Tara Cook-Littman: GMO activist becomes candidate

Tara Cook-Littman, holding a GMO-free beverage that produces revenue for the campaign set labeling standards for genetically modified foods.

Tara Cook-Littman, holding a GMO-free beverage whose sales at Whole Foods produce revenue for the campaign to set labeling standards for genetically modified foods.

No one quite captured the zeitgeist at the State Capitol last year like Tara Cook-Littman. The founder of GMO Free CT used Facebook and Twitter to rally foodies, environmentalists and consumer activists behind a successful crusade for the nation’s first state law addressing the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Now, Cook-Littman, 38, a self-described food blogger and PTA mom from Fairfield, albeit one who used to be a prosecutor in New York City, is trying to replicate that grass-roots mojo in another difficult campaign: She is a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in a district redrawn after 2010 to the advantage of Republicans.

“It’ll be an uphill battle,” said Cook-Littman, whose allies on the labeling law included prominent Republicans, including the man she hopes to succeed, Tony Hwang, and their state senator, John P. McKinney. “I really am a nonpartisan person. I worked with everybody.”

Her interest in running was set in motion by McKinney’s gubernatorial ambitions: Hwang is expected to run for McKinney’s open Senate seat, giving Cook-Littman a shot at Hwang’s open House seat in the 134th District of Fairfield and Trumbull.

Cook-Littman’s candidacy is likely to be a curiosity among political professionals, who are constantly evaluating the degree to which social media and the internet in general are changing the nature of campaigns. She also presents a test of whether certain issues and movements can transcend partisan politics.

“It will be interesting, with her ability to communicate in 21st century ways, especially social media. I think we’re going to see an excellent campaign from her,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, an admirer and ally on the labeling issue.

Another twist is that she is trying become part of a Democratic establishment she willingly tweaked in pursuit of the GMO legislation: Her two biggest lobbying targets were Democrats, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden.

The deluge of emails and phone calls she unleashed on Malloy and Sharkey impressed experienced political operatives and revived a bill all but pronounced dead in the closing days of the annual session, a rare feat for an outsider new to advocacy.

Malloy and Sharkey, who did not want Connecticut to stand alone on a labeling bill, especially one opposed by retailers and some local agricultural groups, compromised with GMO Free CT. They dropped their demand for a total exemption on food produced in state, but still required a high threshold of concurrence by other states.

GMO Free CT used this grapihic on Facebook to coordinate pressure on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey.

GMO Free CT used this graphic on Facebook to pressure Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey.

They signed off on a law that does not take effect unless four of eight other northeastern states (defined as New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) with an aggregate population of 20 million pass similar legislation. One of the states must border Connecticut. They originally wanted a trigger of 25 million.

“The governor and I were being vilified because we wanted to get to the middle. Advocates around the country were unable, unwilling to consider there were some variations on this that might be considered,” Sharkey said. “I think to Tara’s credit she was able negotiate.”

The compromise passed unanimously in the Senate and nearly so in the House, 134-3. Malloy held a ceremonial bill-signing at Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in Fairfield. Littman-Cook was among the smiling witnesses.

Malloy now is portrayed as an ally on the GMO Free CT Facebook page, but the organization played hardball before the compromise was reached, accusing the governor of promoting a toothless bill.

Malloy is now an ally, but GMO Free CT didn't pull punches when it viewed him as an impediment.

Malloy is now an ally, but GMO Free CT didn't pull punches when it viewed him as an impediment.

By pushing for labeling of food and not a ban on genetically modified seeds, GMO Free CT largely sidestepped the heated scientific debate about whether GMOs are a health or environmental risk, arguing it simply was advocating giving consumers information. Still, it was a major lobbying campaign for an organization Cook-Littman had founded only the previous year.

“I think they fact they were able to get the GMO labeling bill done in the first year in which it had been proposed is pretty extraordinary,” Sharkey said.

Since the adoption of the Connecticut law, Cook-Littman has shifted attention to winning passage of similar legislation in other states, working with a new national coalition, Citizens for GMO Labeling. It is funded in part with profits from the sale of an organic drink sold by Suja Elements only at Whole Foods.

Cook-Littman was back at the Capitol complex Friday, attending public hearings on bills regarding chemicals in children’s products and the disposal of waste generated by fracking, a method of extracting natural gas.

“I’m a heart-on-your-sleeve person,” she said.

If elected, she said, health and environmental issues would continue to be a priority. With a husband who commutes on troubled Metro-North every day, Cook-Littman said she is developing an interest in transportation.

Cook-Littman, who grew up in Easton, settled in Fairfield after marrying and having children, who are now 6, 8 and 10.

She formed a candidate committee Feb. 20 and intends to participate in the voluntary Citizens Election Program, which provides public financing to qualifying candidates who agree to spending and contribution limits.

Word of her candidacy is starting to spread among the legislators she lobbied so intensely last year.

She was approached Friday  in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building by Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull. He had a quizzical look.

“Are you running?” Musto asked.

She told him she was.

“I’ll be your constituent if you win,” Musto said.

Cook-Littman has yet to discuss her candidacy with Sharkey, but he said he is enthusiastic about the prospect of a woman who once vilified him running to become a member of his House Democratic caucus.

“We’re going to do what we can. We’re looking forward to her candidacy,” Sharkey said. “She’s obviously a terrific candidate and very committed to her causes. She demonstrated her ability to organize.”

Sharkey said Cook-Littman quickly will learn that running for the House poses different challenges than lobbying those in office. Social media, for example, is especially effective at connecting people from across the state behind an issue.

“I learned a lot last year, as I think Tara did, about the strength and weaknesses of a social-media campaign,” Sharkey said. “I think it’s terrific as a tool for organizing and informing interested folks and galvanizing them around an issue.”

In a House race, Cook-Littman’s job will be to talk to portions of Fairfield and Trumbull with a total population of fewer than 24,000 people. That literally means knocking on doors.

“There is no way you can run a campaign through social media alone. There is nothing that replaces shoe leather and the hard grind of the traditional stuff you do for a campaign, the door knocking, the phone calls,” Sharkey said. “There is nothing that replaces that.”

Sharkey was not questioning Cook-Littman’s tenacity or her ability to organize around a goal. With a laugh, he conceded that as a one-time target of her organizing, he knows that better than most.

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