Editor’s Note: This question-and-answer interview with Democratic attorney general candidate William Tong is the first in a series of profiles of the five candidates vying for the job.
As the race for Connecticut attorney general winds down to its final two months before the primaries and less than five months before the general election, the five candidates have been crisscrossing the state looking for votes.
Gun violence, the opioid epidemic, strengthening anti-discrimination laws and issues related to the environment have been in the forefront among the three Democratic and two Republican candidates for the job as the state’s top attorney.
State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, who is the first Asian-American to serve in the Connecticut General Assembly, believes his record as an attorney and as chairman of the state’s House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee makes him more than qualified to succeed George Jepsen as attorney general.
The 45-year-old Tong represents the state’s 147th District, which includes parts of Stamford and New Canaan. He has been vocal in fighting discrimination and in his support of gay rights and gun control. Tong won the Democratic endorsement for attorney general. He held a press conference Thursday calling for the creation of a civil rights division within the Office of Attorney General.
Tong is the son of Chinese immigrants and is currently of counsel at Finn, Dixon & Herling. He was an attorney with the international law firm Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett. He received his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 2000, and is a member of the Connecticut and New York bars.
The Connecticut Law Tribune spoke to Tong Friday morning. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Connecticut Law Tribune: This week you called for the creation of a civil rights division within the Office of Attorney General. Why is such a division needed and how would that division operate?
William Tong: It’s needed because so many of us feel we have a target on our back. I think that many of the rights and liberties we have become accustomed to, and may have been taken for granted, are at risk.
Obviously, the Masterpiece Cake Shop case, in which a decision was issued recently by the U.S. Supreme Court, demonstrates that a simple matter of a gay couple looking to buy a wedding cake is in question, and that a gay couple may be subject to discrimination in exercising a right they have here in Connecticut and elsewhere, which is to get married.
We’ve also seen that Starbucks [cafes] across the country have had two shutdowns and have undergone extensive diversity training because of, essentially, racial profiling. To bring it home to Connecticut, you may recall that I wrote and strengthened a revamping of the state hate-crimes laws just last year. I did so because of incidents of hate, like in my home city of Stamford, where the ugliest word was spray-painted across a garage door and there were shots fired and bomb threats against mosques and synagogues in other parts of the state.
A civil rights division would operate much like it does in Massachusetts. They also have a civil rights division in New York, Washington state and California, among other places. I think my friend, Maura Healey, who is the attorney general in Massachusetts, has brought power under her state’s statutes to assert claims on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enforce state and federal civil rights laws.
The key distinction is that in a civil rights division, the attorney general would be asserting the claims and interest of the state of Connecticut, as opposed to the individual rights of a single claimant.
CLT: In your April announcement for attorney general, you took aim at President Donald Trump. You said, “The president of the United States has declared war on you and your family. And, that’s why I am running for attorney general. The attorney general is the first and last line of defense against the powerful forces bearing down on us in Connecticut.” What, specifically, will you do as attorney general to counter what you see as a war on the American family?
Tong: It’s a number of things. For example, there is the dismantling of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, CFPB. The board was created by the Dodd-Frank Act. The financial crisis and the foreclosure crisis have been particularly cruel to Connecticut. I know this because I was chairperson of the Banking Committee at the height of the financial crisis. I took on the big banks and rewrote the state foreclosure laws which, at that time, helped thousands of Connecticut families stay in their homes.
The state attorneys general have larger concurrent jurisdiction with the CFPB under Dodd-Frank, so, simply if the CFPB doesn’t, the attorney general can act. And, I will act.
Also, clearly on immigration, President Trump has taken aim at our state’s immigrants, who are so integral of our state’s economy and community. These are immigrants like my parents. As attorney general, I will stand up to the Trump administration to protect immigrants and to strengthen our sanctuary laws, like the TRUST Act. The TRUST lays out when the state will and will not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
CLT: How, specifically, would a William Tong Attorney General’s Office be different from a George Jepsen Attorney General’s Office?
Tong: One example is that I would create a civil rights division. I would also strengthen the financial protection and anti-financial fraud efforts, which Attorney General Jepsen has been a leader on. I would go even further, though.
I think, like George and like Sen. Richard Blumenthal [who served as attorney general before Jepsen], I understand the job of attorney general is not simply to practice the law, but to change it. I would be an even more forceful presence in the Legislature, leveraging my experience as chairperson of the [House of Representatives] Judiciary Committee and my relationships with the legislators to push the Legislature and the governor on important issues like gun violence, financial protection, consumer protection, and other important issues that require legislative action.
CLT: You have been very vocal in your critique of the National Rifle Association. Your website says, in part, “William took on the NRA and won, protecting victims of domestic violence by taking guns away from their abusers.” What, specifically, can and will you do as attorney general to address Connecticut’s gun laws?
Tong: No. 1, I have unfinished business, as next year we will pass a ban on ghost guns. This year, we had a bill to ban ghost guns, which are gun kits that you can buy online and you can assemble at home. The guns have no serial number and no registration number.
No. 2, if Congress passes a law to require us to recognize gun permits from other states, the so-called Conceal Carry proposal, I will do everything I can to stop them, including filing suit.
It has been my honor to be the principal leader on our state gun laws, in the fight against gun violence, in the House of Representatives and I don’t plan to stop now.
CLT: As you know, the opioid epidemic in the state is on the rise. George Jepsen said he’s proud of how the attorney general’s office under his leadership has tackled the problem. He points to October 2017 when Connecticut joined 40 other attorney general offices in the country to issue subpoenas to several pharmaceutical drug manufacturers for information about how the companies market opioids. What, specifically, will you do as attorney general to address the opioid crisis?
Tong: I will continue George’s work, which is to expand the investigation of the opioid crisis beyond opioids and to the entire addiction industry.
I think that means taking a look at the relationship and incentives between all the players from the big pharmaceutical companies to the health care system to treatment centers. And, I think we have to take a wider view and understand how the addiction industry makes money off of people’s misery.
I have spoken about this issue at length with George and I know that he very much shares my expanded view of this problem. This is another good example of an issue in which the legal options, including investigations and lawsuits, are only one part of the effort. The attorney general’s job is to push a strong legislative agenda and to leverage the attorney general’s bully pulpit to push the Legislature and the governor to act.