by Kristina Vakhman
Central Connecticut State University welcomed a panel of politicians from various parts of the state to speak with the CCSU community, while eating platefuls of pizza.
The event, “Politicians, Pens and Pizza,” was held in Memorial Hall’s Connecticut Room last Wednesday.
Its invited board consisted of Hartford councilwoman and minority leader Wildaliz Bermudez, New Britain state Rep. Peter Tercyak, New Haven state Rep. Robyn Porter, state senator and deputy majority leader Gary Winfield and Katie Breslin, city council candidate for New Britain’s fifth ward at the time this article was written.
In addition to conversing with politicians, the occasion offered students voter registration forms, pens and envelopes to write Connecticut legislators with, all with the intention of encouraging participation in state affairs.
“It’s important for all of us to become more involved in politics, for us to ask our politicians what they can do to help us,” explained Dr. Louise Blakeney Williams, CCSU professor of history and the event’s moderator. “If we want politicians to help us, we have to help the politicians, so that’s sort of the idea behind today. For them to explain how they got to where they are, how you can get more involved in politics, and what they think we can do to help the state.”
Introductions started the event, with each politician giving a brief backstory of how they arrived at their position in the Connecticut legislature.
“Growing up in Hartford, I was one of those kids [whose] parents would always drag me to meetings with them, whether it was Board of [Education] meetings — you name it. So, that was my first glimpse into activism; through my parents,” Bermudez, the first to speak in this portion, said. “As a [college] student, I stayed engaged, whether it was on campus or issues that really I loved.”
Bermudez continued, recalling how the catalyst to her running for office was feeling that her voice was not being heard, regarding the development of a baseball stadium in Hartford.
Tercyak followed, looking back on how public universities used to be tuition-free and how, after that changed, students rallied together to prevent a tuition increase.
“Back in the olden days, when I went to college in Connecticut, a state school, we didn’t have tuition. We had fees. We walked around saying stuff like: ‘We’re paying for a radio station?’” Tercyak said. “I tell the story of being at the Capitol and having students lining the railing of every floor at the legislator office of the building, all the way around. If you looked out the window, there was a constant line of students. We didn’t raise tuition then.”
After the remaining three politicians presented their stories — each including the significance of how their and others’ involvement had brought profound change — the panel was asked what they saw as the biggest issues facing Connecticut and what solutions should be put into place.
“I think the biggest challenge is balancing budgets,” Porter said. “It’s about the money. It’s about making sure that it’s equitable and it’s fair and that everyone, regardless of your zip code or your ethnicity, has an opportunity to live, what we’ve coined, the ‘American Dream.’ Until we find a way to balance the budget…[without] hurting the very people who need the help the most, I think that’s the biggest challenge we have.”
Breslin agreed with Porter’s sentiment, and added that the decrease in Connecticut’s population is another major problem.
“There are a lot of us. If we can mobilize and stay involved, we can have a place at the table to make sure that the budget is going to fund the things that are important to us. We need young people to stay in Connecticut to make sure that Connecticut is the place we all want for our future,” Breslin said.
“Young people leaving the state is understandable,” Winfield said. “Connecticut is not an easy state to live in. It’s not easy to get around, it’s not easy to connect to jobs; it’s just not an easy state. If legislators are smart, they’ll have conversations with young people. We talk to people our age and then say that we don’t understand why young people do or don’t do certain things.”
On the topic of the budget, which he voted against, Winfield said: “It’s bipartisan. It’s historic in a way. I say it’s historic because we haven’t targeted poor people the way that we have in this budget. We’ve been seduced by bipartisanship. It being bipartisan doesn’t make it good. When you look at 10,000 people and [tell them] they don’t have access to their healthcare program, you can’t possibly call that good.”
When the panel was opened for questions by CCSU students and other attendees, each politician again stressed the seriousness of having everyone participate in one way or another to see change.
“Look for chances to be involved. We will change things by being involved and by making things our priority,” Tercyak explained. “It’s part of how you folks got into the mess you were in. Somebody who didn’t want to raise taxes had a good idea: ‘They can afford to pay a little bit for the university system.’ Then it grows, and their argument is: ‘It’s a bargain compared to Yale!’ Get involved. Make it easy.”
“Get ready to give suggestions and advice to us,” Porter told a student. “Only you can tell us what’s the best way for us to help you.”
At the end of the event, attendees informed The Recorder they were glad that they had come, finding the occasion informative in both the state of things in Connecticut and how to enact solutions to current problems. Octavia Galigher, a transfer pre-nursing junior, was one such attendee.
“I liked how they were able to talk to us,” Galigher said. “I didn’t know Connecticut passed the budget and the cuts to college — like, I just started here, so that’s a big issue for me. Cuts to health insurance are going to affect me as well.”