The 2013 General Assembly convened Wednesday amid a mix of somberness and optimism as lawmakers recalled both last month’s tragic shooting in Newtown as well as the unified response it elicited, both from Connecticut’s leaders and its populace.
The new Legislature also began its work with a key change in leadership and a shift in its demographics. The House of Representatives unanimously elected Democrat J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, its majority leader for the last two years, to succeed retiring Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden.
Both chambers welcomed several new Hispanic members as the Legislature welcomed a record number of lawmakers from this community.
The new speaker juxtaposed the General Assembly of recent history with Congress, suggesting federal lawmakers “should look a little to the Northeast” for an example of bipartisan cooperation. “We have managed to avoid the toxic.”
And whether it involves the anticipated debates over gun control or state finances or some other topic, Sharkey urged his collagues to remember how they all felt when first sworn into a chamber with roots that date back for centuries.
“As things get tough, don’t lose that sense of awe you feel today,” he said. “It is only with that humility that comes with that sense of awe that we can really do our jobs.”
Last month, during a special session to close a state budget deficit, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, observed that lawmakers were spurred on by the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown to demonstrate bipartisan unity in solving their fiscal crisis.
Wednesday the lawmaker predicted that the shooting tragedy would, to some degree, loom over this entire legislative session.
“Not to be corny, but [it will be felt] not just substantively, but also spiritually,” Cafero said, adding that bipartisan cooperation to make Connecticut a better place to live is “the greatest tribute” legislators can give to that wounded community.
Leaders in the Senate echoed Sharkey and Cafero’s sentiments.
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., a Democrat from Brooklyn, spoke of the need to address gun violence, “to do all we can to remove the weapons of war from those who would assault our children and our communities.”
He urged his colleagues to craft a solution together.
“Let’s resolve as Democrats and Republicans to serve as a model here in Connecticut and lead our country in a new and better direction,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Fairfield Republican whose district includes Newtown, also called for the two parties to work together to address key issues during the session.
He said lawmakers would be addressing important issues related to what happened there, including gun control, mental health and school safety. “It is my hope that we will do so in a bipartisan way,” said McKinney, who wore a green ribbon in remembrance of the Newtown shooting victims. Green was one of Sandy Hook Elementary’s colors.
McKinney ended his remarks by introducing Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, calling her “a woman who is as strong as any I’ve ever met, a leader unlike no other.” The senators and those gathered in the chamber gave her a lengthy standing ovation.
Donovan, whose bid for Congress was derailed last summer amid a major scandal, urged the new House to remember the legislative successes of recent years including expanded health care access, greater civil rights and protections for workers, publicly funded elections and improvements in schools.
“Follow the Golden Rule: protecting people when they are vulnerable,” said Donovan. “That’s when we are at our best. … All these advances happened because people in this chamber made this happen.”
Donovan dropped his congressional bid last August, a few months after federal authorities charged two of his campaign staff with conspiring to hide contributions from businesses hoping to block tobacco tax-related legislation.
Sharkey also took time to praise Donovan’s 20-year career in the Legislature.
“There was no better example of a leader that you could have than Chris Donovan,” Sharkey said, who also called the Meriden Democrat “the best negotiator I have ever met.”
“He is also a man who cares for nothing more than protecting every last person in our state, and he has demonstrated that and he has stayed true to that commitment throughout his career,” Sharkey added. “You leave here with the warmth and admiration of everyone in this chamber.”
Sharkey has been succeeded as House majority leader by Berlin Democrat Joseph Aresimowicz, who was elected to that post shortly after the November elections.
The other top leadership posts in both chambers remained unchanged.
Williams was again chosen as Senate President Pro Tem, a post he has held since 2004; while New Haven Democrat Martin M. Looney returns for a fifth term as the Senate majority leader.
And Republicans Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk and John P. McKinney of Fairfield were re-elected as the House and Senate minority leaders, respectively.
Most of the key numbers in the Legislature also remain the same, with one notable exception.
Democrats again hold 99 out of 151 seats in the House and 22 out of 36 in the Senate.
There are 105 men and 46 women in the House, a small shift from the 104-47 split of the last two years. The gender breakdown in the Senate remains identical at 27 men and 9 women.
But the Legislature did welcome a record dozen Hispanic lawmakers, including Connecticut’s first two Latino state senators, Andres Ayala of Bridgeport and Art Linares Jr. of Westbrook.
According to data released this week by Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill, Latinos are estimated to comprise 8 percent of registered voters in the state, lagging the overall Hispanic population of nearly 14 percent. The strengthened ranks of Latino lawmakers fill only 6 percent of legislative seats.
“We still have a long way to go,” Ayala said earlier this week. “We’re not there yet.”
Linares is unique among the Hispanics to win 10 House and two Senate seats: He is Republican, Cuban and from a shoreline suburb. The others are Democrats, Puerto Rican and from urban districts.
The Senate convened with five new members — three Democrats and two Republicans.
Democrat Cathy Osten, a former first selectman of Sprague, replaces longtime Sen. Edith Prague, who did not run for re-election. Democrat Dante Bartolomeo, a former Meriden city councilwoman, beat former Republican Sen. Len Suzio. Ayala, a former state representative, defeated his predecessor, Ed Gomes, in a Democratic primary to represent Bridgeport.
The youngest member of the Senate at 24, Linares replaces Democrat Eileen Daily, who didn’t seek re-election. Sen. Clark Chapin, a former state representative from New Milford, replaces fellow Republican Andrew Roraback, who gave up his seat in an unsuccessful bid for Congress.
Follow Keith M. Phaneuf on Twitter.