Gary Holder-Winfield watched his mother die a slow painful death over four years in the hospital. That helped convince him to embrace a controversial bill coming up in the state legislature—to allow physicians to help terminally ill patients take their lives.
Holder-Winfield, a state representative, reflected on his personal transformation on that issue as he trudged up the hills of Upper Westville Sunday afternoon.
He trudged carefully. The sidewalks were treacherously icy. He slipped repeatedly, nearly falling and scattering campaign brochures all over the ice-encrusted snow-white lawns on Stevenson Road. Then he resumed speaking about his mother’s death as he met a basement room full of Democrats, about how he sees his pursuit of elected office as a continuation of her legacy.
You don’t usually see a politician knocking on doors in February in New Haven. This isn’t any ordinary February. It is the season of the perpetual campaign. With a new mayor for the first time in 20 years, and her former state Senate seat opening up for the first time in 21 years, all sorts of positions have opened for special elections: the position Holder-Winfield seeks in a Feb. 25 special election, the 10th State Senate District seat; three Board of Aldermen seats vacated by new City Hall appointees; and, if Holder-Winfield wins, a contest for the seat he’ll be giving up in the State House of Representatives.
Holder-Winfield, a Democrat, has spent nearly two years running for office: In 2012 for reelection to his House seat; the first half of 2013 for mayor, then stumping for Toni Harp after he dropped out of that race; and since Harp won the mayoralty last November, for her vacated Senate seat.
The 10th district includes about 42,300 registered New Haven voters (on the west side of town) and 14,600 in West Haven. With no comparable election for decades past to use as a baseline, it’s anyone’s guess how many will show up for the Feb. 25 special election. (Holder-Winfield’s campaign manager, Kevin Coughlin, ventured a 5,000-6,000 estimate.)
“I’m not running just to be running. There’s a purpose to this,” Holder-Winfield said. If he were to lose, “I could go back to being an activist. And I could be very content.”
Holder-Winfield said he chose to dive into yet another campaign because he feels he can do the best job filling Toni Harp’s Senate shoes in an influential position and have more influence pushing important positions as a senator than as a representative. Since his election to the House in 2008, he sponsored a successful bill to end the death penalty in Connecticut. He also successfully pushed school reforms such as the formation of parent governance councils in low-performing schools and expanding the ways to measure K-3 students’ reading, as well as ways to help them if they’re struggling. Other signature issues have included police profiling and public campaign financing. He has a reputation at the Capitol for working with Republicans while maintaining a liberal Democratic voting record. Amid his busy schedule, he finds time to take photographs for the I Love New Haven website.
“She Would Cry The Whole Time”
If he wins the Feb. 25 special election against Republican Steven R. Mullins, Holder-Winfield will spend about two months legislating in the Senate—then start running for reelection to the new seat.
In those two months, Holder-Winfield (whether he becomes state senator, or resumes life as a state representative) will get to vote on some hot-button proposals. Including a new version of a “right-to-die” bill, formerly known as “physician-assisted suicide,” now “aid in dying.” The bill, proposed in 2013, never made it to a vote. Advocates are preparing to push it again.
Such bills typically allow coherent patients—whom two physicians have certified as having six months or less to live—to obtain lethal medication after making the appeal in the presence of two witnesses, Once unpopular, such bills are starting to meet friendlier receptions at state legislatures across the country.
Holder-Winfield, for one, has warmed to the idea after previously opposing it.
That’s because, he said in between ringing bells and stuffing flyers into doors on Stevenson Road, of the time he spent in hospital rooms beginning in 2009 with his mother as she battled diabetes, cancer, and heart problems. At one point she was in a coma. Allergic to morphine, she received a series of alternative pain medication, none of which alleviated her agony.
“Going through that and watching her suffer changed my perspective. The whole time she was in pain. I’d go see her—sometimes she would cry the whole time,” Holder-Winfield said.
“She was coherent. I think she would have liked the option” of lethal medication. Instead she continued suffering until she finally died on July 31, 2012.
His opponent, Mullins, said Sunday evening that if elected he will vote against the proposal: “I can’t be a god-fearing Anglo-Catholic” and support it.
Soda Wars & The Drug War
Mullins and Holder-Winfield did agree on controversial proposal Sunday—Toni Harp’s call to institute a tax on sugar soft drinks. (Holder-Winfield: “I think you have to allow people some control over themselves.” Mullins: “This isn’t a nanny state. We’re taking a page out of Bloomberg’s playbook here. No. We’re taxed enough as it is. It’s just another way to stick it to the people.”) Then again, that proposal likely won’t come up for a vote in this legislative session.
Holder-Winfield said he hopes another proposal does make it for a vote in this short session: his bill to change “drug-free zones.” Right now those zones are designated within 1,500 feet of schools and day-care centers; dealers receive greater prison sentences for selling drugs within those area. Holder-Winfield wants that radius shortened to 250 feet. The current set-up, he argues, basically designates all of New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport as drug-free zones, meaning dealers in those cities (who are disproportionately black and Latino) end up getting longer prison sentences.
Mullins (pictured) said he’d vote to keep the current rule.
“I was in five churches today in Newhallville,” Mullins said. “I talked to people in private. These are longtime Democrats. They’re wondering, ‘What is this guy thinking?’ I’m wondering the same thing. He’s certainly not looking out for children. The whole city should be drug free. The whole city should be against drug dealers all together. Whose side is he on? Democrats and Republicans can agree on this—this is safety for our young people.”
Holder-Winfield argued that having a drug-free zone cover an entire city, with the same penalties all over, destroys the law’s basic purpose—to keep dealers from selling near children by having them face higher penalties. As a result, the current system actually makes kids less safe, he argued.
He was asked if the zones really have to do with drug-dealing near children—or if they merely slap extra jail time onto sentences for urban dealers who get caught slinging drugs long after day-care or school kids have gone home. That’s an argument for abolishing the zones altogether, Holder-Winfield said. But politically that argument won’t fly at the state Capitol, he said.
He and Mullins differed on another hot-button bill in the works for the session: a version of the vetoed Washington, D.C. “Wal-Mart” bill that would have required the largest retailers in town to pay not just the minimum wage, but a higher “living” wage.
The Mullins-Hodler-Winfield debate on the bill mirrors the larger national debate on raising the minimum wage. Mullins, the Republican, sees employers cutting jobs and/or raising prices as a result; the Democrats sees stronger businesses and relief for working families living below the poverty line. More than 600 economists, including Nobel Prize winners, recently signed a letter stating that research overwhelming debunks the idea that minimum wage hikes cause jobs losses.
Fingers Don’t Freeze
“I’m surprised I can still write,” Holder-Winfield remarked as he neatly inscribed yet another message (“Dropped by to discuss the election. Hope to catch you next time.”) with a Bic Precise pen on a flyer he then left at another unanswered door. “The other day I couldn’t write it anymore; it was 7 degrees.” Neither ice, snow, rain, nor a spring holiday weekend, it appears, can keep Gary Holder-Winfield off the campaign trail.
Holder-Winfield and campaign manager Coughlin did get a break from the cold on Stevenson when they popped into a party for two Democratic candidates in yet another election, Amy Marx and Sharon Jones (pictured), who are running for 26th Ward party ward chairs on march 4.
A cheerful basement full of voters schmoozed with the Holder-Winfield, including Laura Cahn, who pitched the candidate on stopping Yale from spraying pesticides on its ballfields.
Eventually Holder-Winfield addressed the several dozen people who showed up. His tears flowed as he spoke again about his late mother. This time he didn’t talk about aid-in-dying. He didn’t talk about policy. He talked about the last time he saw her alive, in the hospital.
His mother was named Harriet. She was named for Harriet Tubman. She raised Gary on her own. As she lay dying, she told her son she felt her life had been a failure. She failed to accomplish what she should have.
Holder-Winfield sought to reassure. But only later did he realize what he wishes he had said to her.
“You weren’t a failure,” he wishes he had said. “You were able to raise me and give me the opportunity to do exactly what you wanted to do.” Like fight for the disadvantaged. Like devoting life to public service.
Like trekking through the ice and snow for votes—and preparing to resume doing so in the dog days of summer.
Previous coverage of this race:
• Candidate Cries Foul At Clerk’s Office
• Holder-Winfield Files For Public Dough
• Holder-Winfield Wins Party Endorsement
• Goldson Drops Out
• Candidates Vow To Run On Clean Money
• Holder-Winfield Eyes Harp’s Senate Seat