The great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said of the rich, “They are different from you and me.” To Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted maxim, I would add members of the General Assembly. A recent incident at the Capitol brought into stark relief the extent to which lawmakers in Hartford are different from you and me. No, they’re not smarter than us or even – in most cases – richer.
Last week, there were shots mysteriously fired at the people’s house on Capitol Avenue. But it turns out that a few hundred yards away, “shots” of alcohol were being downed at the Legislative Office Building. Both are appalling. However, one is criminal and the other is a betrayal of trust. In this case, I’m not sure which is worse.
As my colleague Hugh McQuaid reported, House Speaker Matt Ritter scolded some rank-and-file lawmakers for heavy drinking during the marathon legislative discussions typical of the final days of a session. McQuaid and others in the media had been alerted by Kevin Rennie, a former state senator and representative whose blog, Daily Ructions, has a habit of breaking juicy tidbits such as this one.
“I’m not going to downplay this. I have on multiple occasions had to talk to the caucus or individuals in my office,” Ritter told reporters during a morning press conference after Rennie’s post went live.
It has been an open secret that alcohol is a permanent fixture at the Capitol and in the LOB. But this is the first time I had ever heard of anything so egregious as to elicit a public spanking by a legislative leader.
Ritter’s umbrage is better understood when one considers the event that likely precipitated it. The catalyst for the story was likely a bizarre performance by Rep. Robin Comey, D-Branford, who struggled to get through an explanation of legislation she was proposing concerning early childhood education services. Ritter’s exasperation is also better understood when one considers that Comey is also assistant majority leader and therefore part of Ritter’s own leadership team.
Comey tried to explain the legislation, became thoroughly confused, paused a few times for several awkward minutes, and was eventually relieved of the microphone by her colleagues who seated her for fear that she might collapse.
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville and a physician, came to Comey’s aid and water was provided by an aide. As if to break the ungainly silence after Comey was seated, CT-N resumed playing its legislative theme music. Capitol police carrying medical equipment also responded. Rennie posted the video on his blog.
Comey subsequently apologized for her behaviour, blaming it on “anxiety, exhaustion, and, regrettably, the wine I had with dinner.” But from all appearances, most of the offending lawmakers have, over the years, possessed the good sense not to attempt a speech in the House chambers after overindulging back in the LOB.
Rennie’s sources told him most of the merrymaking happens on the LOB’s fourth floor and on the parking garage roof. One lawmaker reportedly fell in a stairwell while walking from the roof to the causeway leading to the LOB. Police have also taken car keys from impaired legislators. Rennie wisely suggested Ritter declare the LOB an alcohol-free zone.
This should go without saying, but lest we forget: elected officials are a different breed of animal. We report to a boss who can hire, fire and discipline us. Lawmakers report to the voters who elected them. Voters can be remarkably forgiving of naughty behavior if the elected officials bring home the bacon to their districts or can be relied upon to vote the way their constituents want them to.
Ritter controls the flow of legislation and appoints House members of all committees not appointed by resolution. Ritter can therefore strip most offending members of committee assignments but, unlike my boss, he cannot simply fire legislators.
In the United States, we show remarkable deference to elected officials. We give them wide latitude to do as they see fit, provided they act within the bounds of the law. As long as they disclose their conflicts of interest or get them cleared by the State Ethics Office, Connecticut’s lawmakers are allowed to have professional tangles that would easily get me removed from a story as a journalist.
To wit, Connecticut’s weak ethics laws permitted then-House Republican Leader Larry Cafero to have a side gig at Brown Rudnick, a law firm that regularly lobbies lawmakers in the Capitol. Though Cafero did not lobby for Brown Rudnick clients, others at the firm were permitted to and the law actually allowed the firm to lobby Cafero himself.
Just last year, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, worked for a nonprofit that trains Democratic women to run for office. Flexer got clearance from the ethics office to solicit and accept donations to the nonprofit from lobbyists. Those would be the same lobbyists who no doubt seek support for a wide range of issues from Flexer, who co-chairs the powerful Government Administration and Elections Committee, whose website says it “has cognizance on all matters relating to,” among others, the Office of State Ethics itself.
I guess the reasoning was that if the constituents of Cafero and Flexer didn’t like their questionable practices, then voters were free to send them packing. I’m not buying it.
There is a downside to having too many public officials elected to their positions. In many states, sheriffs, district attorneys and even judges are elected. This can lead to naked politicization of law enforcement, as happened, for example, in the case of the wrongful rape prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players by a reckless and grandstanding county DA who was later removed, disbarred, and jailed.
Not so in Connecticut. We don’t have county government anymore and, thankfully, our prosecutors are appointed. The attorney general is elected but does not prosecute criminal cases. He and his staff are essentially the biggest law firm in the state and they issue advisory opinions and file endless lawsuits against people and corporations.
So we are better than some states in that our criminal justice system is less inclined toward politicization, but our legislature needs cleaning up. We could start by strengthening its ethics laws, but don’t bet on it. It is an immutable law of physics that lawmakers will resist because … well, they’re different.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.