An exclusive interview with Chris Mattei, the Connecticut gubernatorial candidate who helped send Connecticut's 86th governor back to prison.
In 2014, Chris Mattei, then-Chief of the Financial Fraud and Public Corruption unit for the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Connecticut, helped send former Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland back to prison on corruption convictions.
Now, Chris is exploring a run for the very same office Rowland once held.
A longtime resident of Windsor, Connecticut, Chris began working at age 13. Growing up in a diverse neighborhood, he learned from a young age the importance of multiculturalism and community.
Chris has devoted his entire life to serving people. After college, he went to a Navajo reservation in Arizona to teach high school at Rough Rock Community School, which was the first Department of Indian Affairs school to be run directly by indigenous Navajos.
He later went to Northern California to become a union organizer. In his time investigating violations of California labor laws, he realized that the best way for him to stand up for people was as a lawyer. So he went to law school and became a prosecutor. He served as Assistant United States Attorney in Connecticut for eight years. Along with prosecuting John Rowland and other corrupt officials, Chris cracked down on gun trafficking and gun violence. He also prosecuted fraudulent Wall Street traders following the 2008 recession.
And now he’s formed an exploratory committee to see if running for governor of the state of Connecticut is the right way to keep helping people.
I spoke recently with Chris about his career and potential candidacy. Below is a transcription of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You’ve served in the Justice Department for many years, but you’ve never run for public office before. What makes you qualified to be governor of Connecticut?
What matters most in a leader is making sure that they’re clear in their mind and in their heart about what their values are, and then convincing people that we should go in a particular policy direction in light of those values.
I’m not somebody who thinks that you have to have held elected office for a long time in order to serve the community. I actually think that when people are career politicians or get into politics at a very young age, they end up losing some perspective that can help them in making decisions about what’s in the best interests of the people they’re trying to serve and what’s going on in their daily lives.
My experience as a high school teacher, a union organizer, and an Assistant United States Attorney demonstrates that I’ve tried to live my values throughout my life separate from politics. The kind of values we need most right now, where we’re clear that we’re making policy choices that favor people who have been left out for a long time – who feel that politics has left them behind, that the economy has left them behind – we put them at the center of every decision we make.
It’s important for new people, new ideas, a new generation to step forward and take control of their future. And that’s part of what this campaign represents.
What made you consider running for the office of governor in particular?
The campaign offers us the platform that we need to really communicate broadly with people about the direction we’re going as a state. I’ve been in public service for a long time. I’m not looking to start a political career; I’m looking to make a difference for people. In what I’ve observed over my many years at the Justice Department – both in terms of how government works and how it doesn’t work, and how the private sector works or doesn’t work for average people – all that experience has led me to believe that our state needs a base change in direction and how we do things. The governor’s office is the office that has the authority to make that happen. That’s why I decided to run an exploratory committee to consider that.
How has prosecution affected your view of politics, and should you run, how would it affect your campaign?
It’s important to understand the harm that corruption causes. When you have money influencing our political decision-making and our campaigns, that means that average people get their voices get drowned out, and the voices of people who can afford to pay is amplified. We’ve seen that over the past number of decades, where the increasing influence of corporate money and big money in our politics have led to policy outcomes that have been disastrous for working people and the middle class. That’s why we have the income inequality we have; that’s why we have the educational inequity we have. Having seen that up close, having fought that, I made the decision that I want to be a voice that stands up against that in politics. We need people in politics who can resist corruption.
It absolutely affects the way I would govern, should I seek the office. It’s affected already the way we’re campaigning. We’ve decided we’re not going to take any money from any lobbyists at any time. We think that what matters is the power of one’s ideas, not the size of one’s wallet. We want average folks in Connecticut who feel that they’ve been left out to know that the political establishment and people in the habit of funding campaigns aren’t gonna be the ones running our campaign. They’re certainly not going to be in positions of influence if we seek this office. That’s the very heart of what we’re doing.
I think that’s very inspiring, especially to millennials and marginalized folks who feel that they’ve been locked out of the political system. Unfortunately, those voters don’t show up in large numbers in midterm elections. How do you hope to mobilize these voters?
As far as I’m concerned, the people who have checked out of politics, they’re the ones who are most important to reach. In the last presidential primary here in Connecticut on the Democratic side, 300,000 Democrats stayed home, and I’m sure many more independents stayed home, because they don’t feel that politics has much to offer them. What we want to do is present a different face of politics to people.
In Connecticut, we have decades of underfunding and defunding of our state employment pension obligations. Those bills are overdue. And guess who’s gonna have to pay them? I’m gonna have to pay them, you’re gonna have to pay for them. Neither of us is responsible for making decisions over the past five decades that led to this problem. These are problems that we’ve inherited. These are problems I want to make sure my children don’t inherit. I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a one-year-old. Even though they can’t vote and even though they have no idea what’s happening in this election or in our state, they have a stake in decisions we make. And so do folks in the millennial generation who are now coming into the early part of their careers, they’re the ones who are going to be paying taxes, who are going to be funding the services for folks who are going to be retiring over the next ten years. They have stakes here, and they should feel empowered to participate.
From the time you can vote, you should have as equal and important a voice as anybody else. In fact, maybe a more important voice, because the future is before you, and any policy decisions that are made affect the future. And so, what we want to be doing is talking to people about how they want the world to look five, 10 years from now. If you have a view about that, we want to hear from you, and we want you involved in this.
I am not an establishment politician. I do not have deep family wealth or a deep political network. But what I am hoping is that our campaign represents something for people who have checked out of politics and gives them a reason to check back in.
With your campaign for the people, what will you do to protect LGBTQ folks, who are being targeted on both state and federal levels?
One thing we can say proudly in Connecticut is that we’ve been a leader in advancing LGBTQ rights. Our state just recently banned conversion therapy. But the federal government right now, through Donald Trump and his appointees, are doing things to roll back gay rights, to burgeon public awareness about the issues facing transgender people, and although we may be in a good place in Connecticut in protecting those people and making sure that they’re full members of society, we need to be vigilant in expressing our opposition to the assault on the members of the community that are coming from Washington, or even other states. There’s the controversy in North Carolina, for example, where transgender people have been singled out and discriminated against, where ignorance has resulted in bigotry and discrimination. We in Connecticut, and particularly elected leaders, need to speak out and do everything we can to protect those folks.
What would you imagine your relationship with Donald Trump and his administration being like?
As the leader of the state, the governor wants to make sure that we’re putting our state in a position to succeed, which means a successful relationship with the federal government. On the other hand, I have said publicly that Donald Trump’s campaign, everything he represents, is abhorrent to me personally. His lack of respect for people, his bluster and ignorance of facts, his embrace of what appears to me to have been deliberate Russian interference in the democratic process, his appointment of billionaires to every cabinet post, his rejection of climate change as a fundamental threat, all of these things make it very difficult for me to accept what it is that his presidency represents.
Recently, progressives in blue states have started pushing populist policies such as single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public college, and free pre-kindergarten to third grade education. Are you interested in bringing these policies to the state of Connecticut?
We are in the process of developing a comprehensive policy platform on each of these areas, but I can tell you that I’m very interested in the universal pre-kindergarten to third grade program that [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio rolled out. I think we need to be making higher education affordable, particularly for community colleges. I want to move toward a tuition-free situation.
We do a decent job in Connecticut of providing healthcare to our residents. The problem is that it’s too expensive for many people. One of the things we need to look into is opening up our state-employee healthcare system to small businesses, and uninsured individuals buy into that program at a lower rate with no cost to the state.
Your question gets to the larger issue of the fact that working people and young people have been really cast aside for the past number of decades. If we want to have a society with broad-based opportunity, upward mobility, job security, then we need to be implementing policies that bring that about.
Do you think it’s important to keep Connecticut a sanctuary state?
There’s no question. And Governor Malloy’s been a leader here. We have said that local police departments and state police departments are not going to arm with the federal immigration service. There’s a vital public safety imperative for that. We have residents of our state who are undocumented, and they must be protected and feel protected. They should feel comfortable coming forward if they’re victims of crime. If we were to turn our local public safety apparatus into an arm of the federal government, our communities would suffer.
Why is Connecticut special to you?
You’re right in my wheelhouse, now.
Wherever I go, I hear about the affection people have for their hometown, the affection they have for the people who helped raise them – their neighbors, their coaches, their teaches, their sports leagues, their theater groups – whatever it is, so many people feel blessed to have been raised here and to have embraced the values that so many Connecticut towns transmit down to their kids.
More than anything else, what has compelled me to consider running for governor is the feeling that for so long, Connecticut has been run down. People feel pessimistic. We get a drum-beating of bad news. In some ways, we’ve lost that sense of community and affection for our local communities and willingness to invest in them and believe that the rut we’ve been in isn’t our fate.
For somebody who was born here, grew up here, spent most of his life here, and has not been part of the political system but now sees a need to change our political system to make our state a livable place, I just find that to be such an important obligation.
I think about the people I grew up with, the way their lives have developed, the importance of them having a future here and their kids having a future here – that’s why I’m doing it.
Learn more about Chris Mattei’s campaign by checking out his website and following him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and call him at (860) 602-8345.
Jordan is the Head Writer at Millennial Politics. She is also an activist, cinephile, and proud queer woman of color.
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