With House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan sidelined by an investigation of his congressional fundraising, a somber mood settled over the State Capitol Tuesday as legislators trudged toward the inevitable passage of two massive bills.
Lobbyists passively watched the proceedings, knowing that the two bills became untouchable once Democratic leaders and the administration agreed on their final versions at the start of the one-day special session.
But Donovan’s awkward role in the session — he recused himself from presiding over the debate or negotiating the agenda — established what legislators called a wistful, uneasy vibe for the day.
“The vibe when we first came in, I think it was a little awkward,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
Donovan, a Democrat from Meriden, formally opened the special session, then stepped off the dais, surrendering the gavel to a deputy, Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville.
“I wanted to open the chamber,” Donovan said.
Donovan has not resigned as speaker, nor has he relinquished all his powers and duties. In fact, the special session could not go forward without him signing the two pieces of emergency-certified legislation.
But he agreed to step away from most leadership responsibilities for the special session after the FBI arrested Robert Braddock Jr., his finance director, and charged him with conspiring to accept illegal campaign contributions.
So Donovan spent the day in his corner office, playing no role in the session other than voting. By 4:30 p.m., his only act since leaving the dais was to cast a vote adopting the rules for the special session.
“It’s very subdued,” said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, a longtime political ally of Donovan’s and a supporter of his campaign for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat, in the 5th District.
Donovan is one of 16 House Democrats and five Republicans not seeking re-election this fall. Typically, a special session would be an opportunity for some final farewells from the dais.
In the Senate, legislators opened their session with a long salute to Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who has cancer. She announced after the annual session ended May 9 that she would not run for another term.
Willis said it saddened her that the final session of Donovan’s tenure as speaker could end with him pressing a button to cast a vote, then leaving without addressing the House.
Tuesday was the first time Donovan had been at the Capitol in an official role since Braddock’s arrest became public May 31. He downplayed the significance in brief remarks to reporters.
“It’s a usual day. It’s a usual day,” Donovan told reporters as he walked to his office just off the House floor. “We came in. We had a caucus. People talked about the issues.”
One of the reasons he recused himself was that an issue in the FBI investigation — imposing a fee on tobacco shops that allow customers to use machines to roll their own cigarettes — was before the House.
An FBI arrest affidavit claims that the Donovan campaign accepted campaign contributions from an undercover agent posing as a businessman trying to kill the tobacco legislation in the regular session.
Nothing in the public record claims that Donovan was aware of the attempt to illegally influence the outcome of the tobacco bill.
Mark Greenberg, one of the four Republicans running in the 5th District, repeated his call Tuesday for Donovan to step down as speaker and suspend his campaign.
“Chris Donovan’s absence from the speaker’s podium at today’s special session of the legislature is another reminder of how damaged and ineffective Donovan’s campaign finance scandal has left him, his campaign and his position in the General Assembly,” Greenberg said.