Daniel Zhao

For former New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, a new role as founding chair of Impact CT provides an opportunity to help speed up Connecticut’s legislative policy process to serve communities that need it most.

Impact CT is a 527 political action committee — or PAC — focused on making Connecticut state policy more equitable and just, Harp told the News in an interview. She said that the PAC is mostly focused on policies relating to housing, health, economic development and education. The committee will support candidates who are proponents of PAC-approved policies by raising money and assisting in outreach efforts independent of the candidates’ official campaigns. Harp and other PAC leadership have not yet announced the specific policies that the committee will support and declined to share details on their funding sources.

“We want to make sure that the funding of the policies is equitable and that everyone in Connecticut has an opportunity to benefit from the resources that the state puts into these various areas,” Harp said. “We’re going to be working on those areas to make sure that people can live decent lives here in Connecticut, and equitable lives.”

Impact CT was formed two months ago, growing out of an unofficial group of “friends with concerns,” she said. The group included John Motley, who serves as the group’s treasurer and Jesse Phillps, who invited Harp into their conversations.

In its initial campaign finance filing with the state, the PAC reported $100 on hand, all from one donation from Suffield attorney Derek Donnelly. The filing covered activity between February 19 and March 1 — before the PAC’s first fundraiser. The next filing deadline for the PAC is April 10.  

According to Harp, the initial group formed to examine policy areas that they perceived to be moving too slowly in the General Assembly and to make changes for the lives of economically disadvantaged communities, particularly urban communities that lack access to quality education, affordable housing, healthcare and economic opportunities.

“I was in the General Assembly for 21 years, and it may have made some progress, but not enough,” Harp said. “You’ve got a whole new generation of adults that are facing the same problems that people faced when I was young. The thought was if we could come together and really focus on these issues, that we could move things along a little faster.”

Ruben Felipe, a Bridgeport-based political advocate who the PAC’s board hired to organize the committee and help bring in staff members, was also present during the initial conversations out of which the committee was formed. Felipe now works full-time as a consultant.

According to Felipe, the initial group of like-minded advocates convened to share frustrations about a lack of systemic change at the state level. Initial meetings led to more meetings, and the PAC’s current board was eventually formed.

Alongside Harp, the committee selected three other board members: Carmen Colon, the former vice president of the Southwest YMCA, Evonne Klein, who served as a Connecticut housing commissioner and as first selectwoman in Darien and Jeffrey Ogbar, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who has served on community boards around the Hartford area.

According to Felipe, Harp and Colon were involved in early committee conversations. Ogbar told the News he believes he was the last member to join the board.

Felipe emphasized the importance of the PAC bringing together advocates from various backgrounds to work on tackling the obstacles they’ve identified together. 

He expressed frustration that while he sees many legislators align on certain issues, policies that could promote equity can “die on the vine” during the state legislative process. Like Harp, Felipe said he believes that political advocacy could help speed up the process.

Felipe clarified that he believes that many of the state legislators who represent areas with disadvantaged communities are “champions” for the kind of progressive causes Impact CT plans to support.

“The problem is that we live in a state where the legislature is disproportionately upper middle class suburban, and so, you can’t pass policies that impact disenfranchised people with only the support of those legislators,” he said.

The PAC has not yet selected any candidates to support. At the committee’s debut fundraiser in late March, Bridgeport State Rep. Antonio Felipe, Felipe’s son, was the only state legislator in attendance.

Ogbar said that this affiliation will not disqualify Rep. Felipe from receiving PAC support if his policy positions align with the committee’s eventual platform.

Harp said that the PAC will consider supporting both incumbents and challengers seeking office in the General Assembly.

“There are some people that are in the General Assembly now, who’ve always been champions on these issues, and I’m suspecting that we will support them,” Harp said. “And then we’re gonna find others, who we know would be champions if they had an opportunity to serve, that we will support, and hopefully they’ll have an opportunity to represent people and work with those who are already there to move these items forward.”

Felipe said that the committee aims to begin its process of identifying candidates for Connecticut’s Democratic primary in August, in which all General Assembly members will be up for reelection. 

In a March press release, the PAC has promised to be fully transparent about its finances and processes for selecting candidates. 

Harp, Felipe and Ogbar all said that the PAC has not yet finalized its policy platform. Felipe added that the committee is not focusing on specific bills at this time because the legislative session will end on May 8. Both declined to offer specific stances that the PAC will support until the platform is released.

“We’re ways away from figuring out specific bills,” Ogbar said.

The previous affiliations of committee leadership may provide a hint to the PAC’s future aims.

Motley is a private consultant who serves on the support board of Achievement First, a charter schools advocacy organization. Phillips, who currently serves as the inclusive growth coordinator for the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, helped found Booker T. Washington Academy, a New Haven charter school, in 2011. Felipe is the former executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association. 

As a state senator, Harp clashed with New Haven city officials over her strong support for charter schools.

When asked about the PAC’s position regarding charter schools, Felipe said that the PAC is generally supportive of school choice, but that the committee’s stance on education will focus broadly on access to more resources for public education in general.

“It’s not exclusive of charters, but it’s certainly not a centerpiece of the policy,” Felipe said.

Ogbar told the News that the topic of charter schools has not come up in the meetings he has attended.

Harp stressed that the PAC’s contribution to political advocacy will be through its capacity to unite advocates from across the state on several issues.

“I think that all of the policy issues that I mentioned — housing, health care, education, economic development — they all are synergistic, and work together,” she said. “If we’re going to make an impact, we’re going to have to work on all of those areas to assure that we can move the ball down the field for people who’ve been left out for generations.”

187 legislators serve in the Connecticut General Assembly —151 in the House and 36 in the Senate.

Ariela Lopez covers City Hall and City Politics. Originally from New York City, she is a first-year in Branford College.