Debate in the state House of Representatives came to a screeching halt Wednesday for the second time this session when House Republican leader Themis Klarides read Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s comments about her colleagues in the CT Post.
She delivered an angry statement to reporters in the Capitol press room, calling the governor a bully and suggesting he should resign and allow Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to complete his term.
Malloy had told the CT Post that some of the Republican opposition to his “Second Chance Society” proposal had racist overtones. Part of the proposal, which he was touting in New Haven early Wednesday, would eliminate the enhanced penalties for possession of drugs within so-called drug-free school zones.
“To treat those folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome,” Malloy told the CT Post.
To put his statement in context, the state’s drug free school zone law enhances penalties for drug sales or possession within 1,500 feet of any school. But in conjunction with the large number of schools that dot the landscapes in the state’s urban areas, the law has essentially turned those cities into drug-free zones entirely, or nearly so.
As a result, people in those cities are far more likely to face prison time for simple drug possession, and legislation has failed to pass for the last several years to address the inequity. As Malloy has been advocating for his Second Chance Society legislation this year, he has been talking about the unintended consequences of criminal justice policies that have led to the mass incarceration of people of color over the last few decades.
But his statement, in which he suggested Republican opposition to the bill this year was racially motivated, drew an immediate and fiery, outraged response from Klarides, R-Derby, who essentially shut down the state House of Representatives for the afternoon before heading to the press room to condemn the governor’s comments and even call for his resignation.
“I have to tell you that we disagree on a lot of things in this building, as we should,” Klarides said. “And part of the democratic process is that we are able to disagree and debate that and argue that and have those conversations. But the one thing that we have, no matter what we agree or disagree on, is respect for each other’s opinions. I could hate something, but I’m going to respect somebody else’s opinion. I’m going to try to change their mind but I’m going to respect their opinion.
“Being called racist goes so far below what any governor should do because we don’t agree with his ideas,” Klarides continued. “That’s what this is about. He’s trying to divert attention from what’s really going on in this building, from the $3 billion deficit we have. He’s trying to make like, because we don’t agree with him, we’re bad people. It’s shameful. It’s vile. And I would hope that he would understand that there’s no place for that in this building. Because people of this state do not deserve that.”
Klarides also alluded to the idea that the governor is already aiming beyond Connecticut because he will serve as chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association starting 2016.
“And I don’t think the people at the Democratic Governor’s Association deserve that either, because if he wants to continue running a national campaign for whatever he’s running for, I don’t think that’s the way to do it,” she said. “Enough is enough. Sick and tired of his name-calling, of his bullying, and of his . . . not getting his own way so he pouts and walks away. It’s your classic bully mentality. He called us, two months ago – Republicans hate women. They want everyone to live in poverty. Nobody should have healthcare. And now we’re racist. I mean, there’s lines to be drawn and sometimes we don’t know where they are but there’s certain ones that are black and white and this screams black and white.
A reporter asked Klarides to clarify her impression of the intent behind Malloy’s comments earlier in the day.
“He said they were racially motivated and that they’re unfair and if not racist in intent, racist in their outcome. And this was directed at members of my caucus who came out and made statements about not supporting Second Chances. And I go back to what I said before. People elect us to support things, to fight things, and everything in the middle. And if we don’t agree with it, that’s one thing. But all of a sudden that makes us racist? I mean, you want to talk about a bully.
“This is a man that will call you every name in the book in hope of beating you down. And certainly people of this state didn’t elect him to do that and this building does not operate [like] that. So he should figure out where he is and what he wants to do with his career because if this is about making a national name for himself, he should step down and let Nancy Wyman take over. Because he clearly is not interested in doing the job he was elected to do.”
Malloy, however, was not about to walk back his comments and suggested that Republicans were misstating the content of the bill.
“When you have a disparate impact, and it’s racial in nature, and you don’t correct it, there’s something wrong,” Malloy said in response to reporters’ questions at 6 p.m. after the House had shut down for a while.
“And I have pointed out that, you know, there are a series of Republican legislators who put out misstatements about what we’re doing in the bill and equating it to sale as opposed to simple possession,” Malloy added. “But not one of them has proposed treating mere possession in their community as a felony that requires incarceration. Not one of them. So, you know, certain questions get begged from time to time. We know that it has a disparate racial impact. We know that. We know that in our state most black and hispanic people live in urban environments. And because of the concentration of that population, most of that population lives within 1,500 feet of a school.
“So you could be in your house, in your home, have some small amount of drug, and you would, because you live in New Haven, automatically be subject to incarceration. When if you did that in most of Avon or most of Canaan, or most any other non-urban community, you would not be treated that way. We know that now. Let’s deal with it. Many other states are dealing with it, including, you know, states that are led almost exclusively by Republicans. Like Utah. So I think to throw up these arguments to defend what we know is patently unfair doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“When you know that there is a large, disparate impact, affecting black and hispanic people, based on where they live, as opposed to what you represent, then it’s your obligation to do something about it,” Malloy said. “Let’s have that debate in the legislature.”
Meanwhile, Klarides — who pointed out that Malloy was also vilifying a number of House Democrats who were not yet on board with his legislation — met with Democratic leaders in the House after speaking to reporters. They issued a joint, written statement with Klarides before getting back to work Wednesday night:
“This is a difficult policy issue where there can be legitimate disagreement, but ascribing motives to people on opposite sides of the issue is not productive or helpful toward the ultimate goal of passing legislation that is important to hard working families,” Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey said.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said: “We cannot condone injecting racism into the debate over challenging legislation. Questioning the intentions of those with differing opinions is counterproductive to the work that needs to be done in the legislature.”
And Klarides added, “This is a sad and disappointing episode. This country was built on the concept of tolerance of others’ opinions, we don’t all have to agree nor should we. Distorting the facts and injecting racism into this debate is wrong. The facts are that Republicans and Democrats both voted for and against this measure in committee.”
Three Democratic lawmakers voted against Malloy’s Second Chance proposal in the Judiciary Committee.
The Judiciary Committee also came to a halt a few weeks ago — on the day of its deadline to forward bills out of committee — because of a nasty email between legislators. Lawmakers are still scrambling to salvage as many of those bills as possible by attaching them to other legislation.