You haven’t seen the last of Gary Holder-Winfield. A popular fixture in New Haven politics — and not just because of his lively social media presence — Holder-Winfield was sworn in a week ago today as state senator representing Connecticut’s 10th district. He replaces Mayor Toni Harp, who held the post for nearly 21 years before assuming New Haven’s highest office this January. But Holder-Winfield is no stranger to Hartford. He was a state representative for five years, best known for his leadership on the groundbreaking 2012 repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty. Now Holder-Winfield is helping to lead another charge: increasing the minimum wage, an issue sacred for Democrats nationwide. WEEKEND sat down with Holder-Winfield to talk about workers’ issues, his legislative experience and ambitions and his philosophy of lawmaking, which he says differs from Kevin Spacey’s on the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.”
Q. You’ve been on the job for a week. How has that been?
A. It’s been a good week. A lot of acclimating myself to the job: getting myself into my office, getting a new aide. The session is well underway, so I come in a little bit late. I’m the chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, so we’ve been having the minimum wage debate this week. We’re also dealing with hospital conversions and workers’ compensation stuff. What I’ve been doing is poring over research on those issues.
Q. The committee passed Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s minimum wage hike — $10.10 by 2017 — on Tuesday. What are your responsibilities with regard to the bill from here on out?
A. We voted the bill out of committee on Tuesday. As the chair, when it hits the senate floor, I will be the person who defends that bill. I didn’t get to see President Obama speak in New Britain on Wednesday because I was at the capital instead, doing research to make sure I know the arguments.
Q. Do you think it will pass?
A. I think it has a really good shot at passing. If you look at the approval ratings nationally and here in Connecticut, it has something like a 71 percent approval rating in the state. When something has a 71 percent approval rating and you have a Democratic majority, I would say it has a pretty good shot.
Q. You told me in January you didn’t think the legislature would move on an additional wage increase this session. What changed?
A. It’s helpful that the President wanted to do it. It changed the conversation from ‘Connecticut is doing this on its own’ to ‘this is something that follows a national trend.’ It’s not just Democrats in Connecticut going off on their own and driving businesses somewhere else, which is what Republicans say. This is part of a movement and should the movement catch fire, we wouldn’t be all by ourselves.
Q. During your campaign for state senator, you received the backing of numerous labor unions — and spoke about the obligation of politicians to raise awareness about workers’ issues. What are those issues?
A. I have a lot of concern for working people. It’s certainly one of my main focuses as chair of the Labor Committee. I’m also a person who demonstrated on the death penalty debate that I don’t have an aversion to dealing with controversy. I also work for the professors’ union at Southern Connecticut State University, so I have a real understanding of labor issues. It’s what I’ve done for the last eight years. So my point was that it’s important to have these conversations publicly. We talk a lot about the middle class, but that obscures this group of people who are really more in the working class. The problem is when people start to see themselves as middle class, they stop thinking of themselves as the beneficiaries of policies that benefit primarily the working class.
Q. Because Mayor Harp served as the state senator for the 10th district for 21 years, people say you have big shoes to fill. Does that affect you — how do you plan on filling those shoes?
A. I replaced [former State Rep. William] Dyson as representative for the 94th district. He was there for 32 years. He was a legend. When I replaced him, people would say to me, ‘oh sorry that you replaced Bill Dyson; no one will know you for ten years.’ It didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t focus on replacing Bill Dyson — I focused on doing a good job. I’m not focused on how I can come in and do what [Harp] did. I’m focused on, ‘Can I do a good job and work harder than the people around me?’ All of that being said, she was a phenomenal state senator. Anybody who would tell you anything different didn’t know what Toni Harp did. She made sure that the things that are supposed to come back to her district did. It’s something to strive toward.
Q. Harp initially endorsed you during the mayoral race last year. Then she entered the race, and you ended up dropping out and supporting her. Has that affected your relationship? What’s the dynamic like now?
A. I just feel it’s business. I don’t get into all of the drama of politics. It’s not good. It doesn’t serve you well. If you do that, you’re not long for this arena. I’m focused on making sure I’m around to do good things; I want to be around for a while. That means staying out of some of the silliness. In that election there were a lot of people who wanted me to come out and go after the mayor for going back on her promise to support me. I wasn’t going to do that. That’s “Real Housewives”-type stuff.
Q. Speaking of the “drama of politics,” do you watch “House of Cards”?
A. I have only seen one episode. I haven’t had time. But the first episode was intriguing. I really would like to watch more.
Q. Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal of politics?
A. My politics don’t operate that way. My politics aren’t about how do I control everything or how do I game the system. I certainly don’t game the system in the way Kevin Spacey does. There are people who see politics that way, and people who get into politics and see it as a game. Those people probably don’t do so well. Politics are about your relationships. If you’re always about undercutting people or manipulating people, you’re not going to build the relationships that are useful to you.
Q. You say you want to stick around. Does that mean as a state senator or in another office? Do you plan to run for mayor again — or for federal office?
A. People bring that up from time to time. I will say this: I’m not looking to run for mayor anytime soon. As for federal office, I’m not thinking about that right now — I’m not thinking about the next race. From the mayor’s race to the state senate election, I’ve been involved in races for about the time it takes to run for president. I’m glad to have a little bit of downtime.
Q. People have compared you to Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson as a leading black Connecticut politician. Do you think this is a useful comparison, and what is the importance of race or other identity categories in politics?
A. Scott and myself — yeah, whatever. I’m appreciative of the fact that people think I’m one of those people. All I ever intend to do is figure out how I can learn enough to represent people well. If that makes me someone who’s prominent, great. As for the question of race, I think it’s important to have women, people of color, people with disabilities in elected office. It shows what’s possible. Young people need to see that a woman can be governor, or a black person or a Native American. It’s important for young people to open their doors and see people like that running for office and in positions of power.
Q. Was it important for you when you were young?
A. When I was younger, we didn’t have a lot of people like that in office. I can’t think of anyone in particular. Maybe it was just my mom for me. She worked every day to provide for me — working at the post office moving mail. She worked herself into bad health. I was inspired by the fact that she worked so hard. I didn’t have a black president. At the time we had to look backwards and see the people in the civil rights movement. But no one at present. That’s part of the reason I think what I’m doing is important.