Will Haskell (COL ’18) knew his political ambitions were far from the norm. When asked about running for office at the age of 22, Haskell admitted the decision was anything but reasonable.
“It was sort of a crazy idea to run,” Haskell said. “But behind that crazy idea was [one that] was not so crazy.”
Haskell defeated Republican incumbent Toni Boucher by a margin of 6.6 percent last week. With his victory, Haskell flipped a seat that had been red since 1973 and helped the Democrats gain a majority in the Connecticut state Senate. Boucher, who has worked in local government as long as Haskell has been alive, has served as a Connecticut state senator since 2009, winning her last election by a margin of over 20 percent.
Haskell put on hold his plans to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, seeing the United States and Connecticut at a crossroads in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. Hoping to encourage more young people to move back to Connecticut, Haskell launched his long-shot campaign with his four-year roommate and campaign manager Jack Lynch (COL ’18). (Full disclosure: Lynch previously served as a Hoya staffer and member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
In their senior year, both witnessed their friends choosing to start their careers anywhere but Connecticut. The pair opted for the nontraditional approach; for them, it worked out.
Campaigning to Listen
Haskell admitted he was nervous about his young age when he ran for office, particularly against a seasoned opponent. Conceding he was “clearly not your guy” for voters focused on experience, Haskell positioned his age as an asset that offered a different perspective.
“I thought I would be asked constantly to explain my age and to address my lack of experience,” Haskell said. “But what I found was when I was just upfront, I became a much better candidate.”
Still, Haskell had to overcome a lack of name recognition with a staunch commitment to door-knocking — 4,000 doors and 142 meet-and-greets, according to his estimates. Through personal conversations, Haskell learned about voters’ specific concerns, from high prescription-drug prices to the effects of gun violence.
“I became a much better campaigner when I realized that it isn’t so much about talking about your platform,” Haskell said. “It’s about listening to people and finding out how the state government can serve them better.”
Haskell said authenticity and attentiveness won him voters — a contrast to the negative attack ads released by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and approved by Boucher. The mailers featured a Photoshopped image of Haskell with his arm around Connecticut’s unpopular governor, Dan Malloy (D).
Haskell sees the ad as a tactical mistake by his opponent that may have won him sympathy from voters.
“They Photoshopped my face onto this stock photo — I don’t think they ever met me — of this really fit, fashionable, tall guy. None of those adjectives describe me,” Haskell said. “I was up before sunrise talking to people. One of the commuters came up and said, ‘I saw that they photoshopped you. That person doesn’t look anything like you.’ And it really won me a lot of voters, simply because they were frustrated to see politics sort of devolve into that level of Photoshopping and nastiness.”
Mobilizing Every Generation
Campaigning against a politician who had served in public office for 22 years — the same number as his age — Haskell attracted support from young people. Many of his campaign volunteers were in high school and college — some of whom could not vote.
Charlotte Cohen, a 17-year-old senior in high school from Westport, Conn., worked as a volunteer on the Haskell campaign, serving in roles ranging from photographer to graphic designer. She heard Haskell’s first public speech as a candidate, at the March for Our Lives rally, a student-led demonstration calling for tighter gun control, in Hartford. His message resonated with Cohen and inspired her to work in his office every day.
“I started volunteering on and off as I could, and then this fall I really took it on,” Cohen said. “I decided to quit soccer, which I’ve been playing since I was 3, to spend more time on it, because I thought it was super important.”
Cohen was hardly alone: Voters of all ages rallied around Haskell, and witnessing their enthusiasm Nov. 6 convinced the Georgetown graduate he might have a chance.
Standing outside polling stations, Haskell met retired voters who showed up at 6 a.m. because they “couldn’t imagine being awake and not having voted yet.”
“I met two people who told me that their very first vote was for Harry Truman, and yet this was the election that they were most excited for in their whole lives,” Haskell said.
On election night, surrounded by family, volunteers and friends, Haskell waited for the results to trickle in. The race result was called around 11 p.m. but Haskell wanted to hear from his opponent before he claimed victory.
“The last thing I wanted to be was the kid to give a victory speech, so I waited until my opponent called, and very graciously, she congratulated me, wished me the best of luck. She is a good person,” Haskell said. “She and I disagree on policy, but we shared the goal of making Connecticut a better state to live in.”
After Boucher called to concede, Haskell gave his victory speech with a rush of excitement.
“I sort of came out from around the corner where I was talking to her, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this thing,’” Haskell said. “I have no memory of my feet touching the floor in order to get to the victory stage.”
While he waits to begin his new job in the state Senate in January, Haskell hopes to connect with constituents and other current and incoming state representatives, including Boucher. Once his term begins, Haskell plans to serve on the Higher Education Committee to provide a student perspective and to advocate for a student loan forgiveness program. Haskell also hopes to be on the Government Administration and Elections Committee to work toward easier voting.
Haskell’s main policy priority, however, will be gun control. Connecticut suffers from outdated storage and concealed carry laws, as well as a lax policy concerning the sale of firearms online, according to Haskell.
Driven by conversations with students who are unable to focus on their work because they feel unsafe in classrooms, Haskell is determined to instigate change.
“My first priority when I get to the legislature, number one has to be gun violence prevention,” Haskell said. “The vast majority of voters I talked to felt this was the pressing issue of our generation.”
Above all, the state senator-elect hopes to impart on his voters the importance of young people’s voices. Youth from all walks of life should not be dissuaded from participating in politics, according to Haskell. Rather, they should run for something they believe in.
“I hope that this is an era where the history books are not just going to look at Donald Trump’s administration,” Haskell said. “They’re going to notice how our generation responded by running for office in droves to make our voice heard and speaking with a moral clarity that the moment so desperately requires.”
Correction: This article previously stated Will Haskell received news of his win at 11 a.m; Haskell learned he had won the race at 11 p.m. on Nov. 6.