This is the seventh of an occasional series profiling Connecticut people who frequently share their insights, passions and opinions with fellow readers in CT Viewpoints commentaries.
“You know it’s a lot of work to publish something,” Dan Smolnik said, taking a sip of his drink. Seated at a small Starbucks table on a July morning, he stops to think. “Like this last piece represents almost 60 or 70 working hours of research and calculations. There’s 50 pages of Excel spreadsheets.”
Often in his Viewpoints pieces, Smolnik focuses on planning and zoning and Connecticut’s housing crisis — interests informed by his day job.
Smolnik, 62, lives in Hamden with his wife, Alexandra — an engineer at Sikorsky — and his two kids. He has been a tax attorney for more than 30 years, and also serves on the Hamden Economic Development Commission.
Smolnik’s educational background is extensive. He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Rochester in 1982 and from law school at Valparaiso University in 1986. He also attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Smolnik said he ended up at MIT after being contacted by the dean of the Sloan school of Management — an interaction that started off rocky, to say the least.
“I got a call from the Dean of the MIT business school and he said ‘Are you interested in coming to MIT? For an MBA?’ and I hung up on him,” Smolnik explained. He thought the call was one of his college roommates, playing a prank.
Once he checked the number and called back to apologize, Smolnik went out to lunch with the dean. He completed the MBA in 2006, which gave him a “terrific” set of quantitative tools to use not only in his law practice but to expand his worldview.
Nowadays, Smolnik uses many of these quantitative tools in his writing for CT Viewpoints, as many of his pieces are data-heavy.
“You have to kind of like math a lot,” Smolnik said. “A lot of times you get unexpected outcomes as you kind of follow the rabbit hole down.”
The mathematical computation required for his opinion pieces is time-intensive.
“I have dozens of data points for each and every town in Connecticut over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of pieces of data that I’ve assembled, one at a time, click click click click click,” Smolnik said, miming his typing. “Then I go back and check to see if I got it right, because when you transcribe data it’s easy to make a mistake.”
For example, Smolnik has researched and written about the impact low-income housing has on housing values throughout a community, whether larger or smaller towns are bearing more of the brunt of Connecicut’s housing crisis, and the racial component of income inequality in the state.
Smolnik is even more hands-on in collecting his figures — he will often drive to certain towns to verify information himself.
“I’ll drive around and I’ll look. I’ll go into their land records and I’ll go into their county tax collector’s office. I’ll talk to the planning and zoning people,” Smolnik said, comparing himself to a detective.
Smolnik uses his writing — and his work as a tax attorney — as a way of helping people.
“Many people come to me with tax issues. And they say, ‘Well, that’s not fair.’ And I say ‘You’re right. It is not fair. But it is the law,’” he said.
His writing and interest in the details intersect with this concept of fairness, and is a “natural projection” of what he does.
“When I see things that are going on that are unfair for society, for human life, for basic human needs, like housing, health care, food, shelter getting deprived arbitrarily, I want to know why,” he said. “There’s something going on and it shouldn’t be a mystery.”
Hence, Smolnik uses his writing as a way to provide the tools to the public to investigate these mysteries.
“Now, no amount of data will ever convince an idiot. Someone who’s swayed by ideology is not really interested in my enormous data sets and proofs,” he said. “I hate to say I will never convince them, but they’re not my target audience. My target audience is people who are inquiring, who are curious.”
Smolnik prefers to appeal to these curious minds, to explain how “we have created an economy, a place to live, a social fabric that has a lot of unfair characteristics.”
And further, he “welcomes disagreement,” but encourages others to prove how they know something to be true.
“Show me your data. Discuss your data. Let’s see. It’s entirely possible I’ve interpreted the data in a different way than you interpreted it, so let’s see yours.” Smolnik said.
While this advocacy is a lot of work, Smolnik sees it as necessary for change. In speaking with his kids, for example, he would say that he spends a lot of time on these articles because he wants to make the world a better place, and leave it better than he found it.
Smolnik says this slow build to change requires people asking, “How can we make our community more fair?” or otherwise reflecting as the same issues regarding housing and the economy come up for a vote again and again.
Fighting the strong “majority rules” mentality in today’s society can be isolating, he said, though it does not stop him in the slightest.
“Maybe when I was in my 20s or 30s I would have feared that. Not anymore,” Smolnik said. “Now I know, I take the time. I assemble the data. I calculate it. I test it. Then, and only then, do I decide, ‘Does this seem to be true?’”