— Emilia Otte, 9.4.2022
Democrat John-Michael Parker is running for re-election for the state House of Representatives for the 101st district of Madison and Durham against Republican challenger John Rasimas.
Parker has a degree in biology from Yale University. He worked at an education-focused non-profit in New York City, where he lived for a decade, and is currently the executive director of Arts for Learning Connecticut, which connects artists with schools across the state to offer performances and classes. Parker also served as frontman and bandleader for Great Caesar, a New York City-based band.
He was first elected in 2020, defeating Republican incumbent Noreen Kokoruda with 54 percent of the vote. In 2018, he ran against Kokoruda and narrowly lost with 49.9 percent of the vote. He is on the Education Committee, the Environment Committee and the Public Health Committee.
Parker talked with CT Examiner about the importance of caring for the environment in light of rising sea-levels that could affect Connecticut’s shoreline, the need for a funding formula that allows for quality education in both urban and suburban districts, and his work on programs to help people and communities struggling with opioid addiction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are your central priorities if you are elected to the state legislature?
Parker: Making sure that Madison and Durham are benefiting, despite this moment of inflation and financial challenges, from some of the real growth and strength that we saw in the statewide budget. Having put away billions of dollars into the rainy day fund and the pension payments and greater investments in the community, we worked hard to make sure that Madison and Durham saw a lot of that money — over $5 million between the two towns in a number of bonding projects and other initiatives.
[Keeping that up] will be a main priority going forward because in the past Madison and Durham hadn’t seen those levels of investment in our towns.
The biggest thing that we’re focusing on right now is affordability, especially in the context of inflation —- really doing what we can to support the cost of living.
A lot of it is outside of our control. A lot of it is in a national context, in an international context. But passing policies that make life affordable for seniors, phasing out taxes on retirement income, the child tax credit, things for working families and growing families — I’d say those economic issues are probably top of mind.
Maintaining an interest in our environment and focusing on conservation — we did some great work this year with the Connecticut Clean Air Act with adopting carbon neutral targets. Thinking about coastal resilience — especially [for] Madison — those problems are still going to be an issue for us going forward.
Thinking a lot about healthcare — the cost and accessibility — trying to make it more affordable, especially for people that might not otherwise have access to healthcare.
Around social and cultural issues when it comes to safety and justice, two big things are reproductive rights and gun violence prevention, given what’s happening in the world around us. Defending and expanding reproductive rights is incredibly important to me — I was proud to be a member of that caucus and to work on that issue. This year I voted to strengthen our red flag law, the extreme risk protection order. We also invested in a gun violence prevention office, funding that through our budget. These are issues that I hear a lot about from families, from parents, from children, from students, that are advocates.
CTEx: What do you think is the state’s role going forward in providing affordability for Connecticut residents?
Parker: I think we went as far as we could, and we had a lot of good debates in our caucus about how much are we able to put into reducing the gas tax, while also thinking that not everyone drives a car in our state. Maybe there are other kinds of broad-based tax relief, [like] free bus service. [With the] child tax credit, not everyone has children, regardless of what their age is, so we think about phasing out on retirement income. It’s all sort of taking it into a balance.
If we continue to prioritize a child care tax credit and making the state affordable for seniors, then we’re going to have to keep putting our money where our mouth is in future budgets. It’s been awesome to be in the legislature at a time when our [revenues] continue to outpace what we planned for and there’s more money coming in.
We’re being responsible with putting a lot of that towards paying down pension debt — which I heard so much about when I campaigned in 2018. It’s going to be with us for the next 20 or 30 years, but we can’t just stick our head in the sand. [It’s] chipping away at that while making sure that that money is showing up for people in a way that’s meaningful and affects their lives. A lot of that comes back to [whether] there’s bonding money available — how do we fight to make sure that gets back to Madison and Durham and that those projects have an impact on our town.
CTEx: What do you believe is the state’s responsibility to provide affordable housing to Connecticut residents?
Parker: It’s a hugely important question. The state has a role, the municipality has a role and the federal government has a role. The state’s role is to create the policies and incentives that set municipalities and developers up to create pathways to affordable housing in a way that works for communities.
I’ll focus for a second on Madison, because we just recently set up an affordable housing commission that came up with a plan, which was great work, and we just adopted that plan.
In many ways Madison was ahead of some of the affordable housing policies when there was a lot of this stuff about the zoning laws in the first term. Madison already had our Transit-Oriented Development. A big thing was about Accessory Dwelling Units, which Madison moved forward on. There are actually a lot of opportunities for those projects in town. Now it’s about making sure that the town is able to [ensure] that when development projects come up, they aren’t done in a way that rams them through and turns people off, but actually gets people on their side. Having the affordable housing commission in town and having targets for the community is going to be really helpful for that.
In the Madison context, it’s important [to think about how] conservation intersects with [housing]. We have a strong Conservation Commission thinking about the environmental impacts. My office has spent a lot of time making sure that folks at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and at the state level are informed of the details of the projects and doing the due diligence to make sure that what’s moving forward is actually environmentally conscious because that’s important to us when we’re being pressured from the shoreline.
Similarly in Durham, when we’re thinking about open space, fields, agriculture and solar projects and all the different things that could be happening, the state needs to continue to invest in these affordable housing projects in a way that makes sense — and makes sense [to the] community.
I’m even going to tie that back to work we’re doing on transportation. The electrification of the Shoreline East train was so important — it highlights that in Madison we need to have another train platform built so we can use Shoreline East better. But it’s an environmental issue because of where the train station is and the context of the wetlands in Madison. All of these things are just incredibly intersected.
The state’s job is to be leading with statewide policy, making sure the money is there to invest and incentivizing talent to act in a way that really aligns with the values of our community. People want to be more inclusive and more accessible, want to make young families come here and make it so seniors can afford to retire and live here. These are things that I hear from folks.
It’s about how these issues change with a change in demographics in our state. The state has to respond to thinking about where the transportation options are. Also the education options — where the jobs are. It connects to workforce development. It connects with the way that we’re training people for advanced manufacturing, for bio, all the stuff that are the next horizon. That ultimately ties back to housing. We need to stay on top of it and keep updating it.
CTEx: How do you think the state has done in balancing clean energy goals with the price of gasoline?
Parker: The interesting challenge is that we’re dealing with complexity of time horizons and regional impacts. [With] clean energy, we’re thinking about zero-carbon targets and the future of our planet. We’re having to think 10, 15, 20, 100 years out, looking to 2050 and beyond for some of these big targets.
The price of gas is fluctuating daily, weekly and monthly — it’s impacted by the global pandemic that we just lived through and the incredible disruption, [plus] the war in Ukraine and the global uncertainty.
We need to acknowledge that there are different levers we can pull that have short-term and long-term impacts. We need to maintain our commitment to the long-term targets of moving to renewable energy, decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels, because we can see the impacts.
Focusing on the district, we look at projections for sea level rise and the amount of real estate in those flood districts and the uniquely high value of real estate along the coastline, which impacts our grand list and our ability to be able to invest in our schools, our towns, our roads and all of our town municipal services.
When we see these short-term fluctuations, the state can try to adjust where possible — that could look like the cuts on the gas tax that we were able to make, and how that is a trade-off in terms of not having that money to invest in other programs.
But, it’s not just what we do in the United States, but what happens abroad with other big energy users and producers across the globe. Is Connecticut doing a good enough job with that balance? I think we’ve tried our best. We’ve made progress in terms of these long-term goals and trying to keep affordable projects and prices in town. We’ve made some progress this year on biodiesel and helping incentivize some of those changes in the industry. We’re listening to industry partners. If we could wave a wand and make inflation go away, obviously we would, but it’s not going to be that simple.
CTEx: What do you think still needs to be done to make healthcare both affordable and accessible to the residents of Connecticut?
Parker: I would’ve liked in the past to see a public option, which we weren’t able to get done in the last legislative session. Nevertheless, we’ve tried to make sure the state exchanges are open and accessible to people — making the best of the system that we have.
[On prescription drug prices], the opportunity is in negotiated savings from bringing more people into these shared plans, where folks like our comptroller and treasurer and these statewide insurance groups can fight to get prices down and find savings.
Whether it’s a public option or other opportunities, I would like to see more efforts for [municipalities], businesses, nonprofits, smaller businesses to buy into these shared plans — that’s how we’re going to find healthcare savings.
CTEx: What are your key goals and priorities for improving education for students in the state of Connecticut?
Parker: Thinking about the role of the state and those educational opportunities, it’s about creating the context for local Boards of Education to be successful. One thing, especially in the context of the pandemic, is making sure that we are, first and foremost, thinking broadly about the mental health of our young people and how schools are such an opportunity to support mental health outcomes.
We did some landmark legislation this year around children’s mental health. I keep saying that these mental health bills are all also workforce development bills because it’s getting more people into these healthcare pipelines and enabling more folks to be able to provide these services —- whether that’s in schools or in communities, making sure that we’re bringing Social-Emotional Learning into our schools and curriculums.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s about the physical infrastructure of our schools. On the Public Health Committee, when we were thinking about setting standards and policies [on] heating and cooling systems inside schools, [we considered] circulation during the pandemic, [as well as] safety in the context of school shootings and violence prevention. [Many] schools, even here in our district, don’t have air conditioning and have to leave the windows open so it’s not 90 degrees in the classroom — [it’s] putting funds into these programs.
[For] early childhood and getting people off to a good start even before kindergarten, we put $50 million into increasing funding for early childcare professionals who are making such low wages that they’ve been incentivized out of those incredibly important jobs because they can get more working at a fast food restaurant than they can taking care of our children and our future generations. It’s about living wages with a real focus for those community nonprofit providers who we put a lot of funding into.
Looking at education more broadly going into the future, it’s about making sure that the state is setting up to teach our students in the best way we know how right now.
We worked to make sure that climate change is going to be included in curricula in schools. We’re thinking about the way that students’ identities are championed, respected and supported in their education in their schools, ultimately empowering Boards of Education and superintendents to make those decisions and to make education work best for their community — because ultimately a school system looks different in Madison even than it does in Durham, but certainly different than it does in New Haven or Hartford.
In Connecticut we still have extraordinary inequity between folks with and without socioeconomic resources, between BIPOC folks and folks where there is less racial and ethnic diversity —and those achievement gaps are things that we all need to be accountable for and working towards. How can we make sure that education is as good as it can be in Madison and Durham, but also as good as it can be in Hartford and Waterbury? That’s about ways that we’re setting up teachers to be successful — minority teacher recruitment and retention, funding these teacher programs.
We did a pretty good tweak to the way that our incredibly complex school funding system formula this year, making it more simple and streamlined, but there’s more work to do. Those are things that still drive me and are important and within the values of folks here in our district, but maybe not seen as much in our schools every day.
CTEx: Two years after the Police Accountability Law was passed, are there changes that need to be made? How do you think it’s working?
Parker: We have already done some work on tweaking the way that we support and work with law enforcement, especially this last session, putting more funding into training and mental health resources for officers.
We made some strides this year around crisis intervention supports — making sure that when law enforcement are walking —- because they’re the ones that we call — into situations that they might not have the training and skills for, that we have mental health professionals available to show up. Crisis cops that are trained. We’re doing a lot of leading work on that here in Madison and in greater New Haven.
Supporting public safety is one of the most important things that we can do in government. That is a holistic task. It’s not just about police, it’s about emergency services, it’s about these mental health services. It’s about ways that our criminal justice system is impacted. It’s about healthcare and substance use.
I did a lot of work on our opioids policy this last session and had the opportunity to lead on next steps. In Connecticut, young people are more likely to die of opioid use than they are in a car accident. It’s 1300 – 1500 people a year losing their lives. This connects to public safety because it’s about the way that we are trying to get these substances off the streets, but also provide treatment and rehabilitation services to folks that want to get on a different track.
The opioids bill that I helped lead passage of this year took some really important harm reduction measure steps. It put additional funding into peer navigator support services. It expanded access to mobile methadone, which is a way to get treatment out into communities so that people can have the best evidence-based treatment resources. We’re starting to work on an idea out of the Greater New Haven area about making sure that law enforcement has the resources to understand what’s happening, especially in the context of fentanyl as a substance that is incredibly deadly and increasingly available in our communities.
The other piece is this year we passed the opioid settlement fund, which is going to create $12 million plus to fund these prevention and evidence-based programs.
CTEx: What are your thoughts on the legalization of marijuana? Are the regulations strong enough? What are your thoughts on the social equity component of the bill?
Parker: This vote was one that I really struggled with to figure out where I was going to come down because, as I’m talking about wanting to support folks with substance use disorder and healthy communities and supporting our Youth and Family Services programs, at the same time I’m thinking about equity and justice and opportunity.
When it came down to it, I decided to vote in support of the bill because the writing’s on the wall in terms of what the states around us are doing and what the federal government may even be doing soon. In terms of legalization around our neighbors in Massachusetts and New York, it’s just right across the border. I thought that this bill was our way of trying to get ahead of it and set up the policies that would make this as safe as possible.
I fought to make sure that the regulations around potency were as strict as we could get, and that we had as much funding as possible going right back into communities and into substance use prevention programs. I spent a lot of time talking with our Youth and Family Services, healthcare providers and child healthcare providers about addiction and how we could reduce advertising so we’re not inappropriately messaging students [as well as] regulations and restrictions around where this can be sold — empowering municipalities to make those decisions.
The bill got to a place where I felt comfortable voting for it because I had an opportunity to say, ‘If this is going to be happening, how do we make this happen as best as possible?’ Again, knowing this is something we’re going to return to every year into the future.
I’m interested in learning about how this gets rolled out, what we’re learning from the implementation, making sure we’re collecting data, and when issues arise, responding to that, because that’s what we’re always trying to do in public policy.
[Since] cannabis has been this high level and omnipresent, and usage already is, I felt like let’s not stick our head in the sand and pretend like if we don’t regulate this it’s going to go away. Instead, let’s embrace our role as regulators and try to create the best policies we can to keep people and communities safe.
CTEx: Are there other issues that are important to you that we haven’t talked about?
Parker: An area that I’ve tried to take some leadership in has been in our arts culture, humanities and tourism space.
Making up nearly 10 percent of our economy, arts, culture and tourism has huge impacts, especially on our lives here in the district. It was a sector that was really hard-hit by the pandemic and where we needed to be responsive in our policies and also forward-looking. It’s been a real privilege to get to serve in a leadership capacity and to help think about the future of that sector and how we’re funding equitably and strategically, because arts culture and tourism, even more so than I realized before I came to the legislature, affects so many areas of our life. It’s about education. It’s about economic development and workforce. It’s everything from restaurants, to hotels, to museums, to artists — to the things that make our communities and our lives special.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself within the Democratic party?
Parker: I helped start the Future Caucus, which is a bipartisan group of younger legislators that are trying to depoliticize some of these bigger issues and say, okay, how do we invest in workforce? How do we protect our environment? How do we support education and not make it about the partisanship that slows so much down.
I don’t identify as being on one part of a democratic spectrum or another. I think there are different issues that require different approaches. Ultimately, my job is to represent my community and we have a really politically diverse community in our diverse district.
As much as I’m thinking about the environment, I’m thinking about the economy and how to make life affordable. We can’t just pick one place and vote from that place all the time. It’s really always looking at every vote and every issue through the lens of what’s right for my district, what’s right for our state and what’s right for me and my values, because at the end of the day you have to look yourself in the mirror and make sure you feel good about every vote you take.
Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded “Rookie of the Year,” by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.
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