The Democratic Primary race for State Senator from the 1st District is a battle between two experienced and astute politicians. Incumbent John Fonfara has served 22 years on Capitol Hill, 10 as a State Representative and 12 as a State Senator. Challenger Edwin Vargas has served as Chairman of Hartford’s Democratic Party and President of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, among other political and labor posts.
Both say they can handle the needs of what Fonfara calls “the most diverse district in the state.” The 1st Senatorial District stretches from Hartford’s Clay Hill neighborhood through Hartford and Wethersfield to the Rocky Hill town line. Roughly, it includes three-fifth of Hartford and two-thirds of Wethersfield.
But Fonfara and Vargas differ on what kind of leadership they feel the district needs.
Vargas is well known as an activist and a veteran of many picket lines and demonstrations over the years. “The district is looking for big ideas and the leadership to mobilize people behind those ideas,” said Vargas.
Fonfara, on the other hand, says the district needs a leader who favors compromise over confrontation because state funding is scarce and the needs of the two towns are great. “If you represent Greenwich or Avon, you can rattle the cage all you want because you’re not asking for anything. But I have a list of requests [for funding] as long as my arm and getting longer,” Fonfara said. “It’s important to be part of the team. I can tell you, based on experience, that if you’re up there [at the legislature] as a rabble rouser...to beat up on people, you’re going to bring zero dollars home, and that can’t happen.”
Despite the diversity of the neighborhood, Vargas said that out on the campaign trail he’s found most people expressing similar concerns. “Education, jobs, crime, there’s hardly an issue that doesn’t cut across the town line. Everyone is just struggling to get along now. We might be in the middle of a depression deeper and longer than the one we had in the 1930’s.” Vargas did say that employment is probably the greatest concern among residents of the 1st District. “Even people who have jobs say they need a better one. Or they’re afraid of losing the one they have. People are working harder for less return. Having a job doesn’t always mean you can make ends meet now... Many jobs no longer offer health insurance...the work that used to be done by 15 people is now done by 10 or less and it’s more stressful.” After jobs, Vargas said healthcare and education would be his top priorities if elected. “All the issues are intertwined, like fabric. If one strand starts coming apart, it effects the rest.”
Fonfara said he made “quality of life” issues his top priority during the last session. He is working with City Councilman Jim Boucher and Police Chief Daryl Roberts to form a standing team of Hartford police officers who would devote their time exclusively to such issues.
Fonfara was also instrumental in getting the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) to agree to fund a training program designed to give city residents and minorities a chance to work on the MDC’s massive Clean Water project.
On healthcare, Fonfara said he is working for universal coverage and is also supporting efforts to enable senior citizens to receive state funding if they’d rather stay home instead of going to a long-term care facility. “It just doesn’t sit right with me. We have to provide for the people who worked to make this community what it is. We can’t just cast them aside,” said Fonfara.