Voting with GOP, then explaining it to hometown Democrats
Wethersfield — Sen. Paul Doyle stood alone.
The two state senators and two state representatives who represent portions of this Hartford suburb in the General Assembly had been called forward to address a meeting of the Democratic town committee, its first since Doyle broke with Democrats to help pass a Republican budget.
Doyle walked to the front of the room. The others, Sen. John Fonfara of Hartford and Reps. Russ Morin of Wethersfield and Tony Guerrera of Rocky Hill, did not. Doyle reddened when he realized no one followed. He started to complain. Then, more to himself than the room, he nodded and said, “OK.”
This was how it’s going to be.
It was one thing to stand up in the Senate, give a speech about what he saw as the shortcomings of the Democratic budget, then cast a vote for a Republican alternative. It was another to come home and explain it to Democrats who had nominated him every two years since 1994 to represent them in Hartford.
Whatever its flaws, Morin would tell them, the Democratic version was one that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was ready to sign, ending a budget impasse and clearing the way for the state to begin sending out municipal aid. Wethersfield is due more than $3 million next month, and the loss would be devastating to its schools.
The audience included Bobbie Hughes Granato, the unhappy chair of the Board of Education, and Polly Moon, a school board member whose re-election campaign suddenly has been consumed by anger over how the impasse in Hartford is endangering the town’s public schools. Daniel Silver, a former school board member married to Moon, seemed to be seething on her behalf.
This was a family fight, awkward and raw. Doyle likened it to the fights he used to have with his brothers. “I disagree a lot with my brothers at times,” he told his audience of three dozen Democrats. “So I look at this as a dispute between the family, and we will be back together soon.”
Doyle and Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Gayle Slossberg of Milford, the two other Democratic senators who voted with the Republicans, won’t have their first post-vote meeting with their colleagues until this week, allowing a cooling-off period.
In the back of the room, the chambers at town hall where the town council meets, sat Fonfara, an old-school Democrat whom Doyle says worked mightily to keep him, Hartley and Slossberg in the fold during a long season of tension and, ultimately, estrangement.
“A lot of dynamics went on in our caucus, and there was one person who tried to pull us together, consistently throughout,” Doyle said. “The only person was Sen. Fonfara. I want to honestly thank him for it.”
Fonfara later would repay the compliment, but it came wrapped around an insult to Hartley and Slossberg. Doyle tried to be constructive in his dealings with the Democratic caucus, Fonfara said.
“I can’t always say that about the two others he has teamed up with in this effort,” Fonfara said. “Their manner — and this is not anything I haven’t said to Paul or those two directly — in the caucus has been condescending and negative. Not Paul, he’s been a gentleman from the beginning, always is. That dynamic has not helped our caucus.”
Doyle suggested that the roots of the breakup reached to other corners of the caucus.
“I’ve said it before, but I want to say it publicly: John, the fact that there were differences last Friday is not a shock. The whole session, there were different issues, issues of contention in the caucus,” Doyle said. Turning to the rest of the room, he added, “And John, above anybody in the caucus, tried to bridge the gap.”
Doyle, whose 9th Senate District stretches from Newington and Wethersfield through Rocky Hill and Cromwell to Middletown, hadn’t been in hiding. The vote was on a Friday night. The next morning, he made a point of getting up and buying a $4 ticket to Cornfest, an annual harvest and crafts festival on the green in Old Wethersfield, giving constituents an opportunity to question, praise and complain. Moon quizzed him for 25 minutes that morning.
On Monday, he visited the Democratic town committee of Newington. He called the reception there “chilly.” Before his appearance Thursday night in Wethersfield, he saw Democrats in Middletown, a stop he thought went well, at least after a union member finished screaming at him.
“I wasn’t defined by other people, “ Doyle says. “The key is, I am defining myself and providing the rationale for voting the way that I did.”
He told his hometown crowd his vote was a matter of conscience. Three people in the audience, including a woman who fears losing her job with a state-funded nonprofit agency, told him they respected that.
“The Democratic budget in my eyes had too much spending,” Doyle said. “I presented some cuts and was summarily dismissed.”
Doyle also objected to Malloy’s insertion in the budget an element of a criminal-justice measure that did not clear the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which is co-chaired by Doyle. While Malloy wanted to expand the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, the budget language would have expanded the crimes eligible for youthful-offender status in adult court. Both provisions had the same goal: saving young offenders from criminal records for less serious crimes.
Councilman Tony Spinella, a former prosecutor, applauded Doyle’s opposition.
Silver, whose wife is campaigning for re-election, said Doyle was prolonging a crisis, even if the GOP plan had more local aid for many towns, including Wethersfield.
“It put us locally in a very, very untenable situation,” Silver said. “We have an election to win.”
“I’m sorry about the implications on local elections,” Doyle said. “I took an oath of office to the constitution of the state of Connecticut to do what I think is right for the state of Connecticut. I think my position was best for the state of Connecticut. If you perceive that as throwing the town down the toilet, that’s fine. But my oath was not to the town of Wethersfield or the local elections.”
Granato, the school board chair, complained to Doyle he did not return two calls she made to him before the vote.
“You were supposed to be representing us. I voted for you. I donated to your cause, and suddenly you are voting for a Republican budget,” she said. Granato accused him of voting for a budget that he barely had to time to review.
“To be fair, the Democratic budget was out about the same time,” Doyle said. “No person could have conceivably read every line of each budget, when both were dumped the morning of the vote, so it’s not just that one. There were prior versions of both budgets that I studied.”
Doyle said the $1.53 billion in new revenue the Democrats sought over two years was too much, though he challenged any Republican who called their document a no-tax plan.
“The budget I voted for, the Republican budget, had new revenue of $900 million,” Doyle said. “So, what the Republicans are saying is garbage. They’re saying no new taxes. That’s bull.”
Morin, who was one of eight Democrats in the House to vote against an austerity budget last year, said he respected Doyle’s right to follow his conscience, but questioned the superiority of a GOP alternative that cut funding to higher education by $240 million.
“What are we doing to younger people? What are we doing to your higher education system?” Morin asked. He said cuts to community colleges and technical schools would impede the state’s ability to meet the need for advanced-manufacturing workers at Electric Boat and in the aerospace industry.
The father of a public-school teacher, Morin complained that the GOP budget would require higher contributions for retirement, but that the money would go to the general fund, not the underfunded pension fund. That effectively made the contribution a tax, one not paid by anyone else, Morin said.
Fonfara would get the last word.
He is no stranger to making demands of his colleagues, trading for favors. Representing a district that is city and suburb, he understands the conflicts endemic to the parochial institution that is the Connecticut General Assembly. But Fonfara said those conflicts must be resolved behind the frosted-glass door of the Senate Democrats caucus room, especially now that the Senate is evenly split.
“I’m a big believer in the caucus,” Fonfara said. “It’s what makes the process go. And when we have a team of folks — just like the town committee, just like the town council, just like your relationships at home — you win some and you lose some. But you value the caucus.”
Fonfara reminded the town committee of how he and other Democratic legislators delivered when a high-school renovation program ran $10 million short — a gap filled by the state.
“And you walk into the Senate president’s office and you ask — and maybe that door opens and maybe it doesn’t,” Fonfara said. “For me, I want it to open. I’ve taken many tough votes over the years, because I wanted that door open, because I wanted to serve my constituents.”
The caucus is now wounded, he said.
Fonfara suggested that Doyle, Hartley and Slossberg should have been happy with the Democratic budget. They opposed a sales tax increase and it was abandoned.
Democrats made a structural change, mandating that the state’s most volatile sources — taxes paid by the highest earners — be treated more conservatively. “We could not budget to the last dollar,” Fonfara said. “That is in our budget, not the Republican budget.”
The Republican budget would lead to the bankruptcy of Hartford, Fonfara said, and it was no better than the Democratic version in avoiding shortfalls in 2019 and 2020.
“Where is the structural change?” he asked.
Fonfara said Republicans, who need to pick up four seats in the House and one in the Senate next year to win control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 30 years, talk about wanting a bipartisan budget, but they show no signs of being willing to compromise.
“Why? Because they are within a whisker of holding the majority. And they are going to do nothing to help us — nothing to help us,” Fonfara said. “They’re hungry for power. They’re not going to help us, folks.”
Fonfara said the only solution for the Democratic caucus is to reunite.
“I think it can be done in a way where Paul and Sen. Hartley and Sen. Slossberg can support it. I believe that with all my heart. And I hope it will happen as we go forward.”
The town committee applauded.
Fonfara approached Doyle as the crowd dispersed. He smiled, shook Doyle’s hand and said, “I hope we find that path.”
Bill Ciotto, an octogenarian who held the Senate seat before Doyle and had listened without comment to the back and forth, offered no opinion on the superiority of one budget over another. He said nothing about the integrity of the caucus.
He gestured with an unlit cigar and said, “If you can look yourself in the mirror, that’s all you got to live with.”
Doyle said, “Thank you, Billy.”
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