Convincing fellow Democrats to send him to the General Assembly was the hard part, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield says. After that, getting the legislature to vote for the first time to abolish the state’s death penalty seemed easy.
“I don’t usually stop when people tell me no,” said the freshman Democrat from New Haven.
That was the case last month when Holder-Winfield grew frustrated with the state’s failure to fix the system unemployed people must register with to receive benefits.
Not happy with the response he received from Gov. M. Jodi Rell or the commissioner of the Department of Labor on the jammed phone lines and backlog of claims, Holder-Winfield turned to his favorite legislative tool-Facebook.
“The issue wasn’t being dealt with and it was getting worse,” he said, explaining why he rallied 250 people on Facebook to air their grievances-and to call the governor’s office and demand a solution to the problem.
“Now they understand what it’s like not being able to use their phone,” he said.
One week later, Rell announced she had approved the hiring of 30 people and overtime for 65 other workers to file the claims, opened the call center an extra day on Saturday and purchased new technology to better deal with increased call volume.
Despite his up-front tactics, Holder-Winfield doesn’t seem to alienate folks at the Capitol. Rell’s spokeswoman Donna Tommelleo, said the governor “certainly appreciated Rep. Holder-Winfield’s concern and was happy to work with him on the issue.” She also said the administration had been working on the problem for several months.
Even on an issue as emotional as the death penalty, Holder-Winfield’s passion was persuasive rather than divisive.
One member he was able to persuade was Deputy House Majority Leader Ernest Hewett, who supported executing serial killer Michael Ross in 2005. He said he changed his mind after Holder-Winfield helped him realize how often the accused are misidentified by witnesses.
“His passion did convince me to change my vote,” he said. “Half the people here would fail an eyewitness test on me against [Rep.] Doug McCrory. They cannot tell us apart and clearly we are not the same person.”
Even Deputy House Minority Leader William A. Hamzy, a strong supporter of the death penalty, said Holder-Winfield made a persuasive case for his position.
“He picked up the baton from his predecessor, that’s for sure,” the Republican from Plymouth said, referring to former Rep. William R. Dyson, a death penalty opponent with a long track record at the Capitol
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Michael P. Lawlor called Holder-Winfield “rookie of the year” for his ability to get things done, and said his efforts in getting the legislature to pass for the first time a bill to abolish the death penalty was “extraordinary.” Rell vetoed the measure.
If a Democrat is elected governor in November, Holder-Winfield said he plans to raise the death penalty issue again.
“Many people said it was a lost cause when I brought it up last year. So, I realized I had to work on my own and show leadership I had the numbers to bring it for a vote. I will do that again and again. There will be no death penalty,” he said.
Lawlor has no doubt that he is right.
“Gary’s the guy that can pick an issue and get it done. Typically, the new members are the most skittish and are the least likely to take a controversial position, he said. “Not Gary.”
Hamzy is also impressed that a freshman has had so much success.
“It is not typical for someone who just got here,” he said, “but if you’re passionate you are able to get things done.”
A little confidence helps, too. Among the issues Holder-Winfield is taking on in this legislative session is a bill to try to close the persistent achievement gap between minority and lower-income students and their white, more affluent peers. The bill includes provisions allowing parents to force radical restructuring of failing schools.
Holder-Winfield said the proposal is moving forward and he believes he can get it passed. And that is just the start.
“I only have two arms so I can only accomplish so much this year,” he said. “And these are things that both Democrats and Republicans don’t always want to talk about.”
Holder-Winfield took on the Democratic Party in New Haven in 2008 when it backed another candidate, Charles A. Blango, for the nomination to succeed Dyson. Holder-Winfield won the primary by just 100 votes and went on to win the general election by a landslide.
Before persuading voters, though, he first had to persuade his wife to move out of their condo in a gated community and back among those working families he wants to represent.
“Her response was, ‘I thought we were headed in a certain direction and that’s where people move away from, not back to,'” he said.
Being a community activist most of his career, he said he had to live in the community with those he wants to help.
“They don’t usually have us, their lawmakers, in their community,” he said. “How could I know what their issues are if I live in a gated community?”
And as with most everything else he takes on, he was successful. He now lives in Newhallville, where police sirens are common and many of his neighbors are low-income earners.
He said he spends up to 70 hours each week at the State Capitol representing that community because, “If I am going to do something, I am going to do it well.”