Published April 15. 2014 1:00PM Updated April 16. 2014 1:17AM
Norwich — Five eastern Connecticut political leaders made connections with nearly three dozen students at Three Rivers Community College on Tuesday in an effort to inspire young people to follow similar paths and become political leaders.
The forum, “Mobilizing our Future Leaders,” featured U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, Democratic New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, Democratic Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey and Glenn A. Cassis, executive director of the Connecticut African-American Affairs Commission. The commission advises the governor and state leaders on issues and pending bills affecting African-Americans.
Prompted by Three Rivers professor Edward Derr, each panelist told students how they got involved in politics and what issues they are working on that touch the students’ lives.
Finizio, the final speaker, answered more bluntly than the others and said the students of today will have to deal with the “incredibly uncomfortable truth” that current political leaders are shuffling aside.
With New London in financial crisis, Finizio two weeks ago announced that he will not seek re-election to a second term to concentrate on solving the city’s many problems — crumbling infrastructure, poor, underfunded schools, an empty bank account, and at times racial tensions. He said the announcement allowed the conversation to focus on the city, rather than on criticism of him and his leadership. He said it has worked so far.
Finizio said most of the nation’s problems can be found in a microcosm at the municipal level, but his comments went beyond funding local schools and fixing city streets and buildings.
He said the country spends more on its military budget than the next 12 largest national militaries in the world combined. Eastern Connecticut is part of the problem, he said. Electric Boat is one of New London’s top taxpayers, but he said it’s “political heresy” to speak against the national submarine budget.
EB is building 35 new submarines each with 850 nuclear missiles, Finizio said, and there are many more nuclear weapons systems throughout the nation’s military arsenal.
“We don’t need any of that, but we keep building them,” he said.
Students today will have to change the nation’s lingering post-World War II culture of a strong, growing economy.
“You’re going to have to make that decision,” he told the students.
Other speakers told students how they have been involved in issues that ultimately affect their lives and career choices.
Courtney said he never considered a career in politics until he got a political internship, an avenue Three Rivers students should consider, Derr said.
Courtney received quiet nods and one raised arm from the audience when he outlined his support for reducing the student loan interest rate from 6.8 percent to 3.8 percent and increasing the availability and amount of Pell Grants.
Osten, a first-term senator, told students she got a surprise call from Glamour magazine related to her attempts to get more women and young people to run for public office.
“I told them I don’t even wear makeup,” Osten said.
But Osten turned serious and urged students to become involved in political issues and leadership roles. She said the issue that got her started was sexual abuse awareness. She wanted training and education for youths and adults alike to avoid sexual abuse, and said state laws were weak. Not long ago, she said, there was no mandated prison term for sexual molestation of a child.
Cassis explained to students his agency is involved in issues that affect African-Americans every day — from racial profiling to education barriers.
“Not too long ago, black students were told, ‘You don’t really need an education beyond high school.’ How wrong is that?” Cassis said.
This was the second “Mobilizing our Future Leaders” forum at Three Rivers organized by Derr, an adjunct history and sociology professor who is also program coordinator for the Connecticut College Access and Success (ConnCAS) program. The first forum was held last fall with local election officials. Derr said he hopes to continue the series at least once a year at Three Rivers to motivate students to become active in their communities. Students from the Males Club, the Females Club and the Sociology Club attended Tuesday’s forum.