This is a limited series of Q&A’s by Fairfield County Business Journal Bureau Chief Kevin Zimmerman with leaders in various business sectors and industries. It is designed to illustrate how they’re navigating the COVID-19 era, what past experiences they’ve drawn upon, and suggestions they have for those planning for a career in leadership.
State Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano has been a powerful presence in Connecticut politics for most of this century. He has served nine two-year terms in the state Senate, running unopposed in six elections, including the last two in 2014 and 2016.
First elected to the Senate in 2002, the New Haven native served as minority whip from 2003-04, and as assistant minority leader from 2005-06, deputy minority leader from 2007-08, and minority leader pro tempore from 2009-14. He has been minority leader since 2014, and Senate Republican president pro tempore since 2017.
While this is hardly how he wanted to end his political career — he announced his retirement on March 31 — Fasano maintains that his decision is final. He has, however, drawn on his long and varied background to help steer the state through the coronavirus pandemic.
First things first: Why retire now?
“Eighteen years is a long time. I love what I do, but felt that now was a good time. I’ve always tried to give 110%, but I don’t believe I can continue doing it at the same level as I have in the past.
“And I wanted to go out on my own terms. I want to spend more time with my family, and go back to trying to make some money (as founder and president of law firm Fasano, Ippolito, Lee & Florentine). Being in the Senate swallows up a lot of your personal life. It’s hard — even though I love it.”
When did you first start thinking about stepping down?
“Two years ago, when we were 18-18 (the Republican/Democrat split in the Senate) was when I thought about going and I decided I was going to leave at this time, whether we had a majority or not. Then in December (2018), after the election, I talked with my family to revisit it again.
“Then the coronavirus made me think about it again. It’s obviously an historic issue and required a lot of thought about how to deal with it. ‘Should I stay on, out of some sense of necessity?’ But then I said, ‘You know what? I’ve made up my mind already.’”
As the minority leader, how have you collaborated with the Democratic majority and Gov. Ned Lamont?
“The governor and I have had great conversations. We talk about the issues to a great extent, which has been very helpful.
“And the governor’s staff has done a terrific job of conversing with us. If I have questions for our members, I put them to his staff and they get back to me very quickly. If there’s confusion about A, B or C, they’re on it. I can’t speak more highly of their responsive nature.”
What does it mean to be “a leader” in this environment?
“It is very challenging — we’re living in a world without a playbook, which makes it even more difficult. With the financial crisis we’re facing, we kind of have a playbook — we know what the indications are, and our past financial history demonstrates what we might be able to do.
“But even if the virus dissipates, what will be the after-effect? After 9/11 it took us two to three years to get our airlines back because people were afraid of getting on planes. Then you’ve got movie theaters, ball games, other events. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what effect the virus will have on all of our behavior.
“And it’s obviously been very challenging for the legislature. (The General Assembly ended its regular session on May 6, having passed just one piece of legislation.) But as a leader, the good part has been that all six of us are very close. We know each other very, very well, and to a large extent we’re friends — we can talk with each other about anything. And we like each other. You couldn’t get a more closely knit group.”
Editor’s Note: That group is breaking up; not only is Fasano retiring, but so are House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby). Remaining are Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven), Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford).
“When they say something, they mean it. That’s refreshing, and very helpful. We all feel very, very comfortable with each other, which is pretty remarkable. Passing the bipartisan budget really strengthened those relationships.”
Who has impressed you during the pandemic?
“Any time there’s been a crisis — Hurricanes Irene and Sandy come to mind — there are individuals in the community who come out to help, and we’re seeing that again. I’m always impressed by it.
“Right now it might be difficult to see that silver lining. These are events that can be economically devastating and mentally devastating. But people are resilient and helpful.”
How much time do you personally have to gauge your responses to day-to-day developments. Is it more a matter of “putting your head down and just doing it”?
“I get texts and emails from my constituents all the time — ‘What’s happening here? How come this didn’t happen?’ What are the rules on PPE? On filing for unemployment? Every day is driven by task.
“A large part of the job of leader is listening to our members. We don’t want our folks to call the governor’s office all the time — we try to filter the questions. Three senators might have the same question. We field them and send just the one question to the governor’s office.”
What about the big picture?
“In the long term, as we open up businesses, what is it all going to look like? We have to make sure our regulatory agencies understand that when we do reopen business the impact that inspections and permits can have. We have to make sure that whatever those processes are, they need to be streamlined. We need to try to get everyone to the point they were at before all this happened.
“And we also all need to assess what we did right, and what we did wrong. The way we went about buying PPE was a catastrophic mistake. Why were our nursing homes being decimated by so much contagion and death? Some of these things were done in an arcane and draconian way. The next time we have to be a lot wiser — we need to learn from this and be ready to do it right the next time.”
What would you say is key to being a leader?
“You need to be able to offer constructive suggestions, not just criticism. It’s always easy to have 20/20 hindsight when you’re criticizing something, but it’s very difficult to come up with alternatives that you can present and stand in front of.
“Number two, I think leadership requires cooperation, listening and being straightforward and honest. Even if that honesty may be against what a leader believes, don’t hide your opinion — be forthright. Base your decisions on your values, which are pretty much formed by your life experiences.
“And you’ve got to be willing to change your mind. If you walk into this chamber, stay for several years, and then walk out as the same person, you’ve missed a great opportunity. You may not agree with what you hear, but on the other hand you may learn something because of your personal experience or your socioeconomic experience.
“There are people in both caucuses who don’t want to listen, because that might put them in danger of changing their opinions.”