Dan Haar: As lawmakers and protesters return, ‘It doesn’t feel like it should’
Deep into a rally at the state Capitol Thursday in favor of tighter restrictions on cops, or perhaps abolishing police altogether, Kat Morris halted her diatribe and called for protesters to go online and register their opinions on a website called defundCTpolice.com.
Don’t worry, said Morris, of Black America Undivided and the Connecticut Coalition for Liberation, we’ll go back to chanting in five or 10 minutes. But she added, “We have to make sure they hear us right now.”
That’s the way to reach people these days, apparently even when live events do happen. It’s one of the weird ways we’re adjusting to democracy, coronavirus-style.
That protest was one of at least five at the Capitol on Thursday, attracting more than 1,500 people from the far left to the far right. As the Black Lives Matter groups gathered, hundreds of off-duty cops and their supporters chanted against a police reform bill.
Inside, the House of Representatives was still debating a bill to expand absentee ballots, the warm-up act. Police reform would come hours later in an all-night battle.
Most House members sheltered alone in their offices in the adjacent Legislative Office Building, voting on amendments from their laptops and pushing a button if they wanted to trudge over to the historic Hall of the House to actually speak in person.
“It doesn’t feel like it should,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who’s stepping down from the post this year and will not seek reelection, by tradition after four years at the podium.
“This is a very interactive business. That aspect is missing,” Aresimowicz said as he walked from his Capitol office to drop in on his minions, one at a time. “It’s saddening but it’s our reality.”
Such is the state of legislating in the tragic summer of 2020, a hybrid world when live is online and online is live. The return of the General Assembly — the House on Thursday, followed next week by the Senate, each chamber for a day of passing bills — highlights the make-do, patched together way of life we call the new normal.
“We don’t have the flow,” Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, said to Aresimowicz as the speaker passed her on the way to members’ offices and asked how things were going.
Certainly not, as a 90-minute delay in the middle of the afternoon made clear. It was a technical glitch in the sound on the CT-N network, which suddenly serves as the lifeblood at the Capitol, the only way elected officials can follow the debates.
It would all amount to so much color and inconvenience for insiders were it not for a central fact about this day, and about the months lawmakers have spent trying to guide policy since March. The shutdown and the stultifying rules required to meet coronavirus protocol make democracy less effective.
That’s what happens when people elected to meet face-to-face, can’t.
Republicans, for example, showed outrage at a Democratic amendment to the bill expanding absentee balloting for the Nov. 3 election. The measure codified into law the governor’s executive order expanding absentee voting for the Aug. 11 primary — even as lawsuits over the order carry forth.
“This is not how government should be run,” Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, railed over the amendment. “It’s a very difficult situation and I think hitting the legislature at the last minute with amendments like this is taking advantage.”
In other words, if we’re mired in dysfunction, let’s not play ball like we usually do.
Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, in all likelihood the next House Speaker, defended the amendment on its merits. “We all should agree that we all should be able to vote by absentee ballot,” Ritter said, speaking from a nearly empty section as his members, presumbaly, watched from the next building. “So the opposition to this amendment, I just don’t understand.”
When the amendment was called for a vote, Ritter quipped that we’ll find out whether the representatives were paying attention. Normally, Republicans raise amendments to Democrats’ bills, and the Dems vote against them. Everyone voted according to form, though, and the debate carried on.
And speaking of playing ball and carrying on, Connecticut’s return to legislative democracy came on Opening Day of an equally pained Major League Baseball season. The embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci threw the ceremonial first pitch of the Washington Nationals-New York Yankees contest, with no fans in attendance, if we needed a reminder of the season’s dramatic tension.
In Hartford, outside the state Capitol the SEIU 1199 health care workers union mounted a die-in protest in which they mourned 15 nursing home workers, nine of them union members, who have passed away with COVID-19. They’re mad that no bill offering help made it onto the agenda.
“We wanted from the special session some protections for nursing home workers before the second wave,” said Jesse Martin, the 1199 vice president for nursing homes.
Ugh, the second wave. We fear it’s coming but the pro-Trump protesters who showed up later, opposing the expanded balloting, are blissfully unconvinced. Several of them showed up with anti-mask signs, one of which purported to show the science behind opposition to face covering.
The police and their supporters held the most traditional march-rally, opposing the elimination of a complex legal mechanism called qualified immunity — which may or may not protect them from lawsuits accusing them of brutality and misconduct.
Many of the cops did not wear masks. Other protesters had little direct interaction with them despite close proximity and the opportunity for fireworks.
“We didn’t clash because we don’t really care about them,” said anti-police protester Eric Cruz Lopez of Bridgeport, with two groups including Connecticut Students for a Dream.
He mused that Hartford and Capitol cops seemed to go out of their way to protect the protesting police.
And so it went, on a day when representative democracy and citizen activism tried mightlily to return to normal, if only for a few hours.
Beyond voting and protesting, negotiations also show the strain as many of the back-room talks that define policy are happening over Zoom, not face to face. “When you sit across the table,” Aresimowicz said, “you can pick up cues.”
As it was for Aresimowicz, it was a sad moment for Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the House Republican leader, who also isn’t running and will step down after six years in the high-profile role.
“It’s not how anybody expected to do anything,” Klarides said: “Live this way, run their businesses, educate their kids.”
For herself on one of the last days in the House? “This caucus and this legislature are my second family and it’s very emotional.”
As she wore a pink “I (heart) CT” mask, I asked whether we’d see her on the campaign trail for governor in 2022.
“I don’t think my time in public service in Connecticut is over,” she said.