State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato speaks on the House floor in 2019. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie
Susan Bigelow

Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, probably can’t wait for 2022 to be over – though perhaps for somewhat different reasons than the rest of us. State law requires legislators to reside in the district they represent, and she and her family recently bought a new house in what is now a neighboring district. That means she’s stuck living in a cramped efficiency apartment above a vacant pawn shop until her term expires.

Except local Democrats are complaining that she does not, in fact, live in said tiny apartment but instead spends most of her time at her spacious new home outside the 77th District with her husband and son. Apparently, Bristol Democratic Town Committee Chair Morris Patton has been driving by and checking both the parking lot of the apartment building and the new house for her car for the past three months or so. He said in the complaint that her car was not observed at the apartment, but was “regularly” at the new house. 

So does she live in the district or not? All we really have is her word that yes, she does, against the observations of the chair of the opposing party about her car not being there. That can lead us into the murky legal territory of what it actually means to “reside in” a place. Do you sleep there every night? Make supper there? Do you clean the bathroom there, or sit up late watching old sitcoms on your laptop? The state Constitution doesn’t have an exact definition; perhaps the writers of the document assumed this would be something that’s obvious.

It’s easy to get in trouble for not actually living in the place you’ve been elected to represent. After all, if you up and left the district, how invested can you actually be in what happens there? One of the reasons why former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdensen lost to Rob Simmons in 2000 was an accusation that he no longer lived in the 2nd District, something the flinty Yankees of eastern Connecticut didn’t take kindly to. And Republicans have been making much hay about Sen. Chris Murphy living in Washington, D.C., instead of Connecticut, though I’m not sure what they want him to do about that. Commute? Be separated from his family all the time?

There’s no law that members of Congress have to live in the places they represent. Former state Senator George Logan, who is hoping to take on 5th District U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes this fall, actually lives in the 3rd District, currently represented by Rep. Rosa DeLauro. He’s promised to move, but legally, he doesn’t have to. 

Still, it is important that representatives live in their districts, if only because our politics are so geography-based. Can you represent people you don’t live near and never meet? Probably, but you can’t do it well. 

That brings us back to this dustup in Bristol. It’s not likely that Rep. Pavalock-D’Amato is going to lose her seat over this; the only ones who can kick her out are the members of the General Assembly, and they’re not going to want to do that. They’ll likely just take her word for it and see how it all shakes out in November.

None of this would matter all that much if Rep. Pavalock-D’Amato was either going to step down after this term or run in the neighboring 78th District, currently represented by Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol. Lucky for her, though, her district is about to follow her to her new home.

77th District before redistricting.77th District after redistricting
The 77th District before and after redistricting.

In an excruciatingly obvious example of why our bipartisan redistricting system is nothing more than an incumbency protection scheme, Republican leaders managed to negotiate new district lines that stretch out the 77th enough to include the part of Bristol that Pavalock-D’Amato is moving to. In exchange, the 78th, which is mostly Plymouth and eastern Bristol, now includes a slender peninsula of central Bristol.

Both the 77th and the 78th were geographically compact before. Now they are stretched and warped, and all so that a state representative could live in her new house and keep her job. Nice.

If that’s not a good reason for redistricting reform, I don’t know what is.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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