than directly from the agency that ran the economic development programs in the first place.
“Now, we are going forth with what, I think, is clarified information,” Hartley said. “It helps us with where does the state want to invest.”
Hartley said she’s worked with state businesses and academics to promote investments in cyber security and biosciences. She’s also led the charge on a bill to streamline state permitting processes. She’s helped for a “blockchain” working group of experts to determine how the state could grow industry through this revolutionary new technological record-keeping system.
“We are in the process of putting together a legislative package which, we will, God willing if I’m there, offer through the Commerce Committee,” Hartley said.
Russell has had a bit of financial trouble in the past. In 2004, he declared bankruptcy for $137,455 in mortgage and consumer debts. Russell said he was in his mid-20s, working only part-time and suffered with a subprime mortgage.
“And it was I die or file,” Russell said. “So I picked file.”
Russell describes himself as a “hard core” Second Amendment advocate dedicated to the founding principles of the nation. He said he’ll put a stop to freewheeling spending at the state level and cut programs, although he can’t yet cite specifically what spending or programs he’d target.
“I’m a Constitutionalist,” Russell said. “All I want is liberty. I want rights to be given back to the people. I don’t know how to do that, but it needs to be done. Someone needs to go up to Hartford and open up Pandora’s Box and figure out what we can do.”