Public Servant with Tough Skin and Big Heart - Kingswood Oxford

Alumni News

July 19, 2022

Public Servant with Tough Skin and Big Heart

Driving on I-84 through Hartford, you can’t help but notice the gleaming marble and granite edifice of the Capitol Building. Imposing and impassive, its formal facade belies the kinetic energy that bounces off its walls when the General Assembly of the state legislature is in session from February to May, especially on Wednesdays, when both the House and Senate typically meet. 


On this particular Wednesday, the Capitol lobby was thronged with visitors: AFL-CIO hardhats attending a ceremony, visitors crowding around the tree trunk from the battlefield of Chickamauga, others craning their necks to view the soaring rotunda. One side of the lobby is crammed with containers of decorated Christmas trees that are props for a Hallmark holiday film, as monumental winged statuary stand sentry. One floor up, the balconied hallway overlooking the lobby is jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with lobbyists and activists chatting animatedly that you’d think you were at a cocktail party. But instead of canapes, the guests carried clipboards and briefcases and exchanged business cards.


Our meeting with Matthew Ritter ’00, Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, is running late, and we’re told by Ritter’s Johnny-on-the-spot intern it’s because of an emergency caucus meeting. We’re relegated to waiting in the caucus room, a large underwhelming space that doubles as a break room and casual meeting space chock full of snacks (Fruits Gushers, Sour Patch Kids, and Entemann’s Little Bites). If you were ever to question where you’re tax dollars are spent, we can confirm that it is not on nutritious snack foods at the Capitol. TV monitors, everpresent and always on, run Bloomberg News and a closed-caption telecast of the Senate resolution approving the settlement agreement in Sheff vs O’Neill, an impassioned debate about open choice in education. Men in rumpled suits amble in, splayed out on couches with their feet up and shoes off, and talk in equal measure about childcare and Yankee third baseman Josh Donaldson.


Eventually, Ritter walks briskly into the caucus room, and we’re escorted into his office, replete with homey touches of framed Sports Illustrated covers of the men’s and women’s UConn basketball teams, a green suit dotted with shamrocks for the upcoming St. Patricks Day parade, and most visibly a multitude of family photos. 


Ritter hails from a political family. His father, Thomas Ritter, was a lawyer, lobbyist, and Speaker of the House of the Connecticut House of Representatives, and his mother, Christine Keller, is a judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court who is set to retire this year. Both his grandfather and his uncle served as state representatives, and his grandmother was a civil rights activist. Contrary to the political DNA coursing through his veins, politics was not always on Ritter’s mind. His original career aspiration was to be a sports commentator, and he spent much of his time at KO pursuing soccer and basketball rather than mock trial proceedings.


“Clearly, there was always a political bent to the family. I was always around it. I wouldn’t say that my parents talked about it a lot, and when you’re nine years old, you don’t really care what your parents do for a living. But you’re around it and exposed to it. In my experience, I met a lot of wonderful and diverse groups of people. That is what gravitated to me more than anything was the people I met,” Ritter said.


It wasn’t until Ritter reached his junior year at Colby College that he began to consider a career in law and government. While studying for the bar exam after finishing his law degree at UConn, there was an opening on the Hartford City Council for someone who lived in a certain geographic area. Before he knew it, Ritter was running for the seat at the advanced age of 24. He spent three years on the Hartford City Council where he chaired the Planning and Economic Development and Legislative Affairs committees. In 2010, Ritter defeated an incumbent in the Democratic primary and won the election in the 1st assembly district. Ritter became the Majority Leader of the Connecticut House of Representatives in 2016.


“I try to tell younger politicians or people who are starting that there’s a certain amount of luck in it,” he said. “That sounds so scary to people that you can’t control your own fate. But it’s like anything else – the ball has to bounce your way sometimes. If the committee you want to chair – if the same person has been there for 14 years, guess what? You’re not going to chair that committee. If you want to be in the U.S. Senate, Chris Murphy is a really young guy. He may be there a long time. People may all have their plans, but I think the thing that I found is that you’ve got to focus on the job at hand. Opportunities will present themselves. It’s really rare when someone is like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ It’s really hard because there are a lot of factors that occur. People look at me and say, ‘What do you mean? I’m going to be President of the U.S. I’m thinking, ‘Probably not.’ Even to be a state senator, many balls have to bounce your way.”


Ritter has no plans to head to D.C. and prefers the roll-up-your-sleeves attitude in state politics, where one can feel and see the immediate impact of your efforts whether, in Ritter’s case, it’s focusing on children’s mental health or the issue of welfare liens on homeowners. 


“This is a job where you have the opportunity to get your hands in anything you want in the state of Connecticut,” Ritter said. “There’s not a lot that Congress in D.C. does that is so tangible and direct to the people in Hartford. You can target things at the state level and really see when you look back that you did five or 10 things that were tangible and made a difference in people’s lives.”

When Ritter isn’t at the Capitol, he practices law at Shipman and Goodwin where he has worked for 13 years at what he calls his “mortgage-paying job.” A typical day when the legislature is in session includes visiting the gym, walking the dogs, dropping the kids off at school, and heading into the law office from 9 a.m. to noon. Then switching gears, he arrives at the Capitol and conducts the business of his constituents until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.and, then concludes the day with his legal work for the law firm. Despite the go-go nature of his job, this is a man who relishes his work, embracing both careers with passion and conviction.


Ritter is not immune to the toxicity of the political landscape and said he has witnessed an increase in rancor and aggressiveness since he first started in politics. He cites people’s elevated stress levels due to the pandemic, which has set people on edge, but he also lays a lot of the damage on the doorstep of social media. 


“People read only what they want to read, and that’s on purpose because of the algorithms that feed you the content,” he said. “No one reads papers anymore.” Although the state of Connecticut had one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, 87 percent over the age of 18, the debate on the floor raged for over 12 hours over restrictions and mandates. He felt there was a disconnect between the data, which showed the vast majority of people supported the state’s efforts, and the negative rhetoric.

“I think social media has allowed people to amplify a small group of voices, but people pay attention to those voices,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way in this country to get people better access to information to people without chilling First Amendment speech.”


When Ritter was first elected to the Assembly in 2010, the state had a massive multi-billion-dollar deficit and no money in the rainy day fund. The state has now built up the reserve fund, to a record level not only as a percentage of the budget but also as a dollar amount. Ritter believes that the combination of careful spending, saving money, and ensuring that Connecticut remains an attractive place to raise families has placed the state in a solid position. Additionally, the upside of Covid allowed many workers to work from home, lessening the need for people to seek housing close to Boston or Manhattan. Now, many people have the option to go into those business hubs only once or twice a week and make Connecticut their permanent address.


One key to Ritter’s success in this hyper-partisan age is his ability to work on both sides of the aisle. In this respect, Ritter considers himself a younger-old dinosaur of the order of the Tip O’Neill era. He is most proud of helping to build the consensus that re-orchestrated Hartford’s debt in 2017, leading the city out of bankruptcy. 


“We didn’t do it by making a lot of cuts or doing things that were unpopular with residents. We did it by working together,” he said. “We managed to spend all of our federal dollars in a bipartisan manner. I’m proud of that in an environment where it is more politically popular and expedient to not get along with the other party. I truly believe in this institution. There are people who probably don’t agree with my approach and think I’m too willing to accommodate and compromise. But it’s the best thing in the long run for the state of Connecticut.”


Although the country’s state is fraught with high emotions, Ritter exudes a healthy optimism in confronting our challenges with patience, empathy, and listening to people.


“We have to find a way to be American again and have people be happy about their lives,” he said. “We have to do a better job as a society of going back to where you care for one another.”

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