Lavielle learned diplomacy while globe trotting

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143)
State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) hails from Texas and loves classical music and reading books. One of her favorite authors is Henry James and a favorite book is ” Harriet the Spy.”
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

This is one of a series of candidate profiles designed to tell voters something about the person rather than the politician. Previous stories have looked at candidates Andy Garfunkel (D-142nd), Bill Dunne (R-25), Fred Wilms (R-142nd) , and Chris Perone (D-137th),  Next, we will profile Keith Rodgerson (D-143rd).Sen. Bob Duff was the lone contested candidate to choose not to respond to Nancy on Norwalk.

NORWALK, Conn. – Gail Lavielle has spent much of her life diving head first into things she didn’t know anything about, with the strength of a strong foundation behind her.

That includes getting her first professional job at a finance firm when her background was in literature, moving to France and working her way up to CEO of a global public relations firm there, and becoming a state representative after joining the Wilton Republican Town Committee to make friends, according to the life story she shared with Nancy On Norwalk.

Lavielle, a 4-year incumbent state representative for District 143, said she grew up in Texas as the only child of “the best parents in the whole world.”

Her father, a World War II and Korean War veteran, was an oil and gas engineer who worked almost his entire life as a consultant for the same firm in Houston. Her mother, who plays piano, met him in 1947. “They have been married 67 years and they adore each other,” Lavielle said.

“My mother had an attitude: If I was interested in something they were going to give me more of it,” Lavielle said.

That meant lots of books. But she had a leg up on that.

“I do not remember learning to read music because she taught me when I was so young. So I probably learned to read music and to read books simultaneously because I don’t remember learning to read either, and by the time I was 3, I could look at the notes and know what was going on on the piano, and I also do not remember not knowing how to read,” Lavielle said.

Since she already knew how to read, Lavielle skipped first grade. That may have fed into her complete lack of aptitude for sports. “Girls in Texas can be pretty big” even if they aren’t a year older than you, she said, describing failures at the field hockey she was required to play when she got older.

But she always knew that education was important, and not because her parents said so, she said. “I wanted to learn more. I just loved it,” she said. That included “very serious piano lessons.”

She loved watching Johnny Carson and noticed that the publishing houses mentioned on the front pages of the books she adored were in New York City, so it was a given that she would go to a fine university in the Northeast, she said. That meant that family vacations were spent visiting relatives in Kansas City so the money could be socked away.

The first thing she remembers doing to make money was answering the phones and doing filing in a Houston office during the summer, when she was 16. When she was 17 she left Texas for good.

“I always wanted to leave Texas. … I felt like, let me get out of here where people are concerned with buying the biggest thing they can find,” Lavielle said.

She went to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where working for money included cataloging George Barnard Shaw’s correspondence for a professor.  In graduate school, she was becoming fascinated with Europe, she said. A friend was Scottish and his father was a senior executive of a company that owned Burberry’s – so Lavielle spent a “fun summer” in Paris selling kilts at Burberry’s, which paid enough to make the fun possible.

This helped to nurture Lavielle’s skills at diplomacy as, “Most of the ladies who came in to buy kilts did not look that good in them,” she said.

Lavielle said she speaks French as well as she speaks English. She can speak Spanish and Italian, too, but not as well. She said she is adventurous, and doesn’t just want to visit a place but wants to learn the culture there.

In her last year of college she applied to go to Oxford and Cambridge. She got into Cambridge, but after a year decided she preferred the programs “back here,” and went to Yale to study comparative literature.

She thought she’d be an academic, but it didn’t sit well – she loved having her nose in a book, but she didn’t love it so much if she had no one to tell about it, she said.

“I said to myself in the course of my second year, ‘Let’s see if you get a job. A good one, not just anything. If you can, go do it. Take a leap, see what happens. If you can’t, stay. But I will not do this unless I get some degree from this place if you go,’” she said. “I got a job without too much trouble.”

She got a masters in French from Yale and went into the investment banking training program at Morgan Guaranty Trust Fund, where she spent six months getting “a background like nothing else that you could possibly imagine,” while earning a paycheck, she said. There were 80 people in the class; six were women. “It was an excellent first experience. I can’t think of anywhere else where you would experience that kind of atmosphere on a uniform daily basis,” Lavielle said.

It was discovered that she had a talent for financial writing.

“They offered to put me in charge of international advertising and they flew me around the world for three years. It was incredible,” she said, mentioning regular stops in South America, Europe and Asia.

Plus, there was a “certain etiquette” and a cordial atmosphere.There are few companies in the world where there is such a stress in diplomacy,” she said.

She met her husband at a cocktail party in the Eiffel Tower, where she went on a lark with a friend; she was writing a book, had writer’s block and couldn’t take a break by staying in a hotel because they were all booked for a special event in town, so when her friend invited her she said agreed to go.

She agreed to marry him after a couple of dates, she said. He moved to New York. They were married for two years when she decided her job had gotten less challenging – “there wasn’t anything new,” and “It would be interesting being in a revenue-generating position instead of cost center, she said.

She got two offers, and joined the financial communications firm Ogilvy, Adams & Rinehart as a principal, having clients for the first time.

Two years later the couple moved to France, and she did corporation financial communications for Burson-Marsteller Paris for seven years before getting hired to be the CEO of a competitor, Shandwick France.

Next stop on the high-level professional experience tour was being hired by Suez to be in charge of corporate affairs for the world for their water division.

“They never had anybody who wasn’t French do that before. I was quite proud of that, actually,” she said.

At the time, they were the seventh largest French company, she said. She did a lot of work in Casa Blanca, and went to South Africa and all over Europe.

She spent a total of 14 years in Paris.

“I was comfortable with this… going somewhere it wasn’t my culture, I didn’t have any ties there except friends I had made and my husband and his family,” she said. Figuring ‘OK, We’re going to live here, I’m going to figure out how to live here. I’m going to do whatever I need to do to make sure that it works here.’”

She spoke French “pretty good” when they got there, she said. Writing had always been her strength and, “I had to write better than anybody I knew in French, so I just made sure that happened. You just do it. You know, it’s not always your way. You have to understand how other people do things and you adapt. You don’t impose ‘you’ on other people. So that was an interesting experience. Things are different everywhere you go.”

In 2002, Suez bought United Water in Harrington Park, N.J., and transferred her to work both there and at a corporate office in Manhattan. She “never” wanted to live in Manhattan again and knew Connecticut from grad school; she and her husband “fell in love with Wilton” – well, she said, “Fell in love with whole area, but chose Wilton.”

Suez “for various financial reasons gave up their contract in Puerto Rico,” Lavielle said. It didn’t pursue other contracts and was dwindling fast, and in 2005 released the executive committee, which Lavielle was on. She got a very nice severance package, she said.

So why not get an MBA? She went to night school at UConn.

“I thought it was good thing,” she said. “I’m back in the United States, haven’t been here in 14 years, why not get the credentials? So I got it. … That was when I first discovered that the job market in Connecticut is not wildly dynamic and I didn’t want to commute to Manhattan. I had had it up to here with Manhattan. I just didn’t want to do it.”

Her husband is a CPA and a lawyer, she said. He had a masters in tax law from New York University and was working to take the bar exam, she said. She was finishing her MBA.

“I thought, well I may have to go somewhere I don’t want to go, so I studied various online offers,” Lavielle said. “There was one at a utility in Albuquerque and there was one at Walmart. So I took the one at Walmart, which was not as good a job as I had had at Suez, frankly.”

She was a marketing communication director.

They had chosen Wilton because, “It’s anonymous living in a big city. You make friends but you never feel like you’re part of the fabric. So we wanted to live somewhere where we could be part of it.”

They were both active in the community and assumed they could do that elsewhere. “The day we arrived I said ‘oh god, why did we do this?’’ she said.

They were obligated to stay a year in Arkansas because Walmart had moved them there, she said. They stayed a year and two weeks. Sears hired her, bought the house and moved them to Chicago.

After a year, her husband had passed the bar exam and had his American CPA.

“I felt I had worked long enough and I had earned what I needed to earn. I had done all those things and we decided we could come back,” Lavielle said.

“Back” was New Canaan, because the Avalon in Wilton would not rent month to month. The couple instantly resumed their community involvement in Wilton.

“I thought I can’t not do anything. So I called UConn,” Lavielle said. She was thinking maybe she’d go into communications and be on the faculty somewhere. But UConn offered her a fellowship. She taught advertising for six semesters, media literacy one semester, took some courses and did research, and was paid $19,000 to $21,000 a year.

Long drive to Storrs, she said.

“That was what I was doing, what I thought I was going to do. We then arrive at the political stuff,” she said.

How did that happen?

“Somehow it still beats me, but there you are,” she said.

The person who was state rep thought she’d stay there for the rest of her life, Lavielle said, but the state senate seat opened up and she was asked to run. Everyone assumed that the person who then ran for the seat would win because the seat had always been Republican, but she lost.

Someone suggested Lavielle run for it the next time around. “I said, ‘You’re nuts,” Lavielle said.

But she wanted to be active and she ran for the Board of Finance in 2009, and won. She served on that for four years, and ran for state rep in 2011. And won.

She said she learned her opinion mattered much less than that of her constituents, she said.

“I have always been puzzled by folks who approach this with a strong ideological bent that drives everything they do, that is not my way. I used to have clients. Now I have constituents. They are slightly different, they are different but, at the end of the day, you are responsible to them and not accountable to anyone else,” she said.

Lavielle makes a point of reaching out to constituents, she said. She said she has knocked on almost every door in the Norwalk and Wilton part of her district, and has talked to virtually everybody, or let them know they could meet her somewhere if they live in an apartment complex she can’t get into. Penetration in Westport is a little lower because that hasn’t been part of her district for as long, she said.

If people aren’t at home, she goes back to find them, she said.

What’s her biggest concern?

“Connecticut needs a lot of stuff right now and we can’t have it if we don’t get the finances in order. We need all these transportation problems to be fixed, desperately. We can’t keep having a place where the older you get the less likely it is that you can live here. Why, ‘if you get older suddenly you don’t count anymore and you have to go?’ That’s not right,” Lavielle said. “… If you are consistently spending more than what you are taking in, that means you’ve got to take more from the taxpayers and they have had a lot that they have had to give.”

A large percentage of the business community – 70 to 80 percent – is made up of businesses employing 20 people or less. The state is giving large sums of money to big businesses – but where will that money come from, she asked.

There is a tax pressure problem, and a lot of people have left Norwalk and Wilton, she said. Not so much in Westport, she said.

“We need people who make money here to pay the taxes,” she said. “You are trying to squeeze more money out of a tax base that is kind of stagnant. That’s why the deficit is important. It’s a little arcane but that’s it. We need things. We need to provide better care to people who need mental health services. We need community-based care for seniors who want to stay in their homes. We don’t want to send everybody to a nursing home – it’s more expensive and they hate it. We need not to have higher ed expenses fall on the people paying tuition, and to keep having the tuition go up and up and up. We need early education. We need the transportation infrastructure to be fixed and we need to be able to reduce taxes on businesses so that we get more of them so that they can grow and be here and have jobs available.

“We need these things. … It’s a lot of things to need and if your state’s finances are out of whack and you’re look down the throat of almost a $3 billion deficit,” she said. “You’ve got to wonder how you’re going to get them. So I am very worried about that and I think there hasn’t been maybe a full acknowledgement of how out of whack that situation is so we can right it.”


6 responses to “Lavielle learned diplomacy while globe trotting”

  1. piberman

    Gail Lavielle may well have the most impressive set of credentials and experience of any CT legislator in recent decades. But what’s really extraordinary is her modesty and genuine openness to discuss issues without partisan bias. This indeed is the defining characteristic of a legislator who has made a major positive impression on her colleagues in both parties. Ms. Lavielle is a real role model of a genuine public servant committed to serve the public – all of us. Not for self interest. Those who have had the privilege of carefully following her career and engaging personally in extended discussions with this remarkable woman come away impressed and then some. Thank you NON for giving the community the chance to learn the extraordinary background of this self effacing highly gifted and talented individual. She’s the “gold standard” in the CT legislature and we do well to honor her achievements.

  2. Norwalk Sage

    Agree with piberman. We need Gail to keep the pork barrellers in Hartford under control, regardless of who takes the governor’s seat.

  3. Donald Jones

    She should join the Harlem Globetrotters. Nice account of a gilded life. What is her experience again? I missed it you two.

  4. Joruh

    @piberman: Do you ever watch her on CT-N? Legislators from both parties leave the room when she is bloviating on issues. Remember her anti-LGBT rant in 2011?


    Wilton Bulletin 10/29/09:

    To the Editors: There are substantive differences between the candidates for Board of Finance.

    As longtime residents, Andy Pforzheimer’s 19 years and Chris Stroup’s 15 years give them a perspective on what is really important to the long-term health of Wilton.

    Moreover, they have demonstrated their service in leadership positions in the community.

    The same cannot be said for one of the other candidates for BOF who moved to town less than a year ago. She lacks perspective and experience on what makes our town and schools run.

    But let’s look at their real financial capabilities. Chris and Andy have proven business success running, building and growing their own local businesses. Chris Stroup is the only candidate who has held a CFO title. And Andy is the longest sitting member on the BOF, bringing consistency and experience we need in a year in which our longtime CFO has retired.

    The BOF does not need someone who can spin their news. They need straight talk.

    And Wilton needs individuals who know how to build revenue for the future.

    TONI LEE Spicewood Lane, Oct. 25 (Editor’s note: The candidate presumably referred to, Gail Lavielle , told The Bulletin this week that she moved to Wilton in 2002 and “that’s the truth.”)

  6. Donald Jones

    I am glad to see that Ms. Lavielle has finally come clean about not having 20 years of Fortune 500 experience. She has told that lie so many countless times on the record people take it as truth.

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