“Are they going to call the bill today?” Themis Klarides’s kid sister Nicole Klarides-Ditria asked.
And asked. And asked.
Nicole walked up from the back row to ask Themis. She texted her to ask her. Every day.
“I don’t know!” Themis told her. “I’m dealing with a $5 billion deficit. I’m trying to get a budget passed. Nobody’s letting us call our budget. There are a few other things on my mind.”
Finally Themis told Nicole: “I don’t care. OK? I don’t care! I will do whatever I can to get it called. But I can’t deal with it right now. Go talk to the Speaker.”
“I don’t want to talk to the Speaker!”
Yep. The Klarides sisters were getting under each other’s skins. The way they did in the days when they were playing tennis in Seymour High School. It became a joke back then: “Themis and Nicole are playing a doubles match today. Let’s watch them bicker.” But amid the bickering, they managed to rank fourth in the state.
That was a long time ago. Like 35 years ago.
Today Themis Klarides and Nicole Klarides-Ditria are playing on the same team again, the Republican team. They’re finishing up the first term together in the Connecticut House of Representatives, the only sister duo ever to serve simultaneously in the legislature.
And they’re still speaking to each other.
Themis has served there for two decades, representing the Woodbridge/Orange/Derby 114th General Assembly District. She has risen to her party’s top spot in the House, minority leader. If the Republicans win control of the House in November, she’s in line to become the first-ever female Republican speaker.
Nicole won her seat two years ago, unseating a Democratic incumbent in the 105th District, which covers Derby, Beacon Falls, and Seymour, where the sisters grew up in a prominent family; their grandfather, a Greek immigrant, launched a successful chain of eponymous supermarkets.
As they run for reelection, the sisters reflected on how they’ve learned to work together at the Capitol, during an appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
Themis said she resolved from the outset not to play favorites or to be perceived as playing favorites among the House Republican Caucus’s 71 members.
“I go to the mat for every member. I will fight for them. It’s a family … I can say whatever I want about you to your face. But nobody else says anything about you,” she said. “I will not treat her any differently. I will protect her just as much. But she has to make sure she knows how to advocate for herself and advocate for her bills. I wanted to make sure that it was never considered favoritism on my part.”
Ask The Speaker
Take what happened when Nicole kept pestering her about when “the bill” would be called for a vote. She was referring to House Bill 7171, which aimed to expand the tasks athletic trainers can perform.
That bill meant a lot to Nicole, who’s a licensed athletic trainer herself.
“‘Listen if this is something that’s passionate to you, you need to go out there and work,’” Nicole recalled Themis telling her. “‘You go talk to people and you let them know why it’s important to you and you get them to vote for this.’
“That’s exactly what I did.” She and the fellow trainers who showed up at the Capitol made their case to as many legislators as they could. At the session’s end, the bill got the vote; it passed both chambers and became law.
Unlike in their days on the tennis court, the sisters may have occasionally annoyed each other, but they worked together well, they said, including cosponsoring 10 bills.
Themis’s prominence sometimes led to Nicole being pestered: Legislators who were having trouble reaching the minority leader asked her younger sister, “Can Themis call me back?” She did relay the messages, she said.
“I also noticed there are people in the caucus who may not be the most liked people who I would see buddying up to her,” Themis added.
The “Silly” Season
While they campaign for reelection, both sisters have stayed out of the five-way Republican primary race for governor. They said they will support whoever wins next Tuesday’s primary election.
Themis had been considered a formidable potential entry in that governor’s race. In the end, she decided to run instead to keep her seat, and perhaps preside over a Republican majority in the House.
She concluded she can make more of a difference that way.
“I tortured myself and everyone around me for a year” about whether to run for governor, she said. “I have lived this for 20 years. I have seen what we have stopped [even in the minority]. I have seen what we have made happen. If we have a Republican governor and we do not have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, that Republican governor will have his hands tied.
“I strongly believe a Republican legislature is more important at this time. That is why I made that decision.”
Without weighing in on individual candidates, Themis dismissed as “silly” the notion that the state can simply eliminate the income tax, which accounts for between $9 and $10 billion of the revenues supporting a $20 billion annual budget. Two Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, Mark Boughton and Bob Stefanowski, are campaigning on a promise to eliminate the tax.
She agreed with how another gubernatorial candidate addressed the issue.
“We see very silly things happen in elections,” Themis said. “I happened to turn on the radio this morning and heard David Stemerman. He was asked that question. He said, ‘Listen, I believe taxes need to be lowered. And I have plan to lower them overall. I also have to be a realist.’
“The amount of money the income tax brings in yearly — there is no way, as somebody has been in the developing of the budgets, the defending of the budgets — there is no way to find that money now. What there is a way to do is, you look at the estate tax and social security tax and regulations and changes to the tax code … [But] It’s just not realistic to say, ‘I’m going to do this now.’ What is realistic is to look at the entire picture” to set priorities and weed out “fraud and waste.”
Click on the video to watch the full interview with Themis Klarides and Nicole Klarides-Ditria on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”