Sixty miles and more separate Town Hall and state Capitol
Published 2:26 pm, Wednesday, November 24, 2010
On Jan. 5, Westport Representative Town Meeting Deputy Moderator Jonathan Steinberg will travel to the state Capitol in Hartford to be sworn in as the 136th District's next state representative. The drive will not be that long -- only about 60 miles, or 80 minutes, from Westport Town Hall. But the differences between the organization and outlook of the state General Assembly and the RTM will be a much larger divide to navigate.
"I'm kind of headed back to square one," Steinberg says, as he prepares for his freshman term in the state legislature.
Superficially, the General Assembly and the RTM actually appear similar: two legislatures where representatives of various constituencies meet to deliberate and pass bills, requests or proposals. Closer inspection, however, reveals substantial disparities. Partisanship probably represents the most significant distinction between the assembly and the RTM. The former is composed of legislators from political parties. By contrast -- as mandated by its town charter -- Westport's legislative body is one of a handful in the state to operate in a nonpartisan structure.
"What's good about the RTM is that's nonpartisan," says the 136th District's outgoing incumbent, Joe Mioli, who also served a year in the RTM. "If I'm a Democrat and you're a Republican, we work together in a nonpartisan way."
As a Democrat, Mioli worked far less closely with Republicans in the assembly. Even as an assistant majority leader during his last two years in the state legislature, he conferred infrequently with GOP legislators on Democratic-sponsored legislation.
"You're not going to ask Republicans to vote for bills," he says. "It's not done."
Mioli instead worked within a highly organized Democratic hierarchy during his three terms in Hartford. The fate of legislation introduced or sponsored by Mioli was essentially determined by the party's elite. Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan, Majority Leader Denise Merrill, as well as the influential Democratic chairs of each committee in the assembly, essentially set the legislative agenda.
"The committee chair is like a czar," Mioli says. "If the committee chair doesn't like your bill, it's dead."
Any proposed legislation in Hartford has to pass through a gauntlet of committees just to make it to the assembly floor. Mioli says that out of about 6,000 bills that are introduced each year in the assembly, only between 300 and 400 bills will even get voted on.
If a bill does manage to make it to the floor, the outcome is usually assured.
"When a bill gets to the floor, it's going to pass," Mioli adds. "It's not going to fail."
The legislative process is markedly different in the RTM. While Moderator Hadley Rose sets the agenda for each RTM meeting, he does not play a preponderant role like Donovan. A request by two or more RTM members or a public petition will suffice to place any item on the RTM agenda.
And unlike leaders in the assembly, proposed legislation does not prosper or falter depending on Rose's approval.
"If you walk into our meetings, sometimes I have no idea where the vote's going," he says.
RTM committee chairs, appointed by the moderator, likewise play less domineering roles than their counterparts in the General Assembly.
In the absence of party affiliation and hierarchy, legislation in the RTM tends to emerge and advance in a more organic manner. Community concerns are often instrumental. Public Works Committee Chairman Judy Starr, for instance, worked to secure RTM support for a sewer system in Saugatuck Shores, located in District 1, which she represents.
"As a candidate [in 2003] I had pledged, and as a representative I have worked to do everything I could possibly do to bring sewers to Saugatuck Shores," she says. "Since it was to benefit about 350 households, I placed it on the agenda."
With Starr's backing and the RTM's subsequent approval, construction of a sewer system for Saugatuck Shores began in 2009.
Voting patterns among RTM members also emerge in a less constricted way compared with their counterparts in the assembly. In lieu of positions mandated by political party, Rea says RTM members' personal philosophy and constituents' views determine support for legislation.
Even glimpses of partisanship among RTM members are quickly snuffed out, Rose says. Caucusing or meetings among members outside of committees and general RTM sessions are illegal. RTM members cannot even express opinions on legislation in correspondences to their legislative colleagues.
"As soon as I see that I will say, `Don't debate this by e-mail. It becomes an illegal meeting,' " Rose adds.
Steinberg, conversely, is already discovering the reality of joining a partisan legislature. At a Nov. 18 orientation in Hartford for freshman legislators, he participated in mock committee hearings and assembly sessions.
"The protocol is a little more rigorous than what we had in the RTM," he says. "In the legislature, everything has to be directed to the chair of the committee or the speaker of the house."
State legislators' requests for committee assignments also go through the speaker of the house. And as a newcomer to Hartford, Steinberg will, at least temporarily, lose the leadership he enjoyed in the RTM.
"As a freshman, it's not so much speak when spoken to, but I can't expect people to know what I'm capable of doing," he says. "I have to be prepared to be the student again to learn from others."
Mioli, meanwhile, is preparing to run for the Italian Senate in Rome. The district he would represent encompasses all Italian nationals living in North and Central America. Most of the district's constituents, however, live in the northeastern United States.
Italy operates in a parliamentary system, as opposed to the republican form of government used in the U.S. Political party affiliation is arguably even more important in Italy because the prime minister usually comes from the party with the most seats in parliament. Mioli belongs to the same party, Il Popolo della Liberta (The People of Freedom), as Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Regardless of whether members aspire to eventually serve in Hartford, Washington, D.C., or Rome, current RTMers say Westport's legislature offers ideal preparation.
Despite their endorsement of the RTM as a launching pad for a career in higher office, members show little interest in their own legislative body becoming partisan.
"We maintain a decorum and civility in our proceedings that seems, at times, to be lost in Hartford and Washington," Rea says.
But partisan legislators can learn from the collegial atmosphere of the Westport RTM, Starr says.
"There are often issues where there is common ground, and that's where people need to work together," she says.
Highlighting its nonpartisan organization, RTM members will soon meet to elect a new moderator and deputy moderator, who each serve one-year terms. Steinberg will officially resign from the RTM within the next few weeks, while Rose will run for a fourth term as moderator. Candidates to succeed Steinberg as deputy moderator can be nominated by any RTM members.
And members will then cast their votes for their preferred candidates without any political hierarchy leaning on them to go a certain way.
"I think the best thing about the RTM is that it's nonpartisan. Nobody I know has ever been pressured by a party to vote a particular way," Rose says. "I think most RTM members if they were approached by a party to do that would resent that highly."