A liberal grades his colleagues: ‘I’m not here to make friends’
Rep. Josh Elliott’s office has a doggie bed and a gate, reminders of the days he routinely flouted a ban on dogs and came to Hartford with Hermione, a yellow labrador he passed off as his service dog. Elliott is not much on rules or convention, as colleagues in the House of Representatives have come to learn.
Elliott arrived at the State Capitol last January as a disrupter, the young liberal with the short spiky hair who had the temerity to challenge House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey for the Democratic nomination in the 88th District of Hamden. Ultimately, Sharkey did not seek re-election, and Elliott easily defeated the party-endorsed candidate in a primary.
His goal for 2018 is to help other liberal outsiders do what he did in 2016: Challenge some of the House Democrats he sees as insufficiently progressive or bold. But unlike Elliott’s challenge of Sharkey, this effort will come from inside the Democratic caucus room, a breach of etiquette that does not concern him.
“I’m not here to make friends,” said Elliott, a non-practicing lawyer who owns and runs a natural-foods store, the Common Bond in Shelton. “I think I’m very easy to work with, but I think I have have exacting standards, and I’m not holding anybody to higher standards than I hold myself to.”
Those standards are on an Airbook laptop he keeps in his bag.
Elliott, who turned 33 on Thursday, quizzed his 78 House Democratic colleagues on 25 progressive issues, such as a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, higher taxes on the wealthy, fees on larger employers whose employees rely on the state for health and other assistance, and legalizing recreational marijuana. He asked them to rank their support on a scale of one to five. All but two cooperated. He plotted the results — 1,900 data points about his fellow Democrats — on a spread sheet.
“It allows me to see who should be up here — and who should not,” Elliott said.
It is a cheeky attitude, one greeted by other Democrats with a mix of admiration, amusement and annoyance. Elliott is trying to nudge the House Democratic caucus to the left at a time when the party is unsure where to go. From a low of 37 seats in 2008, Republicans have steadily rebounded to win 72 in 2016 — just four short of a 76-75 majority that would end three decades of Democratic control.
“I think in a lot of ways in the last 15 to 20 years, especially in Connecticut, many Democrats have been afraid of their own shadows,” said Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, a liberal who won a close race last year. “It is refreshing to see someone willing to try things out in terms of messaging, and push their values in a constructive manner.”
Elliott’s potential targets are less sanguine, even if some find him an amiable and refreshingly direct colleague. At a press conference in March to promote the legalization of marijuana, Elliott didn’t hesitate to personalize the issue by talking about his “intermittent and casual” use of pot. “I don’t get high and go to work,” he said. “I don’t get high and drive. I get high when I come home and feel like watching some TV. I do it socially with friends.”
“I actually like him,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, a former television reporter whose vote against the Democratic budget in 2016 and for a Republican-crafted budget proposal in 2017 makes her someone Elliott would like to see face a primary. “I like him personally. I like the fact he is willing to fight for his issues.”
But Reed said the Democratic Party needs to be a big tent to grow, not a captive of the Working Families Party, a union-financed group that encouraged Elliott’s challenge of Sharkey and and tries to push Democrats leftward by providing staff to help in select primaries and cross-endorsements in dozens of general elections.
The idea that Democrats, especially those from Republican-leaning districts, could be punished for dissenting from a pro-labor agenda, she said, is “appalling.”
“It’s the usual intimidation and bullying tactics,” Reed said. “This is no business for sissies.”
Elliott’s reach is limited. He concedes he could directly help, at most, a half dozen challengers. But his effort and an interest by the Working Families to support intra-party challenges to Democratic incumbents are emblematic of a larger debate among Democrats over whether Connecticut voters are more interested in economic equality or economic growth.
Central to that debate is a question of strategy: With Republicans now holding half the seats in the Senate and nearly half in the House, is now the time for progressives to challenge moderate Democratic incumbents in districts where the GOP is competitive?
“We’ve gone from a large, diverse caucus to a diverse caucus. That’s a big difference,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who won his seat in 2010 after running a primary against a Democratic incumbent. “I don’t think the remedy is to reverse the diversity of the caucus. The remedy is to grow the caucus.”
The Working Families Party sees it differently.
“We believe the really bad Democrats who hold their caucuses hostage, who obstruct progress on really important issues, they are a cancer,” said Lindsay Farrell, the executive director of the Working Families. “At a certain point, you’ve got to cut them out to save the rest of the body.”
The WFP has no list yet of targeted races, but Farrell said a challenge to Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, one of three Democrats who voted with Republicans in the Senate to block a Democratic budget, would have been inevitable. Doyle is now exploring a run for attorney general.
“There are several districts where we are looking for primary candidates,” she said. “We’ll have to make the smart calculation as we get closer to the election about where we pull the trigger on that.”
Elliott’s very presence in the House is a reminder that the WFP and some unions are willing to act on their dissatisfaction with Democrats’ newfound caution on tax policy.
The WFP’s challenge of Sharkey was stunning. His control of the House agenda made him one of the three powers in Hartford, with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven. It was a pointed expression of disappointment in the trio of Democrats for relying on spending cuts, not progressive taxes, to balance the budget in 2016.
The same year, the Connecticut AFL-CIO picketed outside the state Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser to demonstrate its anger over the budget vote.
The departure of Sharkey cleared a path for the election as speaker of House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who embodies the tensions inherent in the Democratic coalition. Aresimowicz is an employee of Council 4 of AFSCME, and his chief of staff, Matthew Brokman, is married to Farrell of the WFP. But he worked for passage of same budget as Sharkey in 2016, and he is opposed to Elliott’s organizing primary challenges in 2018.
“Rep. Elliott is really dedicated to the causes he believes in. I give him credit for that. We all come in with areas that we feel strongly about. He went above and beyond,” Aresimowicz said, referring to Elliott’s assessing how his colleagues measure against a progressive yardstick. “But when it comes to disrupting the Democrats in the House or my colleagues that are seeking re-election, I’m always going to side with my colleagues.”
Elliott said he can live with being seen as an annoyance.
”I’m OK losing people and losing support, because I’m going to stand for what I’m going to stand for,” Elliott said. “There are a lot of people who want to play both sides and make everybody happy. I don’t care about making everybody happy.”
Elliott was living in Ithaca, N.Y., where he graduated with a sociology degree from Ithaca College, when a friend invited him to work on a state legislative campaign in Virginia in 2009. Elliott broke up with his girlfriend, quit his job and moved to Virginia Beach, where he says he learned retail politics. His candidate, ironically a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, lost.
“I liked him personally. He wasn’t there on a lot of issues,” Elliott said. “I think the lesson was I had to have somebody I really believed in.”
He came home to Connecticut, where his mother had opened and was running a successful natural foods store, Thyme & Season, in Hamden. He earned a law degree at Quinnipiac University, an experience that he says taught him how to think, even if the practice of law held no appeal.
He became manager of Thyme & Season and eventually opened his own natural foods store in Shelton.
“I want something with flexibility, and I want something where I’m my own boss,” Elliott said. “So business and politics it is.”
He organized in Connecticut for the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016 when his first choice, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, declined to run. After the Connecticut presidential primary in April, Elliott turned his focus to seeking the Democratic nomination for Sharkey’s seat.
Like Sanders and Warren, Elliott was moved by issues of economic inequality.
He is a fan of the economists who see the concentration of wealth as the consequence of political power by moneyed interests, not uncontrollable technological and social change. On his reading list are books by Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel Laureate economist who argues that concentration of power in private hands is as damaging to free markets as excessive regulation, and Jacob S. Hacker, the Yale co-author of “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.”
“I wish people were more educated on economic theory,” Elliott said. “In science, there is this idea that the next scientific theory wil not become mainstream until the old guard dies off, because they have been defending this ideology for so long that to take on this new idea is basically to erase decades of their work.”
He said it is time to declare what he calls the long experiment of supply-side economics, the notion that tax cuts can produce economic growth, a failure.
“We know that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen it doesn’t work. We know it has no effect on GDP growth, and we know that when you tax less you just get less revenue. It’s just that easy,” Elliott said. “It’s that simple. And the GDP is going to grow almost completely apart from what tax rates are. So, the question is are we willing to actually accept the results of reality, or are we going to keep trying to push this with the notion that somehow you can have your cake and eat it too?“
Not everyone, of course, has concluded the experiment is over. President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are running a new version now, betting that tax cuts will produce economic growth, a point Elliott is ready to debate in 2018.
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