A dozen hours after his day began in Norwalk with a breakfast meeting, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, slumped at his desk in Hartford, bleary-eyed and just a little punchy. Another visitor was about to push him to answer the question everyone seems to be asking.
It was the question that Lee Shull, a co-founder of the new anti-violence group, Sandy Hook Promise, and two lobbyists explored not 15 minutes earlier. It was the question that’s drawn concerned delegations of women and minority House members to the office of Connecticut’s new speaker.
Where is Sharkey on gun control after Newtown?
On a Wednesday night last week, Sharkey was willing to stake a strong position on where he wants to eventually take the House of Representatives on guns, less so on how and when he intends to get there.
He was having a difficult day, and not just over guns.
The story wouldn’t break until the next evening, but Sharkey had just demoted a deputy speaker, Ernest Hewett of New London, after listening to an audio recording of Hewett making what could be construed as a sexually suggestive remark at a public hearing.
Sharkey phoned Hewett, a friend and supporter as Sharkey climbed the leadership ladder to majority leader and now speaker, and told him he reviewed the audio and made a decision: Hewett would lose his leadership post and the $6,446 it added to the base legislative salary of $28,000.
“It was an important statement,” said Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly.
It was a test for a new speaker, who simultaneously oversees and is employed by a diverse 99-member House Democratic caucus. The budget is a test. Guns are test. So will be how he defines his relationship over both issues with a strong-willed fellow Democrat, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Everyone seems to be sizing up how Sharkey, a small-business owner with a pro-labor voting record, a divorced Catholic educated by the Jesuits at Fairfield Prep and Georgetown, and a former municipal executive intensely interested in regionalism, intends to lead the House.
A delegation from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which is looking for help in pushing back against Malloy’s plan to change municipal aid formulas, is meeting Tuesday with Sharkey. The Malloy administration has not looked kindly on CCM’s opposition.
“We just want to check in,” said Jim Finley, the chief executive of CCM.
It will not be a casual conversation.
CCM already has notified the press of a news conference that Finley and three Democratic mayors, Bill Finch of Bridgeport, John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven and Neil O’Leary of Waterbury, intend to hold outside Sharkey’s office at the conclusion of their meeting.
In other words, whether or not Sharkey commits is likely to become public information.
Also on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, will be pressing for a public commitment by Sharkey to schedule a vote next week on a still-unwritten gun-control bill. And Malloy is holding a press conference in Bridgeport with Finch and the city’s police chief to promote his gun-control ideas.
Among other measures, Malloy has proposed universal background checks on all gun purchases, a ban on large-capacity ammo magazines, and tightening the language on Connecticut’s porous 20-year-old ban on the sale of firearms defined as assault weapons.
“I fully support the governor’s proposals,” Sharkey said. “In fact, I would probably add a couple of things to that list myself. With minor variations I entirely support what the governor wants to do, and I am committed to getting it done this session.”
But Sharkey is committed to an unusual bipartisan process to develop emergency legislation in response the massacre of 26 children and women at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Gun-control advocates worried that the momentum for change after the December 14 assault on the Newtown school might dissipate with the passage of time and press of other business, most notably another difficult budget.
Williams, who agreed to the bipartisan approach, abruptly issued an open letter last Friday, challenging Sharkey and the Republican minority leaders, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield. Malloy also is bringing public pressure.
“It’s important to me to honor the agreement we made, not only to the other side of the aisle, but to our caucus, that we would act in a bipartisan way, to do the common-sense things everyone can agree on,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey said the bipartisan, emergency-certified bill should be as strong as possible, but it is not the only chance to pass gun legislation this year.
Williams, McKinney, Cafero and Sharkey all voted to strengthen the state’s assault weapon law decade ago. So, does that man a new assault weapon law will be part of the bipartisan bill?
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll find out.”
All four need to consider what’s best for their caucuses, he said. Gun-control advocates fear that will mean the lowest-common denominator, a bill that nearly everyone can support, while making minimal change.
“As leaders, we all have to give cover to our folks and try to represent their interests as best we can.”
Sharkey leaves himself considerable wiggle room on what would meet his standard of a bipartisan bill.
“I’ve been misquoted in the past to say that I think that has to be the majority of each caucus,” he said. “No, I’ve never said that, and I’ve never felt that. It very well could be that a handful of folks on the other side of the aisle may be supporting some stuff. To me, that could be good enough.”
Sharkey, whose party enjoys nearly a 2-1 advantage in the 151-member House, has tried to include Republicans. A commission he recently created on regional issues is bipartisan, and Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said Sharkey has reinforced to committee co-chairmen that screening bills for content and form should be a bipartisan process.
Sharkey, 50, locked up role of speaker last year, soon after his predecessor, Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden, announced he would run for Congress and not seek another term in the General Assembly. On Jan. 9, the opening day of the 2013 session, Sharkey formally won the job on a bipartisan vote of the House.
The new speaker is a social liberal who supported gay marriage and the abolition of the death penalty, but he is sensitive to the perception that Connecticut has a poor business climate.
He opposed a state law mandating paid sick days in 2009, but as House majority leader in 2011 he voted for a revised version that was less onerous to business. This year, he has questioned whether raising the minimum wage in a weak economy would send the wrong message.
On the day Sharkey became speaker, Cafero smiled as he noted Sharkey is the first business owner to serve as speaker during his two decades in Hartford, suggesting a different perspective than Donovan, a long-time union official.
Sharkey owns Amerizone, a consulting firm that primarily advises national retail clients on permitting issues. Sharkey had been the zoning attorney for T-Mobile in Connecticut, representing the phone carrier on locating cellular towers, but as a legislator he no longer can appear before the Connecticut Siting Council.
Sharkey is the son of a Republican executive at Olin who was a national leader on promoting minority hiring by corporate America, working with the civil rights leader, Roy Wilkins. His parents already had six children. A seventh had died as an infant.
The J. in J. Brendan stands for Joseph, the saint to whom Sharkey’s mother prayed for the healthy of her unborn child when she discovered she was pregnant. She was in her 40s, and her youngest was six years old.
Dinner conversations were political. His older siblings were antiwar, challenging their father, who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. Ten-year-old Brendan declared himself as a McGovern Democrat, but he admired his father.
His father died of cancer when Sharkey was 17.
“He was an inspiration, always,” Sharkey said.
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz