Opposition from state veterans groups prompted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to reverse his support Monday for using state funds to repair a New Haven community center that houses a Communist newspaper.
Malloy, whose administration has gone back and forth on whether to finance $300,000 in renovations for the New Haven People’s Center, issued a brief statement during the State Bond Commission meeting before moving on to the next agenda item without discussion.
And one of the two Republican legislators who spearheaded opposition to the funding, Rep. Sean J. Williams of Watertown, said after he would ask the Democratic governor’s administration to participate in a bipartisan effort to reform how potential bond fund recipients are researched.
“It’s clear to me that enough questions have been raised,” Malloy said. “I am particularly concerned about the opposition of veterans’ groups.”
Malloy has significant control over state financing dollars raised through the sale of bonds on Wall Street.
As governor, he not only chairs the 10-member bond commission, but his budget director and his construction services commissioner also serve on the panel. And the governor’s budget office has sole authority to set the commission’s regular agenda.
In addition, eight of the 10 seats on the commission — which also includes four legislators, the treasurer, attorney general and comptroller — are held by Democrats.
The Malloy administration put $300,000 to fund masonry work, roof repairs and other improvements to the center at 37 Howe St. on the commission’s April 27 agenda at the request of state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven.
But the administration then abruptly tabled the item after Republican legislators disclosed that the nonprofit that runs the center, Progressive Education and Research Associates, has strong ties to the state Communist Party.
Two members of the nonprofit’s governing board are Communist Party officers, and the center is home to “The People’s World,” a communist newspaper.
But on May 24 the administration announced the project was again on pace to receive funding, and would get commission approval on June 4.
Malloy’s senior policy adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said last week that opponents were ” trying to score some cheap political points using a playbook from the 1950s,” referring to Cold War-era, anti-Communist hysteria. He noted that the center also houses arts, youth development, anti-hunger and other social service programs, and the center is recognized on the state’s African American Freedom Trail.
But that wasn’t enough for Malloy to maintain his support in the face of veterans’ opposition.
And Harp, who wasn’t notified in advance of Monday’s meeting of the governor’s revised position, said the final result was unfortunate.
“I’m very disappointed, both in the veterans’ groups and in the decision” to remove the project from consideration, she said.
“I think people just got carried away by the hype and I understand that,” Harp added. “What I don’t understand is people not understanding where we are today in history. My community is going to be hurt by it.”
Both Williams and the other Republican on the bond panel, Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen, have 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.
And it became clear after Monday’s meeting that Democrats as well as Republicans were hesitant to back the project at this point.
The two Democratic legislators on the bond commission, Rep. Patricia Widlitz of Guilford and Sen. Eileen M. Daily of Westbrook, stopped short of saying how they would vote, but both said they had major questions that made it hard to support the project.
“I received a tremendous amount of e-mail,” Widlitz said, adding most came from veterans’ groups who felt it was an improper use of state dollars. “I would have found it very difficult” to vote for the project.
A call seeking comment from the center was not returned immediately after the meeting, but according to the New Haven center’s website, it is “a meeting place of labor, community, peace and social justice groups.”
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.”
Williams said after Monday’s meeting that the entire back-and-forth stand of the Malloy administration shows the project wasn’t entirely researched, noting that most bond commission members learned about the center’s political ties moments before the April 27 meeting after being contacted by a concerned, former state employee.
“I’m going to ask the governor’s administration to work with me to improve the process of vetting these projects and to provide additional detail about them before we vote,” he said.
Williams said last week that the bond commission almost certainly has funded projects for other civic groups that have crossed — at least briefly — into the political arena.
For example, 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.
“The problem didn’t start with this administration,” he said, “but I’m hoping that it can end with this administration.”