Two state senators during debate
L to R: State Sens. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, shown in this composite of two different images from the Senate chamber at the Connecticut State Capitol Building in 2022. Credit: File photos / CTNewsJunkie
Jonathan L. Wharton

Some of the most essential moments during a college semester arrive when we have guest speakers in class. It’s a time to get beyond assigned readings and have students connect with some experts. Last week, I was grateful to have state Sens. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, discuss Connecticut General Assembly politics and share their stances on public policy with my State and Local Government class. It’s rare, but some lawmakers can be cordial to one another even in today’s politically toxic environment.

Readers may remember at the beginning of the pandemic, I shared how my previous class had several General Assembly lawmakers discuss policy and politics. We had class sessions online and officials from both chambers and political parties participated. They described the political and social demands of working for the General Assembly and how important their urban, suburban, and rural constituencies are throughout our diverse state.

When I planned the online panel discussions, one session was for Democratic lawmakers and the following week were for Republicans. I try my best to have equal representation, politically speaking. It’s rare that I can have Democrats and Republicans for the same class, but I wanted to do so this semester.

Planning this is almost like playing matchmaker and I’ve had a couple of blowups in the recent past. But Winfield attended my classes over the years and he’s conveniently nearby. And I was already in touch with Hwang as we met over the summer and discussed his coming to class. Hwang and Winfield started in the House of Representatives together in 2008 and they were elected into the Senate together in 2014.

What I didn’t know was just how close and respectful the two lawmakers were and it was apparent in my class. They were jovial and mindful of their policy stances. Hwang reminded Winfield that he was at his wedding and they shared barbs and laughs. In other words, the lawmakers were more than colleagues. My class and I were taken aback by their energy and genuineness. It was actually refreshing.

I share the same sentiment as my students that our political spaces are so negative that we hardly want to engage in meaningful dialogue. In fact, many students are so jaded about politics that they would rather be unaffiliated than a member of a political party. As an educator with plenty of political scars, I’ve pretty much lost hope trying to otherwise persuade them.

Certainly the lawmakers admitted their differences on recreational marijuana, gun control, capital punishment, and police reform policies. But they chimed in about why they differed and how they could see the other side. There was no shouting, anger, or disrespect. Instead, Hwang and Winfield were mindful and carefully heard one another’s perspective.

A student inquired about their party differences and how the lawmakers respect each other. Hwang and Winfield immediately said they’re forthright to one another and to others. It seemed to be the one area where they were both on the same page.

Another student asked about the impact of national politics on Connecticut’s political scene. Winfield noticed that rhetoric among lawmakers and constituents has worsened, especially in the last couple of years. Hwang admitted to being on the partisan frontlines as many view him as being like “any Republican” when he often differs from the national party. Ultimately, both lawmakers shared that divisive rhetoric is pulling many of us apart.

But having Hwang and Winfield in my class reminded me that lawmakers can be respectful and cordial – and dare to be friends. If only more of us could take a page from their political playbook, especially this election season.

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.