New Haven center funding: Bad precedent or community support?

Republican legislators opposed to state-funded improvements to a New Haven community center that houses a Communist newspaper conceded Thursday that Connecticut likely has funded many community projects with some degree of political ties over the years.

Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen and Rep. Sean J. Williams of Watertown insisted the $300,000 earmarked for the New Haven People’s Center still is a bad idea.

But one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief advisers charged the GOP lawmakers with employing “cheap” politics and warned they’re employing a dangerous standard that could be applied to other projects that provide many community benefits.

“We do not believe that political organizations, those that are partisan in nature or very political, should receive taxpayer dollars,” Williams said during a late morning news conference in the Legislative Office Building.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is: Should this be the way we do business?” Roraback added.

The two legislators pledged Thursday to renew their opposition to providing $300,000 to Progressive Education and Research Associates, a nonprofit that runs the New Haven People’s Center at 37 Howe St.

And while the only two Republicans on the 10-member State Bond Commission conceded they lack the votes to block the funding, they said they hope the Malloy administration will recognize that funding the project would start a bad precedent.

That’s because members of the nonprofit’s governing board include members of the state Communist Party, and the center is home to “The People’s World,” a communist newspaper.

Both Roraback and Williams said their objections don’t rest with the center’s specific political connections, but rather that it’s too close to the political arena in general.

“I would have the same objection if $300,000 were going to an arm of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party or the Libertarian Party,” Roraback said.

But Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior policy adviser, said the funds aren’t going to the arm of any political party.

Rather they are going to support a community center that also houses arts, youth development, anti-hunger and other social service programs. The center, which needs masonry work, roof repairs and other improvements, also is recognized on the state’s African American Freedom Trail.

“They are trying to score some cheap political points using a playbook from the 1950s,” Occhiogrosso said, adding that the criticism unfairly ignores “some very good groups” serving the New Haven community out of that center.

The administration also thinks that every project that might receive state financing should be carefully researched, Occhiogrosso said, but warned that one political connection does not define a community center. “That’s a dangerous road to go down,” he said.

Veterans’ clubs that operate community centers or meeting halls have received state funding for repairs in the past. Some of those groups also make their facilities available for local Republican or Democratic Party functions.

Williams conceded that the bond commission almost certainly has funded projects for other civic groups that have crossed — at least briefly — into the political arena. “This is not the first time, in all likelihood, this has happened,” he said.

“I have every confidence the people who run this organization are good and decent people,” Williams said, adding that what sets this case apart is the degree of political activity in the New Haven center.

According to the New Haven center’s website, it is “a meeting place of labor, community, peace and social justice groups.”

But Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, who asked the administration to consider releasing funds for the project, has said the center routinely makes its meeting and activity spaces available to a wide array of civic groups and social programs, and that this is its primary focus.

Alfred Marder, the president of Progressive Education and Research Associates, has called the facility “a vibrant, all-volunteer, community and labor center for education, cultural and social activities since 1937.”

The Malloy administration pulled the proposed funding off the bond commission’s April 27 agenda moments before the meeting began. Malloy said the matter was tabled because the administration learned repairs weren’t ready to begin.

But the Republicans said they think it was a sign administration officials were uncertain whether to proceed, adding they hope Malloy will reconsider — even though the funding has been placed on the bond commission’s June 4 meeting agenda.

“There is a reason it was yanked off” the April 27 agenda, Williams said.

“I think the governor’s office may have some questions as well,” Roraback added.