Pat Wilson Pheanious’ second act in public life
One in an occasional series about new legislators.
Storytellers run in her family, and Pat Wilson Pheanious effortlessly glides into a description of growing up black in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner, riffing on a recent discovery by Witness Stones, a students’ research project in Guilford, that traced her family tree to a freed slave who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Her son is a television writer and her sister a novelist, married to a playwright. Her father was a Tuskegee Airman, a fighter pilot who came home from World War II with his own stories — and a Distinguished Flying Cross for winning a dogfight over Munich in 1945.
At age 68, retired after a career in state government that ended with eight years as the Democratic commissioner of social services under two Republican governors, Wilson Pheanious is early in a new and unexpected job as a state representative. She is one of the 12 freshmen Democratic women elected to the House last year, a class inspired to run for office by Donald J. Trump, albeit unintentionally on the president’s part.
“I had been very unhappy and dissatisfied since the 2016 election,” she said. “I could not believe this had happened to us. How could this be? How could the population choose somebody with so little preparation against somebody with so much? It was just bewildering and upsetting. So, I had been stewing about that.”
Her father was not one to stew.
“Get up and do it. If it needs doing, then do it,” Wilson Pheanious said, channeling her father, the late Lt. Col. Bertram Wilson Jr., a veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam and the builder of the house she now occupies, her childhood home. “That kind of attitude comes directly from him.”
Her election came in a year when voters across the U.S. would send eight African-Americans to Congress from white-majority districts, one hugging the New York border on the west side of Connecticut, far from Wilson Pheanious’s home in the eastern woods of Ashford, where a whopping one percent of the population is black.
Jahana Hayes, a charismatic national teacher of the year, drew national attention on her way to becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from the state, while Wilson Pheanious charted a far quieter path to another first — the election of a black woman to the Connecticut General Assembly from a suburban or exurban district. (A second, Tammy Exum, a Democrat from West Hartford, has declared her candidacy for the state House vacancy created by the resignation of Derek Slap, who won a special election this week for state Senate.)
In the case of Wilson Pheanious’s election, there has been little or no examination of What It Means. Is there a subtext to the election of a black Democrat, especially one inextricably linked to the social services bureaucracy of Hartford, in a three-town rural district where guns are popular and opposition to Trump is more or less a 50-50 proposition?
Wilson Pheanious has yet to find out, though she already has walked, knocked and talked her way through the 53rd House District of Ashford, Tolland and Willington. Running for a state House seat in Connecticut is an exercise in retail politics, most of it at the front door. Every district has a population of about 25,000, and victories typically require fewer than 6,000 votes.
“You got to walk up to somebody’s door and meet them on their own terms and talk to them and ask them questions and connect with them,” she said.
Wilson Pheanious makes it sound easy, but the record of black candidates winning in white majority districts is thin, with most of the analysis focused on congressional races.
The Gallup poll has tried to measure the shifting attitudes towards the role of race in elections by asking Americans if they would vote for a black president. In 1958, only 38 percent said yes. The percentage grew to 77 percent in 1978 and 96 percent in 1997.
Wilson Pheanious lived in Ashford until she was 10, then decamped as a military kid to Europe in the early 60s, returning as a 16-year-old to attend E.O. Smith, a regional high school in Mansfield operated in those days by the University of Connecticut. She recalls one other black girl in her class, who remains a friend.
She found voters welcoming in 2018, generally. The day she campaigned with another black candidate, state Treasurer Shawn Wooden, was an exception. Lots of doors went unanswered, unlike any other day of her campaign.
“It was like day and night,” she said. “They wouldn’t even open the door, and it was such a different experience than the one I was used to having. I was bewildered.”
Bewilderment gave way to amusement. Wilson Pheanious concluded that many voters in her area probably had one point of reference for assessing two African Americans going door to door with literature on a weekend: They had to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, distributing The Watch Tower.
Less amusing was the day a man intercepted her in his driveway, holding a rifle. Wilson Pheanious was there to talk with the lady of the house, a registered Democrat.
“I said to the man, ‘Are you going to get your wife or are you going to shoot me?’ ” Wilson Pheanious said.
He got his wife.
“We had a great conversation,” she said. “We ended up talking about Second Amendment rights and a bunch of other things.”
Wilson Pheanious ran ahead of most of the Democratic ticket in her district, winning her seat, 52 percent to 48 percent.
“I’m glad the people of the district looked further than the color of her skin and listened to what she had to say,” said former Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who represented the district before her election as comptroller in 1994. “She worked so hard to get it.”
“It’s hard to separate, either my life experience or my color.”
Rep. Pat Wilson Pheanious
Wilson Pheanious’ opponent, whose name rarely crosses her lips, was a pugnacious three-term Republican named Sam Belsito. He attributed his victory in a special election in June 2013 to support from gun owners angry over the passage two months earlier of a sweeping gun-control law passed in response to the Sandy Hook School massacre.
Wilson Pheanious met Belsito a public event long before she decided to run. She said Belsito struck her as someone who cared to represent only a portion of the district, the voters who belonged to his party and shared his ideas.
“It just irritated me,” she said. “Maybe because I am a lawyer, the word ‘representation’ means something to me. it means that there is a sacred trust, that there is just one of us for 25,000 people, and that one of us gets to represent those 25,000 people, gets to find out what’s on their mind, gets to help try to solve their problems, gets to to make this place work for them. And that’s the job. You can’t ignore half the population because they have the wrong letter behind their name.”
Her name was Pat Wilson-Coker when Gov. John G. Rowland appointed her commissioner of social services in 1999. The headline in The Hartford Courant was “From Welfare Rolls to Welfare Chief.”
She had dropped out of UConn as a sophomore after getting pregnant with her son, Cheo Hodari Coker. Her marriage to her son’s father was brief. Wilson Pheanious returned to UConn, receiving state Aid for Dependent Children until her graduation with a bachelor’s degree in 1978. With support from her family, she earned a master’s degree in social work and a law degree from a dual degree program at UConn three years later.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody with her qualifications and her background,” Rowland said then. “She understands people, she knows how to motivate them, and she’s been a great inspiration to many.”
She remarried after her retirement from the state in 2008. She was weighing an offer from John Hickenlooper, then the mayor of Denver, to run the city’s social services department. She was also dating Robert Pheanious, a nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital. The challenge of a move solidified the relationship and nudged it towards marriage.
Her son and sister found the engagement abrupt.
“My son asked me if it was hormones,” she said, laughing. “It was comic.”
They stayed in Denver for nearly three years, returning to Connecticut in 2011 after Hickenlooper was elected governor.
As a lawmaker in Hartford, she belongs to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, whose urban members say they understand that positions second nature to them — pushing gun control or stronger fair-housing laws — are likely to be complicated for her.
“That’s a political reality for her, right?” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.
Two of the first bills she filed are purely local: measures seeking funding for an assessment and possible replacement of the Birch Grove Primary School in Tolland, one of the buildings with crumbling foundations attributed to the presence of the mineral pyrrhotite, which expands when exposed to ground water.
The other would expand access to a crumbling-foundation remediation fund to homeowners who declined to waive their rights to sue insurers.
“The biggest issue for me, frankly, is crumbling foundations and education issues, making sure we get as much money as we can and that our towns aren’t negatively affected by the decisions that are made at the state,” she said. “Those are my primary issues.”
Her district has hunters, a constituency that finds some suburban and urban Democrats clueless. One of her 2018 classmates, Rep. Jillian Gilchrist of West Hartford, filed a bill that would impose a 50 percent tax on ammunition.
“On guns, we may not all be in the same place,” Wilson Pheanious said.
But that did not keep her from standing with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, when its chairman, Rep. Brandon McGee of Hartford, outlined an urban-centric agenda focusing on affordable housing, justice reform, decriminalization of cannabis use, and education funding.
“I don’t feel like there’s any huge disconnect or difference between any of the issues raised here or what I believe in,” she said after the caucus news conference.
But some conflicts between her views, the needs of her district and those of the caucus are inevitable, she said.
“I’m making my way,” she said.
She is vice chair of the Human Services Committee and is a member of the Committee on Children and the Labor and Public Employees Committee, assignments that allow her to pursue interests developed over a lifetime in social services.
She was silent for a moment when asked whether her career — a stint teaching social work at a college, a time acting as a monitor of a consent decree dictating reforms to the state Department of Children and Families, and a series of posts at the Department of Social Services — would shape her interests and actions as a legislator more than her race or membership in a caucus defined by racial identity.
Then she laughed.
“It’s hard to separate, either my life experience or my color,” she said.
In the first weeks of her second act as public official, it’s an analysis she is not tempted to undertake. She is making her way.
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