Abuse of power is a favorite subject with writers of hate mail. The specter of elected officials governing by fiat, disregarding parliamentary procedure and acting capriciously seems to loom so large as to be a national obsession. The obvious target of the tirade is the party with the majority of members in its caucus.
Here in the Connecticut General Assembly that means the Democrats, who hold a “supermajority” in both the State’s House and Senate (98 to 53 in the House of Representatives; 24-12 in the Senate). As such, Democrats like me are frequently criticized by those members of the public who supported our Republican opponents.
The great irony here is that it’s the GOP majority in states like Tennessee and Montana (most recently) that have broken with parliamentary protocols aimed at protecting the very same representative government Republicans claim is under attack. In those states, they are in the majority, and they use that numerical advantage in undemocratic ways.
Recently, the nation watched in disbelief as Tennessee House Republicans ejected State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson and nearly kicked out a female colleague, Rep. Gloria Johnson, for speaking out on gun violence in the aftermath of a local mass shooting. Although they were ultimately reinstated, the lawmakers’ ejection was both an assault on their free speech and a procedural betrayal of the their constituents, who were denied fair representation. And most significantly: the lawmakers were ejected (along a party-line vote) without 1) having been charged with any serious offense; and 2) without having been given the benefit of any investigation.
In other words, this breach of parliamentary procedure was abuse of power at its very worst.
Just a few weeks later, in Montana, the Republican-dominated House voted to ban for the rest of the session Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who criticized the passage of legislation discriminatory to the trans community. Rep. Zephyr also amplified the voices of protesters and was accused of “encouraging an insurrection.” (For Republicans to use this phrase without irony is nothing short of Orwellian.)
Again, the message sent was: we’re in power, we don’t like what you say, so we’re shutting you up.
Or, as New York Magazine’s Intelligencer summarized: “What the GOP is doing…is a straightforward flex of unbridled power, confirming how little it is concerned with traditional norms of democracy. It also doubles as a warning shot: Tennessee Republicans have not only the numbers but the political will and now a precedent for defrocking whomever they please.”
In fairness, those Democratic representatives appear to have encouraged civil disobedience in their respective Capitols (by raising microphones to a crowd of protesters) and that act in itself can be taken as a breach of protocol. It was not, however, illegal, unethical, or violent.
So how does the “ruling party” here in the Connecticut Legislature handle decorum? When, on occasion, one of my colleagues (of either party) breaks with protocol in some way, the gavel bangs, our error is pointed out, we may be warned not to repeat the offense, and we are permitted to continue. We are not, however, ejected, silenced, banned, barred or vilified.
The point is that not only do the Democratic Speaker and Majority Leader not abuse their status, they go out of their way to accommodate the minority party by negotiating with the Minority Leader, encouraging Democratic committee chairs to raise Republican bills when possible, and by allowing virtually unlimited cross-examination on the Floor of the House.
In this way, Connecticut’s legislative leadership strives to act in a bipartisan way in all matters. (The fact that much GOP-favored legislation and most Republican amendments die is because they are voted down. And yes, here is where the Democrats’ large majority comes into play. But these are votes taken in public, not edicts.)
Unlike in some red states, here in Connecticut the time-honored parliamentary traditions are considered sacred. Speaker of the House Matthew Ritter rarely, if ever, “calls the question” (which means stopping debate and requiring a vote). To me, Rep. Ritter is someone who respects protocol, and believes deeply in government as a force for good. To him, silencing debate — however lengthy or uncomfortable it may get — is akin to disrespecting the very workings of our democratic system of government. The result can mean hours and hours of filibustering, repetitive questioning, and occasional posturing.
In my six years in the House, I have rarely seem him ruffled, and have never seen him (or Majority Leader Jason Rojas) disrespectful of the minority party. Only once have I seen Ritter threaten to eject someone from the floor, and that was during Covid, when a few GOP House members flagrantly broke the law by refusing to wear masks. Ritter’s threat was not to flex his muscle, or to silence debate; rather, it was to uphold the law (in place at the time) and to protect the majority of law-abiding lawmakers present. It is worth noting that Ritter warned the offenders three times. He did not summarily boot them out. (They eventually complied and business resumed.)
I’m not alone in wishing, at times, our Speaker would lower the boom when the other side of the aisle gets longwinded or deliberately runs down the clock so Democrats’ bills will die. This stalling tactic grows more prominent the closer we get to the end of Session. (By law, the Legislature must adjourn at midnight on a certain date, so we cannot run overtime.)
However, under his leadership, we all listen respectfully to comments that are sometimes untrue, frequently obfuscate the real issue, and are occasionally insensitive to women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. But listen we do — in the spirit of bipartisanship, out of respect for our leadership, and, I suppose, in the (perhaps unrealistic) hope that one day, if the Republicans are ever in the majority in Connecticut, they will treat us with the same respect they’ve been shown.
From our relatively harmonious perch in our State Capitol, several of us in the Democratic Caucus have stood in solidarity with our colleagues across the country who are under siege. Unlike us, they do the public’s business without the safety of knowing their leadership has their backs.
In the meantime, I would urge the naysaying public, often so suspicious of what the Democratic supermajority does with its power at the State Capitol, to take the time to watch the committee and floor debates in Connecticut. They may be surprised by the tone set by the majority — usually with the cooperation of the minority — which is surprisingly courtly and demands that each of us dig deep within ourselves to find those areas of political intersection — that sweet, if rare, place where party melts away, and the good of the people wins the day.