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Q & A with Cathy Iino: the “Great Adventure” ends

By Clark Judge.

(Oct. 30, 2021) — Cathy Iino describes her 12 years as Killingworth’s First Selectwoman as “a great adventure that happened almost by accident.” With a background in editing and publishing, she seemed more suited for a career in journalism than politics and, in fact, once wrote culinary columns for the Washington Post. But then she and her husband moved to Killingworth in 1996, and her life veered in a different direction: She joined the Democratic Town Committee, was named to the town’s Board of Finance and in 2007 ran for the Board of Selectmen.

First Selectman Cathy Iino at Barrel House opening in 2020

She won, becoming the first woman to serve on the board since First Selectwoman Pamela Ahearn left in 1993.

“I never thought about running for office,” Iino said. “But when you see something that ought to be different, you think: Well, somebody ought to do something about that. And if you think it should be done, you just go do it. In a small town like Killingworth, the somebody is you.”

In 2009, she ran again, this time for First Selectman. She won. Again. And again. And again. Six times she ran. Six times she was elected. This month Cathy Iino walks away from her “great adventure” to enter a life of … well, what? We asked when we sat down with her recently outside Town Hall.

Cathy Iino with former Haddam 1st Selectman Lizz Milardo in 2016

Q: Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Why not run again?

Iino: I love being able to actually solve problems and address things that come up. Even when people were upset or angry, it was satisfying to be able to do that. But once I found myself getting more frustrated and less excited about the prospect of doing these things every day, it just seemed like time. It’s been about 60-hour weeks for 12 years. It seemed like it was about time.

KAA’s Don McDougall with Cathy Iino at 50th anniversary celebration 2021

Q: Did the COVID pandemic influence your decision?

Iino: Not really. Obviously, it’s been a huge thing. One of the frustrations is that, over the 12 years (in office), I’ve had something like 10 national disasters to deal with. And I think we’ve done a good job. But that means you’re constantly putting on the back burner the ideas and plans that you would like to do.

Q: Like what?

Iino: One of my pipe dreams is to create a pathway all the way from Parmelee Farm, ultimately to the Shoreline. I’ve talked to people briefly in Clinton about it. There is a plan, and there is an idea to get down to Sheldon Park with this new Land Trust acquisition (24 acres north of Route 80). But I think there is a way we could go across 80 and behind our commercial section. How cool would it be if you could ride your bike or take your horse down to the shore? That would be something that would be very Killingworth. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. But it all keeps getting put on the back burner.

Cathy Iino and Former 1st Selectman of Haddam, Melissa Schlag at 2015 Pumpkin Run

Q: What did you learn in 12 years as a Selectwoman that you didn’t know before?

Iino: Everything. One of the really big things that I don’t think people realize — and that I didn’t realize before I was in office — is how much engagement there is outside the town with the regional council of governments, statewide organizations of Connecticut municipalities and all these regional organizations … which are super important. Because as much as we’d like to think we’re completely self-sufficient, we’re not. Although I think we have very good representation right now with the state legislature, there’s this funny disconnect — so that all the municipalities and the state legislature see themselves as almost in opposition to each other. Why aren’t we all on the same team? It’s crazy that the towns have to be lobbying the state legislature. Those are our representatives. They’re representing the same people. The state taxes our people …they tax the same people … but then we talk about getting money or a grant back from the state. Well, it’s the same money. It’s just a mindset that needs to change in the long run.

Q: What changes have you seen in Killingworth in 12 years?

Joan Gay cutting 9-Town Transit ribbon, flanked on right by Cathy Iino and Sen. Kennedy. (2018)

Iino: One of the changes that really has been coincidental with my running has been the growth of the radical right. Frankly, I don’t think I would’ve won the first time if they hadn’t divided the Republican Party. But the Republican Party itself overall – and the Democratic Party – have been centrist parties in Killingworth, and for many years they were very similar. I mean, there aren’t different Republican and Democratic ways that you plow snow. For years and years it was a pretty congenial relationship. There were elections, but essentially once elections were parsed and people were serving on boards and commissions, I don’t think you knew who was Republican or Democrat. And that was certainly true for most of my tenure. I swear we didn’t have more than one divided vote in the first 10 years. Lately, there’s been a change in attitude in politics, and it’s become a much more aggressive team sport. Unfortunately, I think it’s filtered down from the national level, and that makes me really, really sad.

Q: Was that one reason you decided to walk away?

Matt Albrecht accepting award from First Selectman Cathy Iino on behalf of his father (2021)

Iino: Sometimes it’s made me want to not walk away. Because I don’t want that attitude to win. And again, it’s not most of the Republicans in town. I wouldn’t say that’s the reason I walked away, but I’m sure it colored my sense of satisfaction.

Q: What would you consider the greatest accomplishment of your 12 years?

Iino: One of the main – maybe THE main — capital assets of the town are the roads, and we’ve put in place a long-range plan and started addressing it. We had our engineer do a two-year study of all the roads, and all the ones that were the lowest ranked have now been rehabbed. So we’re getting to the point now where we can do on-going maintenance efforts. We’ve gotten a couple of parks redone. The Eric Auer Park was well under way when I got started and was finished just after I came. Then there’s Parmelee Farm. You forget now what it looked like 12 years ago. Actually, one of my kids’ friends lived in the house for a while — after the town bought it, but it was still being rented out — and I remember thinking it was just kind of a jungle. It was like: Where is this house? All these things are largely volunteer efforts. The town doesn’t have a paid recreation department, for example. So a lot of the role (of the First Selectman) is finding ways to support the volunteers.

Q: What is the biggest challenge going forward?

Iino: It goes back to volunteers. The whole community is based on volunteers. Not just the Ambulance Association and Fire Company … or the Lions Club and the Killingworth Women’s Organization … but all the boards and commissions. It’s going to be harder and harder to find people to fill all those roles, and that’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s much harder with two-earner families.

Q: You have said you looked forward to having time “to do other things.” What do you have in mind?

Iino: I don’t have a specific plan, but I will spend more time with the family [she has two adult daughters and one granddaughter]. I’ll read a book. It’s been awhile. Maybe look at some of the wider issues that the state and country face. With towns like this that have very homogenous populations, it’s hard to get people to understand how the problems of the country with diversity and commitment to equity are our problems too. I’ve talked to Susan Bransfield, who’s the outgoing First Selectwoman of Portland. She’s been there for 20 years, and she’s also leaving. We’ve talked about working on that issue in the state. Because there are 169 municipalities in the state and we have … I think it’s still true … the greatest income disparities within the state of any state in the country. We’ve got to start communicating to places like this as to how dangerous that is for the country and how bad it is. We need to really address some issues, and it comes up here when you talk about housing policy. People have a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the notion of more diverse housing, but it would actually be to our benefit. We have people in the town who have been central figures and who want to downsize. They’re not at the assisted-living part yet, and it’s not necessarily even financial. It’s just that there’s nothing here that allows you to scale back the burdens of owning a large home on a large piece of land. Hopefully, the new accessory apartment regulations will allow some of them to stay, but we need to do more.

Q: How will you spend your first day of retirement?

Iino: I think I’m going to clean up my house. (She laughs) I think it really hasn’t been cleaned in the last 12 years.

Q: Any advice for your successor?

Iino: Be involved with these regional entities. Among other things, you learn a huge amount from the other CEOs of towns. And have patience. Give time and attention to the needs of the town’s staff. That’s something I didn’t do well enough. I was always getting pulled off to more public issues. The town should take pride in being a good employer. We have a really good team working now, and they make life better for our residents. We should show them that we value their contributions.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

Iino: As somebody who was open and honest and worked with everybody. And as someone who took politics seriously as a way to contribute to the public good and didn’t turn it into a partisan football game.

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