Ernie Hewett: Connecticut Man of the People

Connecticut College might seem like an insular community at times, but it still rests within Connecticut’s thirty-ninth assembly district, which represents half of the city of New London in the Connecticut state legislature. The elected official who calls the citizens of the thirty-ninth district his constituents is Representative Ernest Hewett, informally known as Ernie. Ernie Hewett graciously agreed to conduct a phone interview with the Voice in early December about his life, his views on legislating and his role as an elected official.

Ernie Hewett says he did not originally intend to become a politician. Born in North Carolina, Hewett moved to New London to work as a welder at the General Dynamics Electric Boat factory in Groton. After twenty years of work there, he was laid off. According to Hewett, on the same exact date four years later, he was elected to his first position in government: mayor of the city of New London. “I don’t know how it happened; I really don’t! All I know is when the challenge came along, I accepted [it] – and the rest is history.” Prior to this, Hewett served on the city council for six years.

Hewett continued his role of mayor of New London for eight years before losing reelection by only fifty-four votes – an incredibly tight margin. “I was done with politics and there was no problem … I was okay not being an elected official,” he recalls. Hewett said that he had no intention whatsoever of running again, and was content with the outcome.

After a one-year hiatus from politics, Hewett saw an opportunity to run for state representative in the Connecticut legislature. “I said, ‘You know what – what the heck? Might as well try it.’” Hewett did not dwell on the circumstances of his past – his focus seems to be oriented toward the future.

Representative Hewett said that his main inspiration lies in the Connecticut legislature’s ability to help those in need. He noted that he likes the ability of his constituents to contact him with problems. Hewett used the example of one woman whose “son was incarcerated and was moved 150 miles away from the city of New London, and just wanted to get him back closer so they could actually visit in prison.” He also enjoys his ability to be a role model with the capacity to encourage youth away from a life of crime.

Hewett serves on the Judiciary Committee in the Connecticut legislature. When I asked him what issues were most important to him, he did not hesitate to mention those surrounding criminal justice. “One of the biggest mistakes that any […] young person can make today is doing something that would give them a felony on their record. To me, the saddest thing is that once they get that felony, it takes forever to get it off,” he noted solemnly. “You can go to jail and get a Ph.D. if you want; if you’re not able to come out and get a job then you’ll likely end up going back to prison.”

One of Hewett’s goals is to work toward a future where people who have been incarcerated have a greater chance of succeeding in society after they have been released from prison.

According to Hewett, his chief legislative accomplishment was the passage of a controversial DNA collection bill. This would enable police to collect DNA from people on serious felony arrests. Hewett noted his disappointment that the bill had not passed in the manner that he had originally intended. The Hartford Courant’s Capitol Watch blog described the new bill by stating that a person would have needed to be convicted of one crime and then arrested for a second before their DNA would be collected. Hewett was, however, optimistic that this legislation could be expanded upon in upcoming legislative sessions.

Regardless of how personally important to Representative Hewett this bill may have been, he made sure in the interview to elaborate on his continued efforts to bring more municipal aid to New London. “If [the city] had to collect all the money from taxes to balance their budget,” he began, “there wouldn’t be enough, mostly because there are not enough homeowners needed to pay the taxes to balance the budget.” Despite tough economic times both nationally and within the state of Connecticut, Hewett tells me that this has been one of the most important continued fights that he has fought. He repeatedly stressed how critical he felt his constituents were to his job.

Representative Hewett told an anecdote from one of his reelections to the state legislature. “One of my opponents one year got a giggle out of me hanging around the donut shop for a lot of time in New London,” he fondly recalled, “and I said, ‘You know, there’s a reason I hang at the donut shop: […] that’s where the people are.” Hewett does not believe that citizens of New London should only see him during his campaigns. Half-jokingly, he remarked, “I don’t make promises, but I do promise that I will do everything I can to help [my constituents] solve their problems.”

Representative Ernest Hewett’s commitment to his constituents was exemplified by the entire nature of this interview. While I had originally intended to interview Hewett in person, his brother had fallen ill. Hewett had rushed to his hometown in North Carolina to be with him. Sadly, during the trip, his brother passed away. Nevertheless, Ernie Hewett kept true to his word, allowing me to conduct the interview over the telephone.

Representative Hewett believes that legislators best help their constitutents by building relationships with the people with whom they work. “Your word is all you have. If you are someone who cannot be relied on because of your word, you won’t get a lot of things done in Hartford [Connecticut’s capital city],” he informed me, “So it’s about building relationships and about building trust amongst your colleagues.” He said that this principle could be found in every aspect of government life, from the presidency all the way down to the state legislature.