Gov. Ned Lamont used nine custom-inscribed pens to sign ceremonial copies of three bills Tuesday, each a measure sought by an LGBTQ community that knew little of Lamont when he began campaigning last year to succeed Dannel P. Malloy, a staunch ally on gay rights and transgender issues.
The administration yielded to Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, one of two openly gay members of the House, on the question of who would be handed one of the inscribed pens or signed copies. Sponsors of the bills, a mixed group of Democrats and Republicans, happily settled for a group picture.
Ceremonial bill-signings are old-school politics, little changed over the decades. A governor laboriously signs his name, a few letters at a time, using multiple pens. They serve varied purposes, creating moments and mementos for advocates, drawing attention to overlooked issues and, if done properly, strengthening relationships.
Lamont, 65, a businessman who took office in January with few relationships at the State Capitol, has come to embrace them as antidote to a polarized legislative session and a means to reach beyond the all-consuming and intensely partisan issue of Connecticut’s fiscal challenges.
The LGBTQ bill-signing was one of four conducted Tuesday as the governor makes his way through the 226 bills passed by the General Assembly in the five-month session ending on June 5. It offered Lamont his first opportunity to make a concrete contribution to Connecticut’s strong and growing body of gay rights laws.
“We’re going to continue to be a leader in LGBTQ rights and respect and pride and diversity, because I think that’s one of the things that keeps Connecticut great and makes America great,” Lamont said, pen in hand. “And we’re going to stay a leader on these fronts.”
The measures publicly signed Tuesday include an HIV-prevention law that allows minors to seek treatment and prophylaxis medication without parental consent, a ban on the so-called “gay panic defense” in criminal assaults, and the creation of an “LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network.”
Lamont was supportive of gay rights during the campaign, but the gay community had no significant dialogue with him, leaving uncertainty about the depth of his commitment or understanding of their issues.
“I definitely think there are members of the community who were unsure about where he stood on a number of issues,” Currey said. “He was not outspoken very much on the LGBTQ matters. But I think a lot of that has to do with educating someone who hasn’t necessarily been around it. I think that was our job. It’s his first session here, and I think we’ve done it successfully. That’s evidenced by what we just witnessed today.”
The HIV prevention bill was designed for young gays like Samuel Smith of New Haven, who witnessed the signing and left with a pen and a signed copy.
As a minor not out to his parents when he became sexually active, he was unable to obtain prophylaxis medication, a daily pill that can prevent the HIV virus from causing an infection. He is now 21 and HIV positive, but his public hearing testimony was credited by Currey as a turning point in winning support for the bill. It passed by lopsided margins of 121-26 in the House and 35-1 in the Senate.
Lamont, who long has been indifferent to political stagecraft, was slow to fully appreciate the benefits and conventions of bill-signings. His first outside the State Capitol was the measure raising the minimum wage to $15. He scrawled his signature with a single plain plastic pen, leaving but one souvenir to give out to a bill with many authors.
His office took delivery Tuesday of custom-inscribed ballpoint pens made by BIC, and the governor has learned to use multiple pens to sign one bill.
In addition to the public LGBTQ bill-signing in his office, Lamont hosted three other private bill-signings in his office: an anti-poverty bill sponsored by Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, a bipartisan crumbling-foundations assistance measure, and an invasive species bill sought by environmentalists and a freshman, Rep. Ken Gucker, D-Danbury.
Proponents of the three bills mingled outside the governor’s office, waiting their turn. Currey, a sponsor of the crumbling-foundations bill, gave Chris Soto, a legislative aide to the governor, a list of names of people who should get pens.
One of them was Tim Heim of Willington, who has organized owners of homes built on concrete foundations with aggregate from a local quarry contaminated with pyrrhotite, a naturally occurring mineral that corrodes and causes massive cracking when exposed to groundwater. He hosted Lamont’s opponent, Bob Stefanowski, on an inspection visit during the campaign.
On Monday, Lamont brought press attention to a bipartisan mental-health insurance bill that had passed with little notice or debate in the final minute of the 2019 session, signing a ceremonial copy in the crowded Old Judiciary Room of the State Capitol.
Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose struggles led to him becoming an advocate on addiction and mental-health care, spoke at that ceremony, then joined Lamont, legislators and health-care executives at the Executive Residence to talk about potential next steps.
“It’s a thank you, and it’s a bully pulpit,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, a co-sponsor of the insurance bill. “It’s a chance for people who didn’t get more than a 3 a.m. vote on the bill to have some fresh air on it. I think they’re great. It’s one of the few pomp-and-circumstance moments that still works in 2019. People love those pens. They get their picture and send the press release.”
The insurance bill signing was the second involving a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Scanlon. The other was a gun-storage law sought by his constituents, Michael and Kristin Song, in memory of their son, Ethan. Lamont signed it at a firehouse last month in Guilford, first privately meeting with the Songs for coffee before the public ceremony.
Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, one of the many co-sponsors of the HIV-prevention bill, said the bill-signing ceremonies offer political combatants an opportunity to celebrate shared accomplishments, help advocates publicize new laws important to certain communities, and remind voters that not everything is partisan.
“I’m all for these,” Logan said. “It’s part of the process, and it’s an important one.”