This is the ninth of an occasional series profiling Connecticut people who frequently share their insights, passions and opinions with fellow readers in CT Viewpoints commentaries.
Josh Elliott smiles as he walks into a recent meeting of the Hamden Democratic Town Committee, shaking hands and enthusiastically chatting with colleagues. As the meeting comes to order, he stands against the wall, arms crossed. He is no longer the political newcomer he was back in 2016.
Elliott, 38, was elected to the state legislature in 2016, after challenging then-House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey for the Democratic nomination in the 88th District of Hamden. Ultimately, Sharkey did not seek re-election and Elliott defeated the party-endorsed candidate in a primary.
“I had no political experience locally,” he explained. And at the time, Elliott explicitly said he was “not there to make friends.”
Recalling this, he laughs and adds “spiky-haired liberal,” referring to a description of him in a 2017 CT Mirror article about his first year in the legislature. Despite his lack of experience, Elliott was eager to get started.
“I think I was taken seriously, but I wouldn’t say that I had a lot of power,” Elliott said.
“When I came in, I was very frustrated by the fact that we as a party couldn’t seem to get our act together to do what felt as the very basic or modicum of what it means to be a Democrat, which is like passing paid family medical leave and passing minimum wage,” he said.
But in retrospect, Elliott now understands the importance of numbers in state-level politics.
“So you can have the most liberal member of the caucus be the head of the party and if the numbers aren’t there, it doesn’t matter,” he explained. “And you can have a really moderate member who’s leading the caucus, and if you have a ton of Democrats, you’re gonna pass a ton of progressive legislation.”
But joining the state House of Representatives as “the one bright spot for the left that year,” Elliott “didn’t have a lot of that context,” which made the job a steep learning curve.
“I was incredibly frustrated. But one thing that I was really conscious of, I was raging out at the world, maybe, but I wasn’t individually going after anybody.” This, Elliott said, allowed him to focus on building necessary relationships in a state legislature.
Elliott grew up in Guilford — where he was home schooled until attending Hamden Hall for high school. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in sociology. After staying in Ithaca for a few years post-grad, he spent some time in Virginia to work on a friend’s local political campaign.
When that campaign was “crushed,” in the election, he returned to Hamden to attend law school at Quinnipiac University, graduating in 2013.
Outside of working in the state legislature, Elliott is a co-owner of “the family business” Thyme and Season, a health food store and organic market in Hamden, which opened in 1997. Previously he also co-owned and operated The Common Bond, a similar store which closed earlier this year but “was open for about a decade.”
Elliott has learned since being elected that the time commitment of being a state representative depends on the individual and the district.
“It’s dependent on what your life is like back at home and how much time you can devote to the work,” he explained. “I think some of it is ‘What are the needs of your district?’”
It also depends on the Connecticut General Assembly schedule, which is only actively in session for half the year.
“Half the year starts feeling kind of intense, where my headspace is ‘politics, politics, politics.’ Then there’s the other six months of the year or so, where I’m always available,” Elliott said.
Of the representative work, Elliott said he has most enjoyed “triaging people to the right place,” and balancing relationships with colleagues at the capitol and also with constituents and other groups in his district.
On top of running a small business and representing the 88th District, he is also a repeated op-ed contributor for CT Mirror’s Viewpoints and The Hartford Courant — a practice he’s established as a tool to aid his legislative work.
“There are so many things that are also outside of your control,” he said. “And when those things are outside of your control, trying to move as many people to think about a topic and get them on your side about a topic is the next best step.”
With this idea in mind, Elliott writes op-eds when he feels that he’s “at a standstill, in terms of moving things internally,” to spark conversation and gauge interest from other legislators regarding potential policy moves.
“When I put something out there, I can have other [legislators] be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were interested in this. I’m interested in this, too.’ And you can sort of figure out, in an almost easier way, who your allies are in this fight as well.”
Elliott is also mindful of his audience outside of the Capitol.
“I feel like whoever is interested and engaged and wants to get their news from a publication like CT Mirror are the people that I think are going to be more likely to engage and interested in reading an op-ed that I would be putting out,” he said.
As for his writing process, Elliott described it as simple nowadays, having warmed up to the concept of writing multiple drafts over the last few years.
“My revelation in my late 20s and early 30s — having always thought that I wasn’t a very good writer — the process of writing is just the process of editing,” he explained.
“I’m actually a pretty clear thinker,” he added. “But the first draft of anything is just always bad. It’s just that’s the nature of the beast.”
Hence, Elliott “likes getting edits,” though he also works to maintain his personal voice in each piece he writes.
“The feedback that I get that’s the most satisfying is when somebody says, ‘I can actually hear you saying that,’” he said. “Because that’s what I try to aim for, my tone is always going to be conversational.”
Outside of writing for opinion pages and working in the state legislature, Elliott spent the last month working at Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine — where he attended camp for years as an adolescent and worked as a counselor after graduating college.
In returning, he recognized that much of the camp’s culture had manifested itself in his current work and worldview.
“It’s just a very inclusive culture that they’ve created in the middle of nowhere, Maine,” he said. “When I was a kid, this was a place of refuge for me.”
Elliott believes his ability to navigate the legislature since 2016 comes from his time at summer camp, both as a camper and a counselor.
“I attribute a lot of my success to my time there,” he said. “So being able to go back is really rewarding for me.”