‘Get Mad or Do Something:’ Lawmakers Share Leadership Stories
Every person has a unique story that got them to where they are today.
At CBIA’s May 19 When Women Lead conference, four state legislators shared their stories with Fran Pastore, founder and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Council.
Pastore began with a simple question: what was your catalyst for running for office?
For state Rep. Tammy Exum (D-West Hartford), the inspiration came from parents in her community.
As a coordinator for a parent leadership training program, she gave parents the “time, place, opportunity, and support” to have their voices heard.
After declining for years to run for the local board of education, Exum decided to “walk the walk” and run for office.
“I was really interested and invested in wanting to do more, and to do it in a different way,” she said.
‘Children the Catalyst’
State Sen. Heather Somers (R-Mystic) recalled seeing the parents of friends being driven out of their homes due to the “punitive nature of the property tax.”
Families who had lived in the state for decades were paying more in property taxes than their actual house cost, Somers said, and it inspired her to run for town council.
“Our children are often the catalyst for us to make a better future,” said state Sen. Christine Cohen (D-Guilford).
Soon after leaving the corporate world and having young children, Cohen began joining boards and commissions that impacted her children.
“I became very invested and interested in the education of our youth,” she said.
After successfully running for board of education, hearing from parents was “incredibly fulfilling” and was the genesis for Cohen’s career in politics.
State Rep. Tammy Nuccio (R-Tolland), who has lived in the same town for 37 years, said her catalyst was a lack of representation.
“What was missing from the table was my voice,” she said.
“It was either get mad, or do something to change it. So I decided to do something to change it.”
Comparing her professional career to her career in politics, Exum sees a lot of overlap in the skills needed.
“I have always listened and had compassion for other people’s points of view,” she said.
“Even if they’re different than myself, and I think that’s the way that we come together and we grow.”
“I care about making a change in people’s lives.
“I care about making an impact in the way people show up. I care about helping other people develop their voices and advocate for causes that I might not even be aware of.”
Moving the Needle
Somers, who has a long career in the private sector, said she spent time overseas for at least a week every month for 18 years.
“Developing those relationships and looking at how to deal with people from different cultures that speak different languages—that really helped me be able to move the needle, and also to not be afraid of things I didn’t understand or that I wasn’t ‘qualified’ for,” she said.
Somers said moving the needle and making progress in changing people’s lives is something that has resonated in both the public and private sector.
Cohen—who also runs Madison-based bagel company Cohen’s Bagels—said she was always a leader in some form.
Instead of taking charge of her friends, Cohen said she always felt she had a seat at the table and that she belonged.
A Better Leader
Growing up, Cohen felt empowered by her father and did whatever the boys did, but once high school came, the difference in how they were treated became more apparent.
“I thought ‘I think I’m going to have to work a little bit harder and scream a little bit louder than these guys to get some attention,’” she said.
“The takeaway is that sometimes in my life I feel like I’m the leader.
“Sometimes you’re the mentor, sometimes you’re the mentee,” she said.
Cohen said she is grateful for the times when she does not have to take charge, but can instead sit back and listen to what others are saying, and said it has helped her become a better leader.
Nuccio said she has become a better leader by having important conversations and asking the right questions.
“From a leadership perspective, it’s about education,” she said.
As an educator, Nuccio would tell students the most important word is “why.”
“Keep going to find the ‘why,’” she said. “One thing we all have to do is to listen and to ask the questions.”
Nuccio—who works in the insurance industry and serves on the legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee—grapples with complex topics.
“I bring that expertise forward to say ‘how can I help people,’” she said.
“It’s listening, it’s asking why, it’s digging deeper, and if you don’t know, try to figure it out.”
The conversation then shifted to the most pressing issues for female constituents.
Cohen spoke on the diverse needs of women.
“Right now, I’m hearing about reproductive rights,” she said. “That’s something that is very concerning to women across the country, let alone across the state.”
Cohen said although women are faced with issues like work-home balance, childcare, and mental health, they have a “stoic attitude that we’re going to face whatever, come what may.”
“I’m always grateful to the constituents that do come to me,” she said, “because those are the people that are really trying to get it done and are breaking down the barriers.”
Somers relayed concerns constituents had about anti-business bills in the legislature, many of which were unsuccessful.
“They’re concerned about some of the encroachment they see for employers, and the stripping of employer rights as it relates to employees,” she said.
Somers also highlighted challenges such as the baby formula shortage, access to mental health care, children behind in schooling, and the toxic effects of social media on teenagers.
“The idea that you can be eroded by somebody not liking your statement or bullying you online is something that we as women need to all stand up against,” she said.
Exum said a key issue facing her female constituents is childcare.
“This is a workforce issue too,” she said. “We can have the most robust, wonderful bill in the world, but if no one is there to provide care and services, it cannot happen.”
Exum also highlighted HB 5001, a bill concerning children’s mental health, which she said “has been an important piece of legislation that is around the urgency now, but that will have a generational impact if it is well implemented.”
“As women, any issue that affects us affects everyone,” Nuccio said.
“The issues are varied because with every situation it’s different. Every household is different. Every woman is different.
“Every time I talk to somebody it comes down to what do I need to do to help you? How do I get you to the place that I need you to get to?”
Overall, Nuccio said she wants to do whatever it takes to lift her constituents up, no matter what issues they are facing.
“Each of you have very different constituencies,” Pastore said.
“But it seems like the needs of women transcend socioeconomics, they transcend global societies, because we’ve seen so many of the same issues around the globe.”
Pastore ended by praising the legislators: “The passion around women to really impact their community is consistent, and just really transcends your public service.”
And for future generations of leaders, “if you were asked to be in the room, if you were asked to be at the table, then you absolutely belong there.”
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