The General Assembly opened its 2015 session Wednesday on an emotional note as the Senate welcomed the surprise return of Sen. Andrew M. Maynard, D-Stonington, who was re-elected without campaigning after sustaining a traumatic brain injury last summer.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill told the Senate chamber she would administer the oath upon the entrance of one missing senator. Then the door to the chamber swung open and Maynard entered, escorted by former Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr.
Maynard smiled and waved with his left hand as he took his place in the circle, as the Senate is known because of its curved array of seats. Spectators, senators and their families stood in sustained applause. Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, seemed overcome as Maynard approached.
His return does not entirely answer questions about his ability to serve: Maynard, 52, who was critically injured in a fall at his home, still is undergoing physical and occupational therapy and has aphasia, limiting his ability to speak. In a statement released by the majority office, his sister, Denise Mahoney, said, “The rate of his recovery from his injuries has been nothing short of remarkable.”
His return overshadowed the long-settled ascension of Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, as the president pro tempore of the Senate after his long tenure as majority leader. A smiling Looney didn’t mind, telling Maynard from the rostrum his return was “such a blessing”
Maynard smiled and waved.
Until Maynard’s entrance, the day was expected to focus on the inauguration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to a second term, but the governor laughed when asked about being upstaged.
“It was great to see him,” Malloy said.
Maynard also distracted the press from the arrival of a freshman who arrives with a boldface name: Ted Kennedy Jr., a Democrat of Branford. Kennedy is one of seven new senators, all winners of open seats.
Kennedy quickly noted he was not the only freshman from a political clan: Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartfod, is the brother of U.S. Rep. John Larson. “Tim and I take issue with the idea that our political success has anything to do with our last names,” he said to laughter.
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, a former House member who succeeded Sen. John P. McKinney, is the Senate’s first Asian member.
Maynard’s sister stood behind him in the Senate, snapping pictures with her iPhone as colleagues embraced him. Asked when it was clear he would be able to attend the opening day, Mahoney said they’d hoped from the start it would happen.
“Andy’s worked very hard,” she said.
Maynard exchanged pleasantries with reporters as he exited the Capitol, but declined to be interviewed. A deep crescent scar was visible through his close-cropped hair. He was escorted to a car by Williams and Capitol police.
Republicans picked up one seat in the Senate and 10 in the House, leaving Malloy and the Democratic majority with tight margins if conservative Democrats balk on spending or other issues.
Democrats won 21 of the Senate’s 36 seats in November, but they began the session with 20 members. Sen. Andres Ayala Jr. of Bridgeport resigned to accept an appointment as the commissioner of motor vehicles, making him the first Latino commissioner in the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
In the House, Democrats won 87 of 151 seats, but Rep. Auden Grogins of Bridgeport has resigned to accept a nomination as a Superior Court judge. Republicans lost one of their 64 members Wednesday as Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, unexpectedly resigned to take a job as a state liquor control commissioner.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, was re-elected speaker without opposition to a second term as the chamber’s top leader, his nomination seconded in a bipartisan gesture by the new House minority leader, Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby. She is the first woman to lead a House GOP caucus in Connecticut.
Malloy is to take the oath of office Wednesday afternoon after a brief inaugural parade to the State Armory. His major speech, the State of the State, will be delivered at 4 p.m. to a joint session of the General Assembly.
The opening of the General Assembly is a day of pomp, a time when spouses and families come to the Capitol, and former officeholders make their return.
It’s commonplace for legislators to introduce their spouses from the floor on the first day. Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she didn’t take her chance to do so for granted. She introduced her wife, Tracey Wilson, noting that their marriage wasn’t permitted when she was first elected to the General Assembly.
Six former speakers, all Democrats, were welcomed in the House, including Ernest Abate of Stamford, who rarely has been sighted at the State Capitol since he challenged Gov. William A. O’Neill for the Democratic nomination in 1982. He was to administer the oath of office to Attorney General George Jepsen, as he did four years ago.
Opening day also brought news of loss. Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, announced the death of former Rep. Richard Veltri, R-East Hartford, who served two terms in the late 1990s. The House stood for a moment of silence.
Kennedy, who resisted entreaties from his father to run for Congress in his 20s from Massachusetts, entered the Capitol with his brother, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. They stopped to chat with Attorney General George Jepsen, a former state senator.
It also was a day for bipartisanship, whose glow seldom lasts longer than the submission of the next year’s budget.
“Thank God, the campaign is over,” said Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who took the oath in the morning to allow her to preside over the Senate. “I urge us to find more that unites us than divides us.”
Three of the four caucuses have new leaders: Looney, Klarides and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
“It is an honor to stand here for the first time and address you from this different desk. It’s still throwing me a little,” Klarides said, addressing the House for the first time as GOP leader. To the 30 new House members, she said, “It is an awesome experience that you will never have again.”
Klarides struck a decidedly different note about partisanship in Hartford than is often seen in Washington, D.C. She told her new members that they may be surprised at how well the GOP leadership works, at times, with Sharkey and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.
“I have to tell you, we agree more than we don’t,” Klarides said. “If we don’t give each other respect, there is no point in being in this building.”
Sharkey quoted Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor who died Jan. 1, as he addressed the new and returning legislators.
“We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we govern in prose,” Sharkey said, urging Democrats and Republicans alike to set aside the rhetoric of the last campaign and seek compromise to serve the public good. “Avoid the labels that limit our political possibilities,” the speaker said. “Remember, the road to success is never a one-way street.”
The House’s youngest freshman is Aundre Bumgardner, 20, a Republican from Groton who is the first black Republican to serve in the House in four decades. When the roll was called, his mouth opened, but Bumgardner found himself momentarily unable to speak.
He conceded the media attention he has been receiving since unseating Democrat Elissa Wright in an upset “has all been a little bit overwhelming. But I think it is very clear the people were ready for a change.”
It’s been a season of milestones for Bumgardner: He recently received his first driver’s license.
Contributing to this story were Connecticut Mirror staff members Keith M. Phaneuf, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Arielle Levin Becker and Alvin Chang.