Frey will pass the torch

The tough votes, the easy votes, the votes on principle, the reward of helping constituents, the back and forth with legislators and leaders of both parties to get things done — John Frey’s leaving it all behind. After representing Ridgefield in Hartford for more than two decades, he’s decided not to seek re-election to the town’s 111th District seat in the General Assembly.

“This is meant to be a citizen legislature. I never thought I’d be state rep for one day, never mind 22 years,” Frey said.

“I love public service. I’m not going anywhere. But I’m not eyeing something in the future, or anything like that.”

It’s been an experience — a life’s work at the heart of policy and politics, both state and local.

“I worked with, over 22 years, four governors, five speakers of the House, two first selectmen, four chiefs of police,” he said. “I was 35 years old when I came to the legislature, I’m 57 now — it’s like a blink of an eye, it just went by so fast.”

That 22-year blink of an eye makes John Frey Ridgefield’s longest serving state representative.

“The next longest serving was the very first one, Colonel Burr Bradley, who became state representative in 1776 and served 19 years,” Frey said.

“It has been my privilege and a honor to have served the people of Ridgefield, the state of Connecticut and my party for more than two decades, 22 years to be precise,” he said.

“But now it is time for someone else from Ridgefield to serve, and I hope that whoever that is, will find the experiences as richly rewarding as I have. This is truly a citizen legislature, one that requires you to show up for work every day, do the people’s business in Hartford and then return back home at the end of the day and be held accountable.

“I decided after the last time I stood before the voters that 22 years would be the close of my tenure. I have enjoyed my time in the General Assembly — though it has been trying at times, and frustrating at other points — immensely. The honor bestowed on me has never been taken for granted.

“Representing my hometown in Hartford has been a dream job,” he said. “ and I thank the people of Ridgefield from the bottom of my heart.”

Changing outlook

Over the years, his sense of public service has changed and broadened his political stance since his initial days, just out of high school, as a campaign volunteer for Ridgefield First Selectman Liz Leonard — who remained a beloved mentor to Frey as long as she lived.

“It has,” he said. “I was like a helper on the Republican Town Committee, helped local campaigns.

“I always enjoyed the art of politics and campaigns. But once the campaigning is over, you don’t represent just one party, you represent everyone. It’s time to govern. You represent everybody. And politics and governing — while their paths cross — governing shouldn’t be about politics.

“I never really politically criticized people because of their party,” he said. “And I think that was partly why I was successful in getting things passed — I got along with everybody.

“What I find is important: number one, being honest. If you’re going to support a bill or not support it, you’re only as good as your word. That’s important when you’re working under the capitol dome.”

“Listen to everybody, everybody’s got a viewpoint,” he added. “Even coming from the other side — you learn from everybody. I do.”

Hartford has lobbyists — for school teachers, for school boards, for the construction industry, for construction unions.

“There’s quite a few lobbyists in that building. I’d take time to listen to every lobbyist. They all serve a purpose,” Frey said. “They all represent constituent groups.

“I would always ask them: what’s the opposing lobbyist telling people? It’s a question they’re not often asked. But they’d generally be straight with me.”

Route 7

If Frey has a signature accomplishment, it may be the widening of Route 7 from two to four lanes between the Route 35 intersection in Ridgefield and the ramp up to Route 84 in Danbury.

The two-lane highway was a source of daily frustration to thousands of drivers.

“That choke point past Ridgefield Ice Cream, where it went from four lanes to two lanes, there were calls about road rage,” he said.

Worse, the highway averaged three fatal accidents a year.

“Driving from Ridgefield to Danbury there were always memorials on the side of the road,” Frey said. “A nightmare ... driving past the crosses.”

It cost $62 million and took some years, but it got done in the fall of 2011.

“There’s been one since the road’s been widened,” he said of fatal accidents, “and it was unrelated to the road.”

Frey’s effort involved tracking down holdups in the bureaucracy, learning what one department needed from another, and who to talk to get it done — and then following up.

He recalled the start of it.

“I convened a meeting in the governor’s conference room, across from his office — he wasn’t at the meeting — I called these fairly senior managers, but not the commissioners, and they hadn’t been in the governor’s office before,” Frey said.

“The room was full, it was probably 20 people.

“I had a whiteboard on the wall: What’s the first step? How long is that going to take? That’s going to take six weeks? OK, I’m going to call you on week four, and week five.”

And he did call.

“I managed this whole chart,” he said, “and held the people accountable.”

Bennett’s Pond

Another accomplishment was lining up state’s support for the Bennett’s Pond purchase back in 2002. The town had to pay some $12.5 million for the eminent domain taking of 460 acres to stop a huge condominium development and make the land open space. The state then bought the land from the town for $4.5 million, reducing the town’s cost from $12.5 million to $8 million — and making the state responsible for future management of it as a state park.

While the purchase of Bennett’s Pond was a citizen initiative with a wide popular support, there were also skeptics — both citizens and officials.

“I’m not sure the town would have proceeded if they had to spring for the whole thing themselves.” Frey said.

Getting the state money required much of the goodwill Frey had built up over the years — in the governor’s office, the legislature, the bureaucracies.

“Bennett’s Pond that was a huge chunk of the money for open space that year,” he said, “and the state had never participated in getting open space through eminent domain.”

Constituent service

Frey has made constituent service a primary focus of his tenure.

“You get so many constituent inquires or requests for assistance and I’d say 80 percent of the time it’s got nothing to do with legislation,” he said. “It’s a problem with their cable bill, or getting their boat trailer registered.”

Again, Frey’s listening and being respectful in Hartford offices pays dividends.

“I’ve been able to build relationships,” Frey said. “It could be the lobbyist who represents Eversource. I’m able to call him up and have a tree removed that a constituent called me about.”

Frey knows who to call, and can count on a friendly reception — it’s not a guarantee, but it helps.

“Most of the constituent work I do myself, rather than rely on aides,” Frey said.


One of the lessons Frey learned early was about remembering principles.

He recalled a tough call during John Rowland’s years as governor — 1995 to 2004.

“He’d proposed a budget. The state was in a bad financial state — which seems to be ongoing. The Democrats had proposed a budget with a fairly substantial increase in the income tax. In order to balance a budget that was much smaller, Rowland proposed a smaller increase in the income tax.”

Frey reluctantly supported Rowland’s budget and income tax increase.

“I ended up voting for the lesser of the two evils. I remember driving home thinking: What did I just do?” he said. “When Weicker was governor, I’d organized two busloads of people to protest the income tax!

“I decided then, I wouldn’t do that again. I would stick to my principles.”

Sandy Hook

Over 22 years there have been accomplishments and victories, big and small: rising in House Republican leadership to be senior minority whip; getting money for expansion and renovation to Ballard Green senior citizen housing; being lead advocate in a bipartisan regional coalition to get Danbury Hospital certified to provide more advanced cardiac care; helping the RVNA get approval for hospice care — to name a few.

One that’s memorable for Frey came after the horrific shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Frey had a niece and nephew who, thankfully, weren’t harmed that day — physically, at least.

Four days after the shooting, Connecticut’s shocked legislators returned to Hartford for a previously scheduled special session that, by agreement, leadership in both parties and both houses, would simply get a budget voted on without amendment, and then go home.

Frey had long planned to amend the budget so that LOCIP money — “local capital improvement project” grants usually limited to certain types of construction projects, such as roads and sidewalks — could also be used on school construction projects.

Because of the shooting, it seemed more important. Many school districts were suddenly scrambling to do safety and security projects on buildings. The amendment would allow them to use LOCIP grants for that — especially helpful for smaller and less affluent school districts.

Frey discussed the idea with the Republican leader in the House, a friend and ally. Sorry, he was told, the leadership — Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate — had all agreed: no amendments to the budget. Bring it up in January.

Frey thought about it. Christmas break was coming — school buildings would be empty, an ideal time to get construction done.

Frey called the Senate Republican leader and asked if he would mind that one amendment. He said it seemed like a good idea. He called the Senate Democratic leader. He called the House Democratic leader.

He called back his friend the Republican House leader. They’ve all agreed, he said, they’ll all back it. Let him offer the amendment.

He did. It was approved

“And over 30 school districts used money from that LOCIP fund to harden the security of the schools.,” Frey said.

“That was one of those things where I felt really good — I felt really good.”

A few aspects of being state representative he won’t miss — like exhaustive end-of-session cramming to pass a budget.

“When they bring the budget out at midnight, you know it’s going to be a long night,” he said. “There were times I was waiting outside for The Early Bird to open up before I went home.”

But he isn’t complaining. He’s just stepping down.

“This isn’t John Frey’s seat. I’m just a caretaker,” he said. “Every day I’d look up at that capitol and the honor that was bestowed on me wasn’t lost on me.”