Sam Gurwitt | New Haven Independent | August 10, 2020
John Motley was in the mood for conversation when a 26-year-old would-be state senator knocked on his door. He wasn’t the only one.
Motley asked the candidate, Justin Farmer, to guess his age — which turned out more than twice Farmer’s. Then, when Farmer told him about his candidacy in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for state senator, Motley responded: “Why should I care?”
It was an invitation, not a rebuke. Both Farmer and Jorge Cabrera, the two candidates in the primary for the Democratic nomination for the 17th State Senate District seat, spent Saturday making final arguments to voters in Hamden. And they found people ready to talk about the one truly contested race on Tuesday’s ballot in the region.
In much of the region, voters will cast ballots only for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, contests that have in essence long since ended.
But the 17th State Senate primary is hotly contested. It pits two Hamden progressives against each other in the quest to challenge Republican incumbent State Sen. George Logan in the Nov. 3 general election.
On the doors Saturday, Farmer cast himself as a herald of a new generation ready to solve the decades-old problems of a diverse district. Cabrera cast himself as an experienced labor organizer and fighter for the area’s struggling working families.
The district encompasses Derby, Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, and parts of Hamden, Woodbridge, and Naugatuck. Polls are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters who have absentee ballots can also drop them off at Town Hall. (Click here to find out where to vote.)
Both Cabrera and Farmer live in Hamden. Both identify themselves as progressives.
When it came to asking voters for their support Saturday, their respective pitches varied significantly in tone, if not necessarily in content.
Cabrera ran for the same seat two years ago, and lost by only 77 votes in the general election to incumbent Republican Sen. George Logan. Logan is running for reelection this year.
Cabrera works as a business representative at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 919, where he represents Stop & Shop and some retail workers. He has piled up endorsements from labor organizations in the region, including from the Connecticut AFL-CIO, the Connecticut Working Families Party, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Connecticut, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 4, and a number of local unions.
Cabrera has the backing of many of the long-serving members of Hamden’s Democratic Party like Mayor Curt Leng and Council Majority Leader Berita Rowe-Lewis. Cabrera also has the endorsements of a number of politicians and Democratic Town Committees in other parts of the district.
Farmer just turned 26, and is in his second term on the Hamden Legislative Council. He is one of the leaders of an active left flank of the town’s Democratic Party that has criticized the handling of town finances and agitated for robust police reform. He shows up to nearly every justice or equity-related event in Hamden or New Haven, and led many of the regions protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Farmer has won the endorsements of a number of youth-led progressive groups in the area, including the Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America (both national and local), and more recently from Connecticut Young Democrats and Planned Parenthood.
Regionalism, Green New Deal, Puns
When Farmer approached John Motley’s house close to Centreville in Hamden Saturday, Claire Timmis was just pulling a stack of papers out of the mailbox for Motley.
“I am Justin Farmer, and I’m running for State Senate,” Farmer began.
“Ah, Justin!” replied Timmis. She pulled out a large mailer from the mailbox.
“Is this you?” she asked, pointing to Farmer’s face grinning out from the front of the card.
With the headphones he wears to help him manage Tourette’s Syndrome, and his signature blue button-down with a tie (even on the hottest days), Farmer is easy to recognize.
“It’s a great mailer,” Timmis told Farmer.
Farmer was canvassing with his communications director, Fiona Drenttel. The two of them followed Timmis up the driveway to the door, where they waited for Motley to emerge. He leaned on a crutch, his foot in a cast. When he came to the door, he peered down at the mailer, then up at Farmer.
“That’s you?” he said with a mischievous smile. “You’re a Republican? You better get off my lawn if not.”
Timmis rolled her eyes at the joke and Farmer laughed.
“Tell me about yourself. Where you from? Who your people?” Motley asked.
“I am Justin Farmer, I am 26 years young…” Farmer began
“Oh now you’re going with the age thing. Justin, how old am I?” Motley asked.
Farmer paused to summon his politician’s tact. He guessed 58.
He was 20 years shy.
Farmer explained that he has been in town hall fighting for his southern Hamden district, fighting to fix the town’s financial problems and smooth the town’s inequities.
That’s when Motley prompted Farmer to tell him why he should care.
Farmer told Motley about how there have been three shootings in the last three weeks in his immediate neighborhood. Then when he goes and talks to voters in Derby, Ansonia, Naugatuck, and other towns in the district, voters tell him they feel disenfranchised just like the people he knows down the street from his house.
The towns in the 17th District often point fingers at each other, he said, and they all need more resources. Hamden had to cut its education budget this year because of its tough financial position. But at the same time, Greenwich gets state aid it doesn’t need, has a comparatively tiny tax rate, and has well-funded schools.
The communities in the 17th District need to understand that they’re the same community, he said, and fight for what they need. That will mean getting more from wealthy towns like Greenwich.
“You’re very impressive,” said Motley. “I love what you’ve said in the last few minutes.”
“It’s not just talking points,” Farmer began.
“Here, let me give you a piece of advice,” Motley said. “When someone gives you a compliment, you just let it ride.”
Farmer laughed and nodded.
“Ok, we got your mailer. What do we do now?” Motley asked.
Farmer told Motley that since he has an absentee ballot, he should drive to Hamden Government Center and drop it off in the ballot drop box there, since it is close enough to the election that if he mailed it, it might not arrive in time.
It was not the only long conversation Farmer had Saturday morning. Perhaps it was the fact that the heat had not yet picked up, or the fact that Farmer was canvassing a neighborhood with older residents who were not as pressed for time. But whatever the reason, people were in the mood for conversations.
Farmer said he usually canvasses with Drenttel. Since he is the candidate, he said, it helps to have someone else around to provide perspective. Farmer also doesn’t have a car, so Drenttel drove him to the turf he walked Saturday.
At each house, Drenttel told Farmer the name of the person he was looking for.
“Kevin,” she said at one house.
“Kevin Bacon?” Farmer asked.
“Yes, Kevin Bacon lives in Hamden,” Drenttel replied sarcastically.
“Well I better not put my foot in my mouth, because then it would be loose,” Farmer fired back. “Footloose.”
Farmer makes a pun at “a significant portion of houses,” Drenttel said. “Not every single one, though.”
Indeed, he did manage to make a pun or some joke at every opportunity. “Whose feet? Our feet!” he said as the two walked down the street, echoing the common protest chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
He waved his hands like a conductor as he listened to the musical jingle of one doorbell. He used the same “ra tat ta-tat tat. Tat tat,” rhythm whenever he rapped his knuckles against a door.
“Oh, Justin!” said Christopher Maiuri as he opened the door after Farmer’s signature knock. “We already put in our ballot, and we did vote for you,” he told Farmer.
Farmer asked if Maiuri had any questions. Maiuri asked Farmer to name his top three goals.
First is a green new deal, replied Farmer. That could include community choice aggregation, where municipalities or groups of municipalities manage their electricity sourcing, to lower electricity prices and save energy (CCAs have been a controversial item in Hamden, with Farmer advocating for them and others less convinced about their benefits). To prevent the power outage that has left many in the region without power days after Tropical Storm Isaias, a green new deal could also mean undergrounding electrical wires, said Farmer. It’s expensive, but it’s a long-term investment in resiliency, he said.
Second will be transportation, Farmer said. Hamden could have a train station on the Hartford line, making it easier for people in town to access other parts of the state, and bringing commerce. There need to be more bus routes, he said, pointing to the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get from where Maiuri lives to Amity, though it’s not that far as the crow flies.
His third priority would be schools, Farmer said. The state currently underfunds Hamden based on its own municipal aid formulas. He said he would fight to get more resources for communities like Hamden and other towns in the district that really need them. Again, he invoked Greenwich, which is one of the wealthiest places on the planet but still saps state resources.
Farmer said he tells the same “truth” wherever he goes, but the part of that truth he tells varies based on where he is or what the voter asks. In Woodbridge, for instance, he would tell people about the shootings that take place in his neighborhood, or about the man he spoke to in Ansonia who is underwater on his house.
In Derby, he said, he tells people that the issues there are the same ones he sees in his own neighborhood just north of the border with New Haven.
He already represents a diverse district, he told one voter. The town’s fifth district encompasses the low-income mostly black and brown neighborhoods between Dixwell Avenue and Prospect Street, as well as the mostly white and wealthy North Edgehill and Whitneyville neighborhoods. He said he knows what it means to represent diverse interests and find commonalities across neighborhoods.
Farmer is a student at Southern Connecticut State University, but has taken the last few semesters off because of his political work. This fall, he said, he will return to school whether he wins or loses on Tuesday.
Back in the car, with Drenttel, Farmer took a call from a voter asking about his youth services platform. That meant he couldn’t listen to the wisdom of Jamaican-British reggae artist Macka B, who Farmer and Drenttel said has been a regular in their soundtrack of the last few days — in particular, his short songs about the virtues of various fruits and vegetables.
It had been the cucumber on the way to Saturday’s canvass.
Farmer said that after the campaign, he’s be eating a lot of cucumbers — he’ll need the vitamins.