This week’s debate over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s plan to reform an outdated drug law with clear racial implications shines a spotlight on discouraging dysfunction within the Connecticut General Assembly.

As someone who took criticism for my strong support of this reform when I ran for the legislature, I am not surprised to see it become a political lightning rod. What is surprising, and a bit embarrassing, is the ease with which our legislators apparently can be intimidated from doing the right thing and their willingness to admit it.

“I personally support it,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden said of the legislation that would eliminate special penalties for dealing drugs near schools because those zones encompass almost all the land in major cities. “But I also know that there are members of my caucus who are concerned about it, not so much because of the policy behind it, but because of the politics.”

Sharkey continued: “Unfortunately, this is one of those cases when what may be good policy that has been adopted around the country is being compromised by the over-politicization of an issue.”

We need to let that sink in. Speaker Sharkey is saying that even members of his caucus who understand that this reform is the correct policy might refuse to vote for it because of politics.

Sharkey then makes clear the politics involved. “This is the kind of vote that shows up in campaign mailers for those who might support what I think is the right policy. That causes a lot of members to pause.”

I suppose, to give Speaker Sharkey the benefit of the doubt, there is a chance his open confession of such unprincipled conduct might be meant to shame his colleagues into doing the right thing. But, by admitting his willingness to tolerate this sort of behavior, and failing to provide a reasonable justification for opposing the bill, Sharkey’s statement actually makes matters worse.

As the colored areas on the maps show, most of New Haven falls into a drug-free zone, where criminal penalties are higher.
As the colored areas on the maps show, most of New Haven falls into a drug-free zone, where criminal penalties are higher.

Personally, I would be more troubled to discover that my legislator was willing to endorse a policy she found unfair to protect herself against a mailer than over any possible disagreement about the policy itself.

How can we be possibly trust our representatives to make decisions on critical questions such as whether to institute new taxes or to change the nature of the state with more casinos if concerns over political mailers can run roughshod over policy?

Sharkey, who holds a safe seat, won’t suffer any consequences for this statement. Still, he shouldn’t be allowed to cover up for his members who are taking this position. We should find out who in the Democratic caucus are cowering like spineless jellyfish.

A legislator who won’t even try to sell the right policy to his or her district has no right to be a legislator.

Worse still, it isn’t even clear this reform really is a life-and-death matter for legislators who are working hard for their constituents. This issue is hardly one that directly affects the lives of most voters who keep tabs on their legislators.

That means a legislator who has worked to build real relationships with constituents would be unlikely to see such relationships destroyed over this matter.

On the other side of the fight, Democrats in particular have an obligation to the minority voters who time and again show faith in us with their votes and often provide the margin of victory in closely contested races. We need to make the state’s laws fair for them and for us all.

This bill must pass this session. Democrats who choose to vote `no’ should be forced to publicly and clearly articulate why they are voting against the bill. This might not have been necessary had Sharkey kept quiet. But Sharkey’s comments put all votes against the bill under a cloud, suggesting they were all made out of pure political expediency. Such a cloud is more damaging than an incorrect vote.

At an absolute minimum this bill must be brought to the floor and leadership should do all its power to see it pass. Democrats can do better than being the party of jellyfish.

Jason Paul was a Democratic candidate for State Representative in the 48th district in 2014.

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