Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven

Personality crowded out policy during a Thursday meeting of the legislature’s labor committee when debate over a bill on compensating essential workers was derailed by an argument about respect between leading lawmakers on the panel.

“I really take offense to the mansplaining,” Rep. Robyn Porter, the committee’s Democratic co-chair, told Rep. Harry Arora, the panel’s ranking Republican. “I have a mouth, I know how to speak, I say what I mean, I mean what I say. I don’t need anyone to translate what I say.”

The comment came prior to a partisan vote to advance legislation to provide some essential workers extra pay for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Thursday’s debate was less about policy and more about the tone of discourse between lawmakers on one of the legislature’s most contentious committees.

Earlier in the meeting, Arora and other Republicans on the panel objected to elements of the bill including its willingness to compensate workers regardless of their immigration status. 

Rep. Harry Arora, R-Greenwich

By including the language, Arora complained the panel’s leadership had made it difficult for Republicans to support a concept they otherwise would have voted for. 

When Democrats continued praising essential workers rather than addressing his comments, Arora made another attempt, saying he was “disappointed to the extent of controlling my emotion so that I don’t be angry.” He said Democrats on the committee ignored the input of Republicans.

“If you think my disappointment — if the public thinks my disappointment is unjustified, I’m sorry. But I’m disappointed not for myself, I don’t even get classified as an essential worker,” he said. “I’m disappointed for the public I represent.” 

Later, the committee’s other chair, Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, commented on the contentious tone of the meeting. 

“This is not typical of committees to get into this level of discussion about tone and style but, I think, today it went a little too far,” Kushner said. “I want to respect you as chair and I don’t want to put any words in your mouth,” she told Porter, “and I don’t want anybody putting words in my mouth… I hope we can continue this meeting with that in mind.”

Republicans on the committee defended Arora. Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said Arora had not been “even remotely disrespectful” to the chairs. 

“I do believe that the chairs are often disrespectful to Representative Arora and his commentary and you’re basically asking for it by demeaning him repeatedly and telling him that he’s disrespecting you when he is not,” Sampson said. 

Sampson said everyone on the committee supported assisting essential workers, but called the bill “lousy.” 

“To be subjected to rhetoric that implies that we don’t care is just absurd,” Sampson said. “I don’t want to take that anymore either.” 

Thursday’s meeting was not the first time a clash between Porter and Arora took center stage during a labor committee meeting. Last year, the two lawmakers squabbled when Porter sought to cut off Arora’s extensive questioning of a lobbyist several hours into a lengthy public hearing. 

“You’re bullying me. This is not right,” Arora said at the time.

On Thursday, Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, accused the committee’s chairs of mistreating Arora for years. Arora has announced his intent to seek the Republican nomination to run for state treasurer.

“This may be his last meeting here today, depending on what his future holds,” Rutigliano said. “That’s his business, but I just wanted to let you know that I think Representative Arora’s been marginalized this entire time on this committee. He’s been interrupted, he’s been corrected, he’s been asked to not talk. I don’t think Harry’s been treated well for two years.”