Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, surprised Democratic senators Wednesday with the news he will not seek re-election this fall, heralding a turnover in leadership in three of the General Assembly’s four caucuses.
Williams, 56, who is expected to leave office as the longest-serving leader of the Connecticut Senate, was elected to the General Assembly in 1993 and took over the leadership post under dramatic circumstances on July 1, 2004 after scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he will seek Williams’ leadership post. Sen. Bob Duff of Norwalk is seen as the frontrunner to succeed Looney.
Williams, who seemed to be fighting control his emotions, hedged on his way into the closed caucus when asked by The Mirror if he was thinking about ending his tenure as the Senate’s top leader.
“I’m on the fence,” Williams said.
But multiple sources had said that Williams was not running, and Williams confirmed his plans with a press release issued after the caucus.
Williams, a lawyer and former radio reporter who has been a full-time legislator in recent years, will complete his term. He told senators he has no firm career plans for life after the legislature.
Senate Democratic staff filed out of the caucus room off the third-floor Senate chamber looking stunned.
“I need to push myself toward new challenges,” Williams said in an interview late Wednesday afternoon. “This was just the right time, 10 years as president of the Senate, 22 years overall. This is the right right time for change.”
It will be a year of goodbyes at the top ranks of the legislature.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, is running for governor, not re-election. House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, is expected to confirm publicly what he has told friends for months: This term also is his last.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, is the only caucus leader expected to return next January.
Traditionally, a senator would wait until near the end of the session to take on lame-duck status. It will be three months before a successor is nominated in May by Democrats in his L-shaped 29th Senate District, which stretches from Mansfield to the Rhode Island border.
“The calendar is different now. It’s not like the days when you had conventions in the summer,” Williams said. “To be considerate of my colleagues in my district who might want to run for my seat, I know I needed to make a decision now.”
Williams was elected in a special election after Kevin Johnston resigned to become the Democratic state auditor. His ascension as a leader was assisted by a far different departure: the resignation of Rowland and the constitutionally mandated line of succession.
When the governor resigned in July 2004, Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell succeeded Rowland and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Sullivan, D-West Hartford, automatically became lieutenant governor.
In 2004, Looney said, he and Williams had a deal to support each other for the next leadership vacancy. It was agreed that Williams would go for Sullivan’s post, with Looney’s backing.
A decade later, Looney, one of the longest-serving members of the General Assembly, will get his chance at the top spot, assuming that Democrats win 19 seats in the 36-seat Senate.
Williams perhaps will be best remembered as the catalyst responsible for a stunning vote in 2012 to repeal the death penalty for future crimes. Over weeks of quiet talks and lobbying, he helped convince four colleagues previously opposed to repeal to change their positions.
“That’s something I’ll always remember,” Williams said.
The repeal measure passed 20-16.
“That was a hall of fame moment,” Looney said.
In 2005, Williams was a key player in a protracted game of chicken with the House Democratic leadership and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, over sweeping campaign finance reform legislation.
The House and Senate ended the 2005 session passing separate bills, allowing lawmakers to go on record in favor of reform without passing either version. Rell wanted a ban on contributions from lobbyists and state contractors, while the Senate Democrats pushed for public financing that they never expected Rell to accept.
Rell called their bluff, issuing a call for a special session on reform. Williams was one of the legislators who negotiated the version that became law with Rell’s signature.
“When we passed that, we created a sea change at the Capitol that we sometimes take for granted,” Williams said. “With public financing, our senators and representatives are not dependent on going hat in hand to special interests. That has improved the atmosphere here at the Capitol.”
The rise of independent expenditures has threatened the legacy of public financing, but the law has removed lobbyists as important cogs in the fundraising machinery of the caucuses.
Until passage of the reforms, lobbyists routinely were asked by legislators to bundle contributions from clients for the multiple political action committees operated by legislative leaders of both parties.
Williams said he will remember the legislature’s bipartisan response last year to the mass shooting in Newtown as a highlight of his tenure.
“Certainly, I think our greatest challenge was finding a dignified and substantive response to the tragedy at Sand Hook Elementary School,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been challenged as we were at the time.”
Williams has been a strong partner to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democratic governor elected since William A. O’Neill in 1986.
“Don has been a great ally and friend. He works tirelessly for his constituents and fights hard for what he believes. I’m proud to have worked with him to find common ground on some of the most important issues of our day, including creating jobs and investing in our public schools. The Senate will no doubt miss his leadership and his passion,” Malloy said. “I wish him the best in whatever he decides to do next.”