Will Haskell is 22. He’s thinking about going to law school. But first he has to complete his term as Connecticut’s youngest state senator.
With just a few internships and a stint as a research assistant under his belt, on Nov. 6, Haskell was elected to represent his state’s 26th district, where he was born and raised. Spanning the towns of Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, and Wilton, it’s one of the richest districts of one of America’s richest states.
Haskell defeated Republican incumbent Toni Boucher, who’s been a member of the Connecticut state legislature for almost as many years as Haskell has been alive. He rode on the “blue wave” that helped bring dozens of young Democrats to office over seasoned, establishment candidates, with the help of a grassroots campaign run by his college roommate, and a crucial endorsement from Barack Obama.
Quartz spoke with the recent college grad about how he turned his age and inexperience from a liability into an asset.
Quartz: You won your race last week, so it’s still very fresh. How did you feel when you won?
Will Haskell: The honest answer is shock. I ran because I thought that this was possible, but I did not think or know that it was probable. I decided to run against somebody who had been in office for longer than I’ve been alive, and a lot of people thought that I was crazy; that this was a crazy idea. But behind that crazy idea, I think, was a not so crazy idea that Connecticut can do better, and that every generation deserves a seat at the table, and that just because somebody’s been in office for a long time does not mean that they’re entitled to another term.
What’s amazed me about running for office is that, if you step forward, and take a little bit of a risk in the hopes of making your community better, you will find an army of people behind you, ready to go and help out; people who are ready to drop everything and lend a hand. Our office was filled every single day with young people, 14, 15, 16-year-olds, and also 80-year-olds; people from every generation who were simply optimistic about Connecticut’s future.
What is the one thing you remember most clearly about that night?
Haskell: So, I … wish I could describe to you the moment, but it was such a blur, it was such a hectic night. I don’t remember my feet touching the floor, I don’t think that they did, until I got onto the stage. Somehow, I got onto the stage and gave a sort of impromptu speech that I never expected to give. I wrote a really beautiful concession speech, and then I sketched down some thoughts for a victory speech, and I ended up giving the victory speech. But anyways, it was an amazing night.
One conversation I had that I’ll never forget is I had a really civil, wonderful conversation with my opponent. She and I disagreed on policy but she is, I really believe, a dedicated public servant and a good person. She wished me luck and she talked about how important this job is, and said ‘I know you’ll … give it your all and bring energy into the Senate chamber.’ So, that was a really moving conversation because I think voters often think of candidates as enemies of one another, but actually we both have the same goal, and that is to make Connecticut a better place to live, a more appealing place for the next generation of workers and the next generation of businesses. So, it was a pretty impactful conversation, when all of a sudden felt like we were chatting as friends.
Do you see that as a symbol of a bygone era of bipartisanship? You both ran a pretty tame race compared to some of the bitter midterm battles we saw in Georgia, Florida, etc. Why do you think that is?
Haskell: I think the important thing is that senator Boucher and I talked about the issues, and we debated them relentlessly. … We went back and forth, disagreed on tolls and transportation funding, education reform, environmental regulations, LGBTQ equality, you name it. But we never made it personal.
I never doubted her motives and I don’t think she ever doubted mine. I think we need to get back to a place in this country, recognizing that we can disagree civilly but we’re all in this together. There are no Democratic towns, there are no Republican towns in Connecticut; there are just towns that are struggling, and citizens who are frustrated by a state government who they feel has left them behind or who has ignored them for too long.
How do you think you managed to turn a solidly Republican district?
I think many of the issues I ran on, frankly, were non-partisan. When I went and met commuters every day at the train station who were taking the train from Westport or Ridgefield, or New Canaan into New York, it didn’t matter what party I was or what party they were. They were stuck on a train that has gotten slower since 1950, not faster. That really isn’t a partisan issue. It speaks to a failure by Republicans as well as Democrats in Hartford to get the job done; to make forward-thinking transportation investments; to really recognize the needs of our community. I think the way we … get away from partisanship as a community in Connecticut but maybe as a country, that we get back to a place of respecting our political opponents, is just spending more time listening.
The first 1,000 doors I knocked, I think I spent too much time talking about my policy platform, my vision for how Connecticut could do better, and not enough time listening. … I learned to open up every conversation with the question: “What’s the most important issue for you?” And as I did the next about 100 meet and greets, and I did the next 3,000 doors, and I asked people, “hey what is the most important issue for you? How can the state government serve you better?” I learned so much more from those conversations, from actually listening to people when they confided in me their stories.
I met a woman from Bethel, Connecticut whose prescription drugs cost $12,000. I met a voter on her front porch who told me she lost her son to gun suicide. Those are the conversations that I’m going to remember forever. They are going to make me a better legislation, they made me a better candidate, but I also think that they’re conversations that that voter is going to remember forever.
Was there a particularly impactful conversation you had with someone on the campaign trail that convinced you that you were the right person for the job?
Haskell: I talked to a lot of people who said ‘I wish my kid was coming back to Connecticut.’ … I had a moment of clarity where I realized my age is not my biggest liability here. In fact, my age is an asset, because I recently decided to come back to Connecticut as a 22-year-old. I defied the odds of doing so. Most people my age, most of the people that I grew up with, are not making that decision; they’re not coming back to Connecticut. And if we are going to build an economy that is exciting and enticing to the next generation of workers; it is a state that inspires people to start their careers and start their small businesses and their families here, then we need to start electing more younger voices.
So, I came to realize that being a young person who looked around to find a cheap place to live in Fairfield County, who has the experience of moving back here in their 20s, that’s actually what we need more of.
Do you think that your age gives you a different perspective on our political and cultural moment?
Haskell: Absolutely. … Most people my age didn’t have to learn that family values apply to all families. We didn’t have to evolve on the issue of LGBTQ equality; we’ve just grown up in a world where that was either the reality or the shared goal. We know that we have to reform education and make students feel safe in the classroom, and make sure that every student in the classroom has a chance to succeed, because we’re not that far removed from the classroom. We know what makes great teachers and how to empower those teachers, because we’re still in touch with some of the teachers that were so exceptional—or less than exceptional—in our own lives.
Let’s talk about the people you represent. Connecticut is struggling with a lot of serious issues, many of which disproportionately affect the working class. How do you make sure you represent voters across the socio-economic spectrum?
Haskell: The 26th district is the wealthiest senate district in the state. And I think that … I had to be cognizant of that in the campaign and also as a state senator in recognizing that Connecticut is facing a lot of issues. … But I think that the opioid epidemic is cross-cutting. There are not barriers, racial, wealth, education, or otherwise, that affect who is going to suffer from an addiction to opioids. So that really resonated a lot with this community. Same thing with gun violence. Yes, gun violence is especially prevalent in our cities, but we see some of the worst school shootings out by … affluent areas.
I think what we have to do a better job of recognizing, as candidates and now as elected officials, is that Connecticut is not a random collection of 169 towns. We’re all in this together. Westport and Wilton and Weston, the suburbs that I represent, are no better off if Bridgeport and New Haven are falling behind. In fact, if we invest in our cities, if we start thinking of ourselves as a regional economy, we’ll all be better off.
What’s next in the cards for you?
Haskell: That’s an interesting question. I think I’m pretty laser-focused right now on getting started in Hartford … So I haven’t put in too much thought to what I want to do later on. I know that eventually I want to go to law school. I took the LSAT while I was campaigning to sort of keep open my options. My girlfriend is at law school right now and that’s something that really interests me. But beyond that, I really want to do a good job over the next two years. I earned 53% of the vote, but I want to win over those other 47% of voters. I want to show them that I can … really be a strong advocate for our community.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.