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November 7, 2022

13 questions with CT Attorney General candidates on justice issues

YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG The 'Genius of Connecticut' under the dome of the state Capitol.

The race for Connecticut Attorney General is winding down, with four attorneys vying for the office that legally represents the state and its interests: William Tong, the Democratic incumbent campaigning for a second opportunity; Jessica Kordas, the Republican challenger; Ken Krayeske, the Green Party candidate; and A.P. Pascarella, who represents the Independent Party.

Ahead of the Nov. 8 elections, The Connecticut Mirror sent each candidate for the four-year term a list of questions addressing their respective platforms and positions on several justice-related issues, including public health, abortion, incarceration and voting. Candidates chose to either provide verbal or written responses to the questions, some of which are edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as the job of Connecticut’s Attorney General? 

Tong: “My role is to protect and defend Connecticut families. … At the same time, it is my primary and principal responsibility to be the state’s lawyer and to represent the state and its officials acting in their official capacity — that’s really important. I’m not the governor’s personal lawyer. I’m his lawyer when he’s governor. And [my job is to] to represent state agencies and departments.” 

Kordas: “The first priority of the Attorney General should be to protect the people of Connecticut. The AG must love the law more than they love their own opinion or the wants and desires of their political party. Unbiased and nonpartisan decision-making should be the hallmark of the AG’s office. Unfortunately that has recently not been the case.”

Krayeske: “The AG’s job is to be the lawyer for the government of the state of Connecticut.”

Kenneth Krayeske, the Green Party candidate for attorney general.

Pascarella: “The Attorney General supervises civil suits for the state and issues legal opinions interpreting Connecticut law.”

What are some things you think people misunderstand about the AG’s role? 

Tong: “I think they don’t often see the day-to-day work that we do, because it doesn’t make the paper. For example, fighting for people who have bank accounts at M&T Bank and couldn’t get access to their money, or people that had flights canceled or trips canceled during COVID and we got them their money back.

“I think sometimes people overlook that day-to-day consumer protection work that I do. I think another misconception is that we do criminal work when we don’t. So other states have different setups, but 99% of my authority is civil. The only criminal work I do is in the area of home improvement contractors.”

Kordas: “I think the majority of people in Connecticut don’t realize that the Attorney General lacks any criminal jurisdiction. Discussions on crime, prosecution and policy are largely best reserved for the legislature, the POST (Police Officer Standards Training) Council, and the Chief State’s Attorney’s office.”

Krayeske: “For the past several decades, skilled politicians like Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal have carefully crafted an image of the AG as a Ralph Nader-like crusader for the people, going after corporations who wrong the people of Connecticut. While this may be one small part of the AG’s job, the reality is that the AG’s office is where the rubber meets the road in the state monopoly on violence. While the AG is sworn to uphold the Constitution, the AG’s office regularly defends constitutional violators in state government.

“For example, the AG’s office defended the supervisors who failed to stop four correctional officers from regularly sexually assaulting a woman … When she sued, the AG’s office mounted a defense that essentially overturned the supervisory liability precedent. … She will not see any compensation for this torture.”

Pascarella: “The Attorney General does not deal with criminal matters and must work for the best interests of ‘the state’ (not ‘the people’).”

A.P. Pascarella, Independent Party candidate for attorney general.

What differentiates you from the other AG candidates? 

Tong: “I think what obviously differentiates me is that I’m the attorney general and that I’ve been the attorney general for four years. And it has been an extraordinary and consequential four years in the Office of the Attorney General. … If you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish for people here in Connecticut, I took on Eversource and United Illuminating, our state’s utilities.

“If you look at our work on the generic drug price fixing case which I now lead. … I’ve talked about recovering more than $40 billion to $50 billion dollars now for the opioid and addiction crisis … So much work has been done in these past four years, and all of it is consequential. And all of it matters to people here in Connecticut.”

Kordas: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

Jessica Kordas, Republican candidate for attorney general, listening to her nomination next to her two children.

Krayeske: “I have litigated many cases against the State of Connecticut and understand how the power of the Office of the Attorney General is used to cover up the wrong doing of people who work for the State. I would enter this office with an eye towards being compassionate to the victims of the evils done by the state government.” 

Pascarella: “I am not a trial lawyer and as such would bring a fresh perspective to managing the team of litigators we are fortunate to have working in the Connecticut AG’s office.”

Do you think there is racial and/or socioeconomic inequality in Connecticut? If so, what can the Attorney General do — whether through litigation or other means — to combat it? 

Tong: “I settled the two longest standing cases in this state that have far reaching consequences for social justice, for urban communities, for communities of color, for underserved communities. The first case is called Sheff v. O’Neill. That was probably the longest running or one of the longest running school desegregation cases in this country and was commenced more than 30 years ago. 

“The other one was the long-time and, some would say, notorious, child protection case called Juan F. … Finally, after years and years and years, working with DCF, we were able to put the Department of Children and Families on a much stronger path to serving families, to serving kids. These are usually kids and families who find themselves in very, very difficult circumstances.”

Kordas: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

Krayeske: “AG Tong helped create a civil rights division allowing him to investigate and sue large-scale civil rights violators. The AG’s office now has a tool to go after towns like Cromwell that engage in housing discrimination. The shortcoming of Sheff v. O’Neill, which AG Tong — to his credit — helped settle, is that the original plaintiff’s attorneys in Sheff dropped the component of the case that claimed CT has de jure and de facto housing segregation. The new civil rights division of the AG’s office will allow the AG’s office to attack the racial and socioeconomic inequality in housing.”

Pascarella: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

Understanding that part of the attorney general’s duty is to represent the state, what will you do when that duty collides with the interests of underserved people — people of color, low-income people, and so on?

Tong: “It’s difficult, I won’t lie to you. … I have a profound constitutional statutory and ethical obligation to represent the state. And I take that very seriously. That being said, I think what’s important for me to always focus on is all the ways in which I can promote justice and equity. And as an employer, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in my office, is in my work that does not conflict with my role as the state’s lawyer. 

“I’m the first attorney general to successfully demand that authority to investigate civil rights cases. … It is my job to be in court, including the U.S. Supreme Court. We were in both the Dobbs case and then the big abortion case before Dobbs … fighting tooth and nail to protect a woman’s right to choose and the right to have an abortion.” 

Attorney General William Tong makes an announcement about filing suit against ExxonMobil for knowingly contributing to the emissions that cause climate change and hiding it from the public on Sept. 14, 2020 at Canal Dock Boathouse in New Haven.

Kordas: “The role of the Attorney General is to represent the state, and the personal opinion of the individual in that position should not factor into that defense. With that said, the Attorney General has the capacity to propose and influence legislation when the laws on the books are unjust.”

Krayeske: “The AG’s office has a duty to attorn, to advise its clients, the executive branch agencies of the State of Connecticut, when it is smart to put up a fight and when it should litigate as a matter of principle. 

“For example, I brought a class action lawsuit to test all people in the custody of the CT Department of Correction for Hepatitis C and to cure those with HCV with direct acting antivirals. AG Tong fought this suit – moved to dismiss and objected to class certification. Both of those actions were defeated. It took years to resolve this, and the DOC fought it.”

Pascarella: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

The state has found itself involved in litigation stemming from measures passed to protect people from COVID-19. What steps should the AG’s office be taking to safeguard the health of Connecticut residents? And why? 

Tong: “My job is to save lives. By the way, the difference between me and my competitors: I don’t get to Monday morning quarterback this thing. I was there in the pandemic. As the attorney general, I don’t get the benefit of hindsight, I don’t get to second guess it. I had to do it. I had to live it. And I’m as sure as I am of anything that the governor’s strong response, the state’s strong response to COVID saved thousands of lives.

“I am also sure that if we had listened to people that said we shouldn’t wear masks, and shouldn’t social distance, and shouldn’t get vaccinated, that a lot more people would have died. … I will trust science, and doctors, and nurses, and public health experts. And that’s what we should do every day.”

Kordas: “As much as we in Connecticut have become accustomed to activist Attorneys General, the job is to defend and enforce the laws of the state. While I disagree with the length and scope of Gov. Lamont’s executive orders, that is not a luxury afforded to me as the Attorney General.

“With that said, I would alter the practice of the office by examining Constitutional issues at the outset — instead of waiting until prompted by legislative leaders — and advising the administration on what items are proper for them to propose and sign into law.”

Krayeske: “The AG properly defended all the attacks against Gov. Lamont’s COVID executive orders. Critically, though, the AG’s office defended lawsuits claiming the prisons failed to protect prisoners from COVID. People in Connecticut jails and prisons had to resort to lawsuits to get soap to wash their hands to be protected against COVID. Prisoners weren’t bringing COVID in, guards were, and the AG’s office subjugated its duties to the prisoners in favor of protecting correctional officers’ unions.”

Pascarella: “COVID-19 is an outlier: What was reasonable in the beginning wasn’t later. Holding bad actors responsible for any harm to public health is a vital role of the AG’s office and one Connecticut AGs have been strong on.”

What are some specific examples of things you would do to help protect people from environmental issues, like climate change — especially in cities like Hartford that have had to persevere through decades of trash burning and waste? 

Tong: “I’m suing Exxon Mobil for lying to us about climate change and climate science. Connecticut has also been a lead state in standing up to the Trump administration, when he was in power, in trying to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. But in particular, in trying to dismantle the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. 

“Connecticut’s air quality is not as good as it should be … because of the way the wind blows. Connecticut sits at the end of America’s tailpipe. When you blow emissions in the air in Ohio, they blow down wind into Connecticut. That’s how it works. And so, good neighbor laws, which limit emissions in other states, are really important to Connecticut, because our air gets polluted by our neighbors. We’ve been very active in litigation in trying to force the EPA — and we’ve been successful in part — in reversing attempts to dismantle those good neighbor laws, and reinstating them and enforcing them.”

Kordas: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

Krayeske: “The AG’s office helps set policy for state agencies by showing the contours of what is acceptable behavior, within the confines of federal and state legislation. With that in mind, the AGs office can counsel the Governor’s Office and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on new radical legislation to approach climate change. Connecticut is a small state, and the citizens do not have enough market power like California to force wholesale industry changes. But CT can latch onto CA’s best practices. CT can build on the network of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to build new efforts, like more offshore wind power.

“The AGs office can jump into litigation started by other organizations, like joining the lawsuit against the companies that manage the oil tanks in New Haven Harbor. This could be an important contribution to battling climate change. Rising sea levels will make those oil tanks worthless in the future, and CT can help force the oil companies to clean up the mess and to shift us away from fossil fuels. Creative and unconventional approaches and uses of state legal resources are needed at this critical time in human history.”

Pascarella: “A pristine environment, especially in a state like ours with so much natural beauty, is essential to maintain and improve. Decisions on which cases to bring and which cases to settle if the state is sued are ones that the AG will make ideally with input from DEEP, the legislators, and officers of the state.”

Where do you stand on abortion access in Connecticut? And what would you do to convey that position?

Tong: “I will fight for women, and patients, and doctors, and nurses every day, all day. And for me, it’s not enough to say that you’re pro-choice in this moment, you have to prove it. You have to be specific. And I’ll be specific in saying: If Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell tried to pass a national federal ban on abortion, I will be the first to file suit.

“If Bob Stefanowski, God forbid, became governor — which I don’t think is going to happen — but if he did, if he or any other Governor tried to pass an extreme ban on abortion or tried to change any part of our state’s abortion law, I would oppose them.”

Kordas: “I am proudly pro-choice and could not imagine living in a world where women do not have on-demand access to the highest-quality medical and reproductive health services. I believe it is incumbent upon all candidates for state office to fully understand this issue and speak clearly as to what they believe in and why. 

“I have been fortunate to never have to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy, but — as have most women — I know all too well the stories of fear, heartbreak and despair that choice brings. I cannot imagine being in that position, but I know that I do not want to live, or bring my daughter up, in a world where informed choice is not an option. … I would continue the new practice that Attorney General Tong has enacted, appointing and supporting a Special Assistant Attorney General for reproductive rights within my office.”

Krayeske: “There is no role for government to play in the choices a woman makes about her body. Connecticut has codified the right to abortion access in its laws. Connecticut should enshrine a right to privacy in its state Constitution. The federal right to privacy is under attack, and the private health care decisions between a woman and her doctor must be safeguarded through an amendment to the Connecticut Constitution.

“AG Tong has created a new office to protect a woman’s right to choose that deserves applause, but it will remain a political stunt in the middle of an election season until it appears that the office does its job. Like the civil rights division, I remain skeptical of this new women’s health care position in the AGs office until it shows results.”

Pascarella: “We have good law in Connecticut today, with abortion permitted after viability only if necessary to preserve a pregnant person’s life or health (including mental health). Importantly, our law is in line with that of surrounding states but does not go so far as states that have no post-viability limitations.

“Because our State’s abortion law is well balanced, I would enforce it when possible and as necessary. Should the legislature enact measures to extend this protection to women from states where such relief does not exist, I would support that law, as well.”

Connecticut is currently facing a lawsuit over its prison debt law, which essentially makes people convicted of serious crimes pay for their own confinement — a price tag that can equal as much as $249 per day. What is your perspective on this practice? 

Tong: “This is a specific case which is the subject of litigation, and I can’t speak to it. …  I have a constitutional statutory ethical obligation to represent the state of Connecticut as its lawyer, and this is the law of the state of Connecticut, and it’s my job to enforce and defend it.”

Kordas: “Last session, the Judiciary Committee advanced a piece of legislation on a bipartisan basis to reform the so-called ‘prison lien’ system, a policy that was subsequently enacted within a budget bill. I support the new law and will aggressively enforce it as Attorney General.”

Krayeske: “Cost of incarceration liens must be abolished. Cost of incarceration liens are secondary punishments inflicted on people who have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Cost of incarceration liens are cruel, especially when the AG’s office attempts to use them as leverage in cases stemming from civil rights abuses.”

Pascarella: “This case concerns the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A fine amount is unlawful if grossly disproportionate to the gravity of and harm caused by the offense, with the specific facts of the case, and character of the defendant also considered. So, it depends.”

What more would you do to protect the interests of incarcerated people in the state? 

Tong: “I think it’s really important to support the legislature in places where I can in making sure that we continue to focus on criminal justice reform — that we find pathways for people who are formerly incarcerated, to find opportunities for re-entry, for jobs, for supportive housing. 

“I don’t actually have the ability either to change the manner in which we conduct criminal prosecutions or investigations or incarceration in the state as the attorney general. I don’t have authority over the Department of Corrections and the commissioner of corrections. And I think that’s one of the things that people misunderstand … But I will say that even though it is my job and responsibility to represent the Department of Corrections, and to be its lawyer, we’re always trying to encourage the Department of Corrections to improve the way it works and to do better.”

Kordas: “The position of Attorney General, unfortunately, is often in the position of representing the Department of Corrections and the state against suits by incarcerated persons. While I would continue to do my duty to represent the state, I would support further reforms to the Claims Commissioner process to ensure claims against the state — including pro se prisoner petitions — have a fair, thorough, and timely airing.”

Krayeske: “I think my record on securing rights for people held in the custody of the CT DOC is unmatched. I would attempt to get the DOC to close more prisons and to approach criminal justice through a restorative justice lens. … While CT’s [incarceration] rates are low for the United States, we are still grossly out of step with our European counterparts. Connecticut must reduce its prison population. Prisons only exacerbate trauma and create more crime.”

Pascarella: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

CT is one of only four states without early voting. It’s also one of the several states without no-excuse absentee voting. People in the state have called for Connecticut to pass its own Voting Rights Act. What do you make of ballot box access in Connecticut, and how might it intersect with your work as Attorney General? 

Tong: “We represent the Secretary of the State, and we’re not going to have any tolerance for the tactics that we see in other states: People camping out at ballot boxes, or drop boxes, or trying to intimidate voters. … Apart from that, you should know that as Attorney General, I played an active role in protecting our elections broadly in 2020. And I was part of the team of attorneys general that went to the Supreme Court to stop my Republican colleagues, also attorneys general, from asking the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the presidential election. We were successful in stopping them there.”

Kordas: “I support the early voting amendment question. It largely codified what we already have in practice. Today, someone can walk into town hall, ask for an [absentee ballot] application, fill it out, receive the ballot, and vote all in the same 10 minutes. That’s early voting, just more complicated than it need be.

“We should make our interactions with government simpler, not more difficult. … ​​While election laws are strictly the purview of the Secretary of the State for interpretation and enforcement, I will ensure the laws are interpreted and applied uniformly and without discriminatory impact and will aggressively defend Connecticut’s election laws from legal challenge.”

Krayeske: “Obviously all efforts should be taken to improve ballot box access, including vote by mail and no-excuse absentee voting. Ranked-choice voting should be implemented, and we should consider other ballot initiatives like a binding none-of-the-above option, mandatory voting like in Australia and non-partisan elections. Redesigning our horribly designed ballots would help improve voting turnout as well.

“Connecticut can also improve ballot box access by improving ballot access and candidates’ rights. Connecticut is not Oklahoma in this sense, but it still has one of the more difficult ballot access regimes with its signature collection numbers, especially in a pandemic world. … The government needs to respond and create room for the development of new political parties, new political voices and new political choices.”

Pascarella: “Connecticut has very restrictive voting laws for both candidates and voters with structural hostility (such as financing, access to debates, signatures and access to voter data) toward minor parties compared to major parties. The AG can help by bringing cases to curb violations and not defending meritorious claims against the state that concern voting rights.

“Legislative solutions may include Ranked Choice Voting, fully transparent redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering, term limits on legislative offices, expanding automatic voter registration (AVR) beyond DMV, and considering same day registration, early voting and vote-at-home options.”

There are a bevy of other issues voters care about, from education, through policing, to housing. What are some outlying issues you would like to help address as AG? And why? 

Tong: “It’s hard for people, particularly in underserved and marginalized communities, and it’s really hard right now to raise kids, and make a living, and afford a home, and do better for yourself and your family. And so I think going forward, that motivates us. 

“Hopefully having established civil rights authority here in Connecticut, people will know that they can call us and they can say, ‘I’ve been discriminated against at work, and it’s a larger pattern of discrimination [for] many people who share my background, or look like I look, or have my story. … I look forward to doing even more of the day-to-day consumer protection work.”

Kordas: [The candidate did not respond to this question]

Krayeske: As Attorney General, I would focus on economic and human rights issues. For example, wage theft is an enormous issue for the working class in Connecticut. The AG’s office could approach wage and hour matters from multiple perspectives. The AGs office could utilize the civil rights division to attack labor law violations as a civil rights issue, like with Starbucks attacks on union organizers that violate their rights to free association. Or, the AGs office could bolster the staff at the Department of Labor and partner with the CT DOL to investigate employers who violate the CT Wage and Hour laws.”

Pascarella: “When the Democratic primary is the race for AG, as it has been in Connecticut for 50 years, there is likely to be a lot of ‘dead wood’ and political cronyism in the ranks of the AG’s office. Elections are the lifeblood of our nation because they bring change. I encourage Connecticut voters to have the courage to cast their ballot for change this year.”

What do you anticipate to be the biggest issues facing the Attorney General’s office in the coming years? And how can Connecticut position itself to best deal with those issues?

Tong:  “On top of that consumer protection work, I think health care, particularly community care — there’s a lot of discussion now about the closure of maternity wards, at hospitals like Windham Hospital, Sharon Hospital — that’s really concerning. To me, that access to health care, as a function of the larger consolidation in health care, is going to be a priority for us. 

“The other thing I would say is social media … and the harms that can occur on social media platforms that impact kids, particularly young women. We know that there can be very serious harms to young women, especially teenage girls on social media platforms because of the extreme content that they receive.”

Kordas: “I view consumer privacy, in particular for our minors, with relation to “Big Tech” as the next frontier of our state’s legal challenges.”

Krayeske: “The biggest issue facing the AG’s office is the dissolution of the rule of law at the federal level. The AG’s office must discipline itself to take positions in litigation for the state that do not violate the rule of law or do not take advantage of the crumbling of civil society. People in America are losing trust in our judicial institutions.

“The CT AG has a role to play in helping restore the rule of law and protecting it from the vultures on the fence who would pick the bones of our republic clean. The CT AG often collaborates with other AGs across the country in litigation, and this would be an opportunity for CT to lead the country towards clean and transparent governance.”

Pascarella: “Among the Connecticut AG’s most important cases are those brought in concert with other states AGs from around the country. Newer issues, like personal privacy when Connecticut residents use internet sites, or blockbusters like the recently filed case alleging generic drug manufacturers conspired to artificially inflate and manipulate prices, will see Connecticut continuing to lead as a state where the rule of law is taken seriously.”

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