Aresimowicz’ challenging path as House leader and union man
Connecticut union leaders do not hide their displeasure with House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, over his role in passing a budget that cuts services and eliminates jobs rather than following labor’s prescription of raising taxes on the rich.
“I was really upset at his vote; I am really upset,” said Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4, the biggest union in the AFL-CIO. “But he’s got to be the one to look at himself in the mirror.”
A comment like that might make any Democratic leader wince. With more than 32,000 members, AFSCME is a crucial element of the coalition that has kept House Democrats in the majority for 30 years. But Luciano is more than just another union bigwig.
He is Aresimowicz’s boss.
Aresimowicz is the education coordinator for AFSCME, a union that paid him $97,000 in 2015, more double his $43,000 compensation as one of the highest-ranking members of the part-time Connecticut General Assembly.
Almost everybody in the legislature, where the base pay is $28,000, has a job outside Hartford. That means having a boss, even if you are Aresimowicz, who is expected to succeed retiring House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, as one of the three most powerful people in Connecticut politics.
His relationship with Luciano is certain to come under closer scrutiny next January. Aresimowicz is set then to become speaker of the House, barring Republicans making a net gain of 12 seats in November. Aresimowicz will have control over committee assignments and final say over which bills are called for a vote.
It will be up to Aresimowicz to keep labor inside the Democratic tent at a time when the Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, says Connecticut government must shrink to conform with available revenue. Demands for labor concessions are expected to grow next year, along with an insistence that the legislature take a strong role in reviewing labor contracts.
Lori Pelletier, the president of the AFL-CIO, said how to respond to the Democratic budget will be a top agenda item when the labor federation holds its annual convention in June. Aresimowicz will be part of that discussion, even if the budget was shaped more by the governor, Sharkey and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
“Joe is in a difficult situation in that he is having to run for re-election when the speaker is not. The governor is not. He may be the one carrying the burden for this budget,” Pelletier said. “We’re going to be talking with Joe to figure out honestly how to save Democrats from themselves.”
“Right now, will the Democrats get the support they normally get? My answer would be no,” Luciano said. But he added, “I look at places like Illinois. It makes me slow down a bit.”
Unions fought with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois and ended up with Republican Bruce Rauner, who has aggressively tried to curb the power of public-sector unions. “If they thought Quinn was the son of Satan, they ended up with Satan himself,” Luciano said.
Aresimowicz said the budget demonstrated that he may be employed by a union, but he is able to take on the larger role of representing the interests of a diverse Democratic caucus, a majority of which had no interest in balancing the budget with taxes, borrowing or raiding the reserve fund.
“My job as majority leader is to represent the caucus, and that’s what I did,” he said.
If labor has its concerns, the business community also is watching to see what it will mean to see the control of the House agenda in the hands of a leader whose top policy adviser is Matthew Brokman, a progressive activist married to the state director of the Working Families Party.
“We have a long history of working closely with Joe on a large number of issues, particularly on manufacturing issues. He’s reached out to a lot of our members. He’s been helpful on some tax issues,” said Joe Brennan, the president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “The relationship I think is a good one. However, we disagree pretty strongly on labor mandates coming out of the legislature.”
Aresimowicz, 45, a former Army medic and Red Cross technician who probably is better known in his district these days as the varsity coach of the powerhouse Berlin High School football team, says he can keep his various jobs and responsibilities straight.
“I think I am a very collaborative person by nature. I grew up in a big family, immediately went into team sports. I’ve been coaching for almost 20 years,” he said.
His role in passing the budget on a 74-to-70 vote last week was not the first time he’s been at odds with labor. He represents the 30th House District of Berlin and Southington, blue-collar suburbs not known as bastions of liberal politics.
“If you look at AFL-CIO ratings, you’ll see legislators with higher ratings,” he said. “I vote based on the input of my district.”
Aresimowicz went into the Army out of high school and trained as a medic. He worked in a low-wage nursing home job without benefits after his release, cementing his affinity for the labor movement. Then he took a job with the American Red Cross, where he joined and eventually led a union.
He was hired by AFSCME about 18 years ago, about the same time he was elected to the Town Council in Berlin for the first of three two-year terms. He was elected in 2004 to the House.
His district overlaps with the Senate district of one of the most conservative members of the legislature, Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, who has supported stronger conflict-of-interest rules for the General Assembly.
“He’s one of the best people to work with in the whole legislature,” Markley said. “He’s very intelligent, understands situations. He is a man of his word. He has an excellent memory for what needs to be done and what’s been arranged. I could only like him more if he was on my side, and I wish he was.”
As a member of the General Assembly, Aresimowicz is subject to the provisions of an ethics code that is interpreted by the Office of State Ethics and a Citizens Ethics Advisory Board, the successor to a previous State Ethics Commission.
“Generally, these provisions prohibit a public official from accepting outside employment that would impair his independence of judgment as to his official duties or that would be deemed a use of office for personal financial gain,” the board wrote in 2014.
At least three of the five most recent speakers have sought advice about outside employment.
In 1997 the board permitted House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter, a lawyer, to appear before the quasi-public Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, even though appearances before state executive agencies are expressly banned.
The board advised House Speaker James Amann in 2007 to discontinue soliciting lobbyists for charitable contributions in his role as a paid employee of the Greater Connecticut Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, saying the solicitation could be seen as coercive. The board suggested the speaker might answer to a higher standard.
“Also of specific relevance to this opinion is the fact that Representative Amann holds a position of significant power and authority,” the board wrote. “As Speaker, he presides over the House during its sessions, appoints House members of all committees not appointed by resolution, recognizes all persons wishing to address the House, puts all questions to vote, decides questions of order and refers bills to committees.”
It emphasized that the ethics code does not prohibit outside employment, but tried to draw a line on where the employment might run afoul of the code.
“However, when financial gain (compensation) is involved, as is the case here, the Code of Ethics requires that there be no use of a public official’s ‘public office or position’ in obtaining such financial gain,” the board wrote.
Rep. Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, was employed by an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union representing community college employees while he was majority leader, but he resigned from the union after succeeding Amann as speaker in January 2009.
“I’d be more in the limelight, and my opponents would use my job as a reason to put into the public eye questions about my motivations,” he said.
Aresimowicz said he intends to remain with AFSCME, which represents state and municipal employees. He was given the job of education coordinator to keep him clear of collective bargaining and to allow him the flexibility of teaching classes on organizing and bargaining at nights and weekends.
As coordinator, his union pay has jumped by nearly $26,000 in the three years since he became a leader in the House, rising from $71,128 in 2012 to $79,947 in 2013, $88,742 in 2014 and $97,112 in 2015, according to reports the union files with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Aresimowicz, who like other AFSCME employees has wages and benefits negotiated by a union, said Luciano has respected his independence as a legislator.
“He’s been very understanding. He’s never once questioned me about my voting record. He never once lobbied me prior to a vote on anything,” Aresimowicz said. “I think I am lucky in that respect.”
“At the end of the day, we never ask anybody to do what they can’t live with,” Luciano said.
Roy Occhiogrosso, a former adviser to Malloy and constituent of Aresimowicz, said a part-time citizen-legislature always will have challenges about potential conflicts.
“People have to work to make a living,” he said. “I think Joe has rightfully earned respect and shown he can be trusted. Part of that trust is learning how to navigate the terrain between professional and public life.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Aresimowicz’s dual roles as speaker and a union employee would be awkward at times, but he was within his rights staying with his long-time employer.
“Each speaker has had different issues based on what you do for a living,” said Klarides, a lawyer in private practice. “As long as you have a part-time legislature, you’re going to have those issues.”
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