Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent file photo
Sen. Gary Winfield (Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Last week, a white lawmaker told a black female lobbyist that he needed a pin that said he “stands with white men,” and there was little, if any, outrage from other elected officials.

The lawmaker, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, apologized and promised to hold a community hearing in an effort to better understand the issues faced by minority women. But that was the end of the story until Monday when 13 organizations called upon lawmakers to “denounce the state senator’s words, as well as the inherent racism and sexism deeply rooted” in his interaction with the lobbyist.

The group, which included social justice organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, said they are “deeply disturbed by Senator John Fonfara’s comments to Planned Parenthood of Southern New England lobbyist Arvia Walker last week. His comments reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the everyday issues of his constituents and of women of color across our state. We were also disappointed by the lack of outrage, and, in most cases, the lack of any public response by elected officials following the incident.”

They said they hope Fonfara, who has been in office for 31 years and represents mostly black and brown people in Hartford and Wethersfield, is open to understanding “his constituency’s everyday challenges in the face of systemic racism and inequality. We need our elected leaders to take a clear stance on racism and take steps to address it and prevent it in the future. Our state Capitol and Legislative Office Building should be safe and respectful forums for debate and advocacy, as well as for members of the public to share their experiences and opinions.”

The statement comes after Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, posted some comments in a Facebook Live stream this weekend. 

Winfield, a black state Senator, said it’s not appropriate to use the system that exists to make black people invisible. Just because someone has a different experience doesn’t mean you dismiss their experience, Winfield explained.

“Policy in this state is made by people who don’t see us,” Winfield said.

He said it’s one of the reasons “we have prison-based gerrymandering in 2018.”

Winfield said it’s also why he’s been unable to pass for the last 10 years, “a real racial impact statement.”

He said the issue is bigger than Fonfara. He said he was baffled by the lack of response to Fonfara’s comment. He said he hadn’t heard anything from the organizations that represent people of color.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, offered a statement Monday explaining that he’s spoken to Fonfara.

“Arvia Walker deserved a prompt apology from Senator Fonfara for his ill-considered remarks,” Looney said. “I have spoken with Senator Fonfara who expressed his deep regret as well as his commitment to playing a constructive role in addressing issues of racial and gender inequality in our society.

“It is my hope that this extremely unfortunate incident will lead to a much-needed conversation on racial and gender power dynamics both here at the Capitol and in the community, leading us all to be better, more inclusive policymakers,” Looney said. “Ms. Walker and everyone who sets foot in the Capitol should be able to enter this building secure in the knowledge that they will be treated with respect.”

Looney added: “We live in a place where you can grow up in the same neighborhood as someone else but have life experiences that are a world apart. We will be a stronger society when we actively work to bridge that gap in understanding and seek a world where more genuine mutual understanding exists. That begins with acknowledging the racial and gender constructs that have held back far too many for too long.”