Wikimedia Commons

One of Hartford’s most powerful lawmakers, New Haven Senator Martin Looney, may soon face a primary challenger.

Looney has represented Connecticut’s 11th district  — which includes parts of Yale, New Haven, Hamden and North Haven — for 26 years and has spent the past five years as the chamber’s President Pro Tempore. But last month, Alex Taubes LAW ’15, a 31-year-old lawyer from New Haven, announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to potentially challenge Looney. In an interview with the News, Taubes cited his qualifications and frustration with Looney’s moderation, as reasons for his potential run in the Aug. 11 primary.

“I really think that I have something to contribute, and I have good ideas, and I think I’ll be a good state senator,” Taubes said. “Senator Looney has been in office for 40 years, and a lot of the neighborhoods he represents were poor then and still are now… we’re going to go back to all those places and see what we can do to help them.”

Primary challenges are often very difficult for the challenger, given the incumbent’s name recognition advantage. As the top lawmaker in the Senate and the face of the New Haven delegation in Hartford, Looney is likely to be an even tougher opponent to top. While Looney has not had a primary opponent in over ten years, he has won contested general elections, most recently in 2018 and 2010, each time with over 75 percent of the vote. The 11th district is generally considered to be safely Democratic, which means that whoever wins the August primary is likely to be elected in November.

In a statement sent to the News, Looney touted his record of legislative achievement and readiness to engage in a primary campaign.

“Last year, I was proud to lead the effort to pass a Paid Family and Medical Leave program, a raise in the minimum wage to $15 by 2023, new police accountability and transparency measures, numerous pro-patient health care and health insurance protections and another large investment in workforce training and apprenticeships,” Looney said. “I am always prepared and eager to campaign on my record of serving the constituents of New Haven, Hamden and North Haven.”

Taubes grew up in nearby Madison and Fairfield before attending Boston University in Massachusetts and Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 2015. While he was in law school, Taubes first dipped into electoral politics by running for a state house seat in Madison. While he ultimately lost that race in the general election to a Republican incumbent, he told the News that it helped him learn skills and knowledge about campaigning which he expects to use if he challenges Looney.

After law school, Taubes was one of few graduates in his class to stay in New Haven, where he worked on a clinic that often represented underprivileged individuals against large, corporate interests. Some of Taubes’ cases during these years spanned questions of affordable housing, police violence and malfunctioning medical devices.

While working as a lawyer, Taubes became a familiar face in Hartford as he testified on a number of bills. Taubes told the News that he has been an advocate for voting reform, such as early voting and ranked-choice voting. He also has worked on legislative issues such as affordable housing and elimination of the electoral college. Taubes became well known to many in New Haven for his fierce advocacy for then-mayor Toni Harp and her re-election campaign, even after she chose to stop actively campaigning following a primary loss in last year’s mayoral election.

Taubes told the News that if elected, he would govern close to the left wing of the Democratic party, aiming to be what he called the “AOC and Bernie” of Connecticut, in reference to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I want to put out a radical platform… that could make Connecticut a better place,” Taubes said. “We see the radical right reshape society every day, but radical justice, we don’t see very often.”

Taubes told the News that he has grown frustrated with Looney’s slow, methodological approach to legislative politics in Hartford. In particular, Taubes believes that Democrats are very likely to retain or increase their 22–14 advantage in the State Senate in 2020, which he said gives them plenty of opportunity to advocate for a bold, progressive agenda in Hartford this year.

The reason this agenda is not being pursued, according to Taubes, is because Looney is aiming to protect the more vulnerable, moderate members of the party by not bringing forward progressive legislation such as school funding and affordable housing.

In a statement sent to the News, Looney said he would focus on strengthening the state’s “economy, education system, environment, and justice system,” among other issues.

Taubes told the News that even if he loses, he may be able to push the legislative conversation to the left in Hartford in 2020 and gain exposure to be more equipped for a future run. He also expressed frustration that recently called special sessions have debated what he views as moderate issues, while other progressive issues remain untouched.

“When they wanted to pass a bill to restrict workers’ abilities, they called a special session. When they wanted to ratify a five billion settlement with the hospital, they called a special session,” he said. “For radical ideas, like climate change, affordable housing, police shootings, and economic inequality, why can’t we call special sessions for those real crises, those real problems?”

Having recently formed an exploratory committee, Taubes is not yet certain whether he will mount a run against Looney. The formation of the committee allows him, regardless, to raise money and work to ensure that he can be on the ballot.

If Taubes runs, he will participate in Connecticut’s public financing program, which will allow him to receive a $90,000 grant for the Aug. 11 primary if he raises at leat $15,000 on his own. To qualify for the grant, Taubes will need donations from at least 300 donors in the 11th district. He will also need to raise $15,000 without any donations larger than $250. In addition, Taubes will begin focusing on qualifying to be on the primary ballot by receiving support from at least 15 percent of members of the State Senatorial District Convention in New Haven, Hamden and North Haven, which he is confident he can accomplish. Last year, newly inaugurated Mayor Justin Elicker ran and won using public financing.

Former Vice-President of the Yale College Democrats Paige Swanson ’20 told the News that she was excited to see what Taubes may bring to the race, but expects him to potentially struggle against Looney.

“I’m eager to see what Taubes’ campaign shapes up to be since it’s rare that we get to see a senator who has been in office so long challenged in a primary,” she said. “But it will definitely be a difficult race because of Senator Looney’s long and successful incumbency.”

The 2020 General Election is on Nov. 3

 

Emmett Shell | emmett.shell@yale.edu