House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, nearing the midpoint of his second term, is making calls to Democratic legislators seeking support for his becoming only the third three-term speaker in the history of the General Assembly.
Connecticut is one of a handful of states with a tradition of term limits for the top leader in the House, a practice seen as both a check on anyone amassing too much power and a means to keep the institution fresh.
Sharkey, 53, a lawyer, sees the tradition as healthy.
“Look at New York,” he said Thursday in an interview, acknowledging his quiet campaign for a third and final two-year term. “New York’s a great example of what can happen when people are there too long.”
Sheldon Silver resigned as speaker of the New York Assembly on Jan. 30 after his arrest on corruption charges. He had been speaker for 21 years, holding absolute power over what bills came to a vote.
Massachusetts has had its own dubious tradition of limiting terms: Three consecutive speakers left office as a result of criminal investigations, most recently Salvatore F. DiMasi in 2009.
The Illinois speaker, James J. Madigan, is also the state’s Democratic chairman, a combination that makes him, in the words of Chicago Magazine, “The king of Illinois.” He’s been speaker for every year but two since 1983.
Connecticut has had eight speakers since Madigan’s first term as leader, all but one a Democrat. The job here is ostensibly part-time, with annual compensation of $43,189, including a $4,500 stipend for expenses.
A term limit by tradition
The tradition in Connecticut was two terms until 1997, and most speakers served a single term before 1971, when the legislature began meeting annually instead of every other year.
Seeking a third term, Irving J. Stolberg of New Haven was blocked by a stunning coup on the opening day of the 1989 session. Dissident Democrats enlisted the GOP minority to stop Stolberg and elect a different Democrat, Richard J. Balducci of Newington. James J. Kennelly of Hartford tried and failed for a third term in the late 1970s, losing to Stolberg’s predecessor, Ernest N. Abate of Stamford.
The first speaker to successfully break the two-term limit was Balducci’s successor, Thomas D. Ritter of Hartford. His successor, Moira K. Lyons of Stamford, also served three terms.
James A. Amann of Milford and Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden, the two speakers between Lyons and Sharkey, left after two terms, having decided to make bids for higher office – Amann for governor, Donovan for Congress. Neither succeeded.
“I think it is a good tradition to limit the speakers by tradition to no more than three, anyway,” Sharkey said. “You want to be able to create opportunities for the rest of the caucus to rise to leadership spots and allow there to be some turnover.”
Sharkey’s calls to gauge support may seem early, since the House won’t elect a speaker until the opening day of session in January 2017. But the choices typically are resolved the previous year.
To win, he needs Democrats not only to support him, but to retain their majority in the 2016 elections. Democrats now control the House, 87-64. A swing of 12 seats next year would give the GOP control.
Republicans last won control of the 151-member House in 1984, aided by the long coattails of Ronald Reagan. But they have been on the rebound, after winning just 37 seats seven years ago.
Connecticut has gone Democratic in every presidential race since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, often helping Democrats pick up legislative seats. But after losing seven seats when Barack Obama carried Connecticut in 2008, it held even during his 2012 re-election.
Remorse over the budget
In 2016, Sharkey’s challenge will be to ensure there is no erosion in the majority after he potentially endangered some Democrats in swing districts by pressing them to vote in June for an unpopular budget. Its passage probably was Sharkey’s greatest challenge as speaker.
In testimony Thursday before a commission on economic competitiveness, Sharkey said that budget he worked so hard to pass did a disservice to the state’s business climate. He conceded that legislators voted for business taxes without fully appreciating their impact, a mistake he says will not be repeated.
“Decisions are made that are sometimes not well thought out and sometimes have not been fully vetted,” Sharkey told the commission. “And clearly we made that mistake in this budget that was passed originally on June 3.”
Legislators returned in special session weeks later to revise the budget, including rolling back business tax increases.
Whatever hard feelings were left from that budget debate, Sharkey said during an interview he is optimistic about another term.
“So far, there’s been pretty universal acceptance of the notion that maybe I should stay another term, from the folks I’ve spoken to,” Sharkey said. “I haven’t reached out to every member of the caucus yet, so I don’t want to prejudge that.”
Sharkey said he would like another term to work on improving the state’s economic competitiveness, stabilizing its finances and continuing his advocacy of regionalism.
“Coming out of recession, there is a certain amount of unsettledness within Connecticut generally and within the legislature specifically,” Sharkey said. “I’d like to be able to make sure we can navigate through that to a positive conclusion.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to Irving J. Stolberg as the first to seek a third term.