Face(book) the State: Legislators take to social media

matthew lesser 1

Rep. Matthew Lesser

Three thoughts are animating Themis Klarides these days: A soldier can never have too many socks, the New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever, and the Republican Party is the way of the future.

But if you followed the deputy House minority leader on the popular social networking sites Facebook or Twitter, you’d already know all this.

And you’d know that Rep. Matthew L. Lesser (left) has an aversion to 6 a.m. workouts, and where Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield plans to be just about any time and the doings of 100 or so other state legislators who have adopted social media to communicate with constituents.

Klarides, for example, routinely shares tidbits of her life with her 760 friends on these sites – that she was in Boston last week celebrating Republican Scott Brown’s capture of the U.S. Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy, that everyone should donate socks to ship to soldiers overseas, that she gave up her Yankee playoff tickets last fall to run a forum on the dangers of teenagers sending sexually-explicit text messages.

“I don’t put anything on my page that I wouldn’t want everyone to see,” Klaridis said.

Likewise, the 1,077 people following Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven) on Facebook and Twitter know he was at a school reform forum on Saturday, and wanted his readers to join him. “Attending the Campaign Learn event at Yale Law School. Where are you?” he posted, and added his cell phone number in case anyone needed directions.




Pictures from the event soon followed.

Use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and independent blogs is spreading rapidly at the state Capitol.

The Connecticut Mirror found 79 representatives and 23 senators with Facebook accounts. Fewer members–18 representatives and three senators–use Twitter. Lawmakers are posting updates from the floor of the House and Senate, from committee meetings and even during their spare time.

They report their vote, post their schedules and offer links to worthwhile news stories. Sometimes they just share personal reflections.

“It’s Twitter and Facebook that seem to be the best way to get things out to folks,” said Lesser, D-Middletown, who is in the habit of providing anecdotes from the different events and meetings he attends to his 1,252 followers. “It’s the only way for some people to find out what I am doing as their legislator.”


An Online Revolution

Popularity of social networking Web sites was sparked in 2003 with MySpace, Facebook has since become dominant, with 350 million active users. An estimated 7 million users “tweet” on Twitter.

One-third of adults and 65 percent of teens have a profile on an online social network site, said a January 2009 Pew Research Center report. Similarly, 20 percent of Internet users said they use Twitter, Facebook or some other online social site to share status updates about themselves, according to an October report by Pew.

The number of Connecticut legislators online is likely to grow, predicts Holder-Winfield who routinely recruits other General Assembly members to create a profile.



Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield posts an update from a meeting

“I am trying to get everyone to use these sites,” Holder-Winfield said, who admits he has hit some roadblocks with colleagues who don’t want to join, are guarded in what they post or selective in whom they “friend.”


“There is this culture of privacy with legislators,” he said.

Holder-Winfield’s Facebook page is open to all, and he takes pride in being known for his outspokenness online. “I just say

what I think. I talk about what’s really going on. If someone I represent gets a sense of what I am all about by being my friend on Facebook, that’s great.”

It’s not uncommon for local residents to post their views on the issues that affect them on legislators’ pages. Just last weekend a Facebook user, known as “Threefifths Tes” called a panel Holder-Winfield is a member of “one-sided.”

Instead of dismissing the comment, Holder-Winfield engaged in the online conversation. And 15 exchanges later, they agreed to talk at length on the phone.

Who tweets the most?

An informal survey last year found that 65 percent of the members of Congress have Facebook accounts; a separate study found that 30 percent of representatives and senators use Twitter. Four members of Connecticut’s delegation–Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman and Reps. John Larson and Jim Himes–tweet, and all seven have Facebook accounts (see links below). Lieberman launched his Twitter page today and already has 1,016 followers.

Elsewhere, one study found that half of Illinois state legislators are on Facebook. In other surveys, 74 percent of those responding in the Michigan legislature and 50 percent of respondents in Colorado use social networking sites.

Connecticut ranks as one of the best states for leadership using social media sites, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures state-by-state analysis.

Play-by-play updates

The inception of new media has altered how politicians are communicating. In addition to traditional modes of communication such as town hall meetings, telephone calls and postal mail, e-mail has become common practice. Every member of the Connecticut General Assembly has an official Web site with links to press releases and the ability to include YouTube videos, registration for e-mail updates and links to their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Lesser said he has adopted an “all-the-above” communications approach, “there’s no magic way to reach everyone, but I try.”

Lesser and Holder-Winfield are known for updating their social media accounts with play-by-play messages about what’s going on at the Capitol.

During December’s special session on the budget, Holder-Winfield tweeted, “democratic Caucus about to start.” He followed up an hour later with, “debating the estate and gift tax HB7101,” and 15 minutes later, “7101 passes.”

Candidates for office are using social media as well. In the race for the Republican Senate nomination, Peter Schiff has 19,515 Facebook fans, followed by Linda McMahon (6,967) and Rob Simmons (2,287). On the Democratic side, Attorny General Richard Blumenthal has 1,203 Facebook followers, Merrick Alpert 157.

Making a statement

When complaints began to mount against the ineptitude of the state’s labor department to handle the call volume and online registration for unemployment benefits, Holder-Winfield decided to start an online movement.

He created a Facebook group titled, “No, Governor Rell DOL’s Response is Not Sufficient.” More than 250 people joined the group in the first 24 hours.

He also sent letters to both Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the labor commissioner. Two weeks later, Rell announced the system was being upgraded to fix the problem.

Lieberman facebook

Adversaries also recently rallied against U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I- Conn) after he announced that he would filibuster health reform in the U.S. Senate if it included an expansion of Medicare.

In the first 24 hours after his announcement, more than 34,000 people on Facebook pledged to donate $1.5 million to whomever opposes Lieberman when he comes up for re-election in 2012 if he followed through with threat.

People also flooded Lieberman’s Facebook page with both praise and criticism.

“I am so disgusted and disappointed in you for not voting to stop this idiotic bill,” wrote one of Lieberman’s 6,291 Facebook “friends.”

Freedom of the tweet

The power of new media became apparent last summer in Iran during their disputed presidential election. The vehicle for protesters’ message soon became Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and text messaging. In an attempt to stifle the apparent unrest, Iran cut off and slowed down Internet and phone access across the country.

Lieberman sponsored legislation that helped establish Web sites beyond the reach of the Iranian government, restoring access to Twitter, Facebook and other off-limit sites.

“We want to give the Iranian people the chance to stay one step ahead of their regime by gaining access to information and exercising their right to freedom of speech,” said Lieberman when introducing the bill.

The use of social media by public officials isn’t embraced everywhere. In November, Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee ruled that lawyers and judges can’t be Facebook “friends” because that “reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”

Klaridis said restricting officials’ ability to “friend” people on social sites would be like restricting their right to talk to people.

“Talking to me on Facebook gives you no more advantage than if you talk to me in person,” Klaridis said.


No such legislative rules exist – and there has been no real consensus on how social networking should or should not be used. Holder-Winfield said he has received both praise and criticism for his use of online communication tools.

“But that’s the risk you run into when you make sure people can see what you’re doing,” he said

Holder-Windfield said he does not plan to limit which friend requests he accepts, lobbyists included.

“There is the possibility of me being influenced by being, quote, ‘friends’ with lobbyists, but not anymore than the hundreds of other people communicating with me on Facebook. I just look at them as another citizen giving me information. It’s about being open to everyone, not just a select few.”

Who’s on Facebook and Twitter


Name Facebook? Twitter?
Sen. Chris Dodd Yes Yes
Sen. Joe Lieberman Yes Yes
Rep. John Larson Yes Yes
Rep. Joe Courtney Yes No
Rep. Rosa DeLauro Yes No
Rep. Jim Himes Yes Yes
Rep. Chris Murphy Yes No

State Senate leadership: 

Name Facebook? Twitter?
President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. Yes No
Majority Leader Martin M. Looney No No
Minority Leader John McKinney Yes No

State House Leadership:

Name Facebook? Twitter?
Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan Yes No
Majority Leader Denise Merrill Yes No
Minority Leader Lawrence Cafaro Yes Yes