Berita Rowe-Lewis is hoping not just to win an election—but to be able to cast at least one vote afterwards.
She has a specific vote in mind, too.
Rowe-Lewis (pictured above) is one of five candidates on the ballot this Thursday in a special election to fill the vacant 94th General Assembly District seat.
For about two weeks. Before starting to run all over again.
This election offers one of the most ephemeral prizes in local political history. Whoever wins the election will spend two weeks in Hartford as an official state representative for the hectic closing days of this year’s legislative session. Then the winner goes back to running for the office again, this time for a full term, with a nominating convention and then an expected Democratic primary before the November general election.
Rowe-Lewis said she hopes some version of the proposals to change the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program comes up for a vote in those two weeks if she wins. She’s eager to vote for it.
Both state House Speaker Brendan Sharkey of Hamden and state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven have proposed changes to the program, which reimburses communities for revenues lost on tax-exempt properties. Looney wants to guarantee that communities like New Haven can count on at least 50 percent reimbursement from the increasingly underfunded program (currently down to 32 percent). Sharkey wants to start taxing larger not-for-profits—like Yale University and Berita Rowe-Lewis’s employer, Yale-New Haven Hospital. (During a Friday visit to New Haven, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he “can’t predict at the moment” whether a PILOT bill will pass this session or merely serve as the “beginning of an important discussion” for future sessions.)
In an interview in downtown New Haven, a sliver of which falls within the 94th District, Rowe-Lewis said she doesn’t plan as a rookie to seek to tell the legislative leaders which version of the bill to put forth. Rather, she predicted, Sharkey and Looney will work out a compromise, and she’s eager to vote for it.
“Both bills have good” parts to them, she said. She favors Sharkey’s overall, she said, but “I’d rather them work out the fine details.”
A Cross-Border Neighborhood
To get to cast that vote, Rowe-Lewis has to win one of the most wide-open, grassroots state legislative elections in the area’s recent history—one that introduces a new power dynamic between New Haven and neighboring Hamden.
The five candidates on the ballot seek to replace Gary Holder-Winfield, who recently became a state senator. This is the first time the seat has opened since redistricting changed it from a New Haven-only district. Now the district is split roughly between southern Hamden and several neighborhoods of New Haven, including Newhallville, Prospect Hill and parts of Yale downtown.
Four of the candidates, including Rowe-Lewis, are Democrats. But a split Democratic convention failed to endorse a candidate, meaning the Democrats are running as petitioning candidates (and failed to meet a resulting higher bar to qualify for public financing). New Haven’s Democrats are split among several candidates. Powerful city unions are staying out of the race.
Rowe-Lewis (pictured above with campaign manager Kyle Blake at that convention), meanwhile, has the unanimous backing of the Hamden Democratic Town Committee, according to that committee’s chair, Lew Panzo. A second Hamden Democrat, Rey Harp, is running as well; Panzo said politically active Hamden people are lining up behind Rowe-Lewis because of her political experience. She is in her fourth term as a town councilwoman.
“Hamden’s behind Berita 100 percent,” Panzo said Friday. “We have only one candidate. They have three. I think if Berita wins the seat,” she can keep it when the campaigning starts all over again in May.
Rowe-Lewis, meanwhile, faces the challenge of consolidating her Hamden base while also reaching across the town border. She argued that that comes easily to her—because she lives just three blocks away, in a neighborhood that falls in both municipalities.
A native of Jamaica, Rowe-Lewis came to New Haven from New York City in the early 1990s. She lived on Springside Avenue. Then she moved to Warner Street in Hamden, just past the edge of Newhallville.
“For me, it’s a big community,” Rowe-Lewis said. “It’s just a neighborhood. I’m part of that neighborhood. I don’t see it as a New Haven issue or a Hamden issue [just] because we’re parted by Chery Ann Street.” She said she does have “Private” individual supporters from New Haven. She declined to name them.
Her platform also includes seeking to change the way the state taxes automobiles, to make the rates uniform rather have people in, say, Hamden and New Haven pay more for the same car than those living in Greenwich. In Friday’s interview, she declined to take a position on Holder-Winfield’s bill to shrink the size of drug-free zones. She said she wants to read the bill more closely.
Community Policing & Conflict Resolution
Rowe-Lewis said her legislative work in Hamden dovetails with the issues voters have raised with her on the Newhallville side of the district during this campaign.
For instance, she has focused on fighting blight in southern Hamden as a councilwoman; that’s a big problem in Newhallville. She said she sees her role in part advocating on behalf of constituents with local authorities responsible for keeping after bad landlords; as well as working at the legislature to expand economic opportunities for people to have more control over their housing.
Similarly, she has advocated for walking and bike beats and community policing in general in Hamden. She said she’s a fan of former New Haven Police Chief Nick Pastore’s and current New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman’s community policing approach in New Haven. Her sense from the campaign is that “we have work to do” still in Newhallville, “and not only the police. The neighborhood as well. We have to own it.”
Rowe-Lewis spends each working day in New Haven: She supervises 55 employees in the environmental services department at Yale-New Haven Hospital, her employer for the past 24 years.
Health care and public health are important parts of her mission as a politician, she said. She played a key role in bringing the first farmers market to Hamden in 2007. She’s helping to open a second one, in southern Hamden’s Highwood section. As a state representative she vows to work with the state’s agriculture department to support expansion of farmers markets.
If elected, she may end up not voting on a few health care bills, she said—those that specifically relate to Yale-New Haven. For instance, Yale-New Haven has a prime stake in a current bill dealing with the ability of not-for-profits to combine with for-profits in buying hospitals.
“I work for Yale-New Haven Hospital. [So] I will not discuss that matter at all,” she said when asked her position on that bill. She said she will seek the advice of both the Office of State Ethics as well as senior legislative leaders in deciding when to recuse herself from votes in order to avoid conflicts of interest.