House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. in the House chamber. He's not in the chamber, but still on the phone. mark pazniokas /
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz huddled to talk about coronavirus on their last session day together. mark pazniokas /

The General Assembly recessed on Wednesday, March 11, promising to return the following Monday after a deep cleaning of the State Capitol and Legislative Office Building. It was a precaution against the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Before leaving, lawmakers changed their rules to allow committee votes by phone — just in case. The same day, an elderly New Canaan man was confirmed as the third patient in Connecticut, the first assumed to have contracted the illness in the state.

Three weeks later, there are 3,557 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, 85 fatalities from the respiratory disease, and no plans by legislators to return to Hartford before the constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight May 6.

“As of right now, it looks like it’s going to be very difficult to convene the legislature before the constitutional adjournment,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who is serving his last term.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, underlined that new reality by informing colleagues by telephone Tuesday that he would join Aresimowicz in exiting the General Assembly and not seek re-election this fall.

It seems there will be no long good-byes for either leader.

“It has taught me so much. It has helped me to grow, to be a better person. If people go into that institution and come out the same way, they miss out on the great gift that institution can give.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano

“The reality is the reality,” said Fasano, who never thought he would inform his caucus of his retirement by telephone. “I was hoping we’d go back in, and I could do it face to face with my caucus.”

Fasano created a campaign committee in February, but only to quell the rumors that he had decided to leave after 18 years as a lawmaker, the last six as a caucus leader. He was not ready to finalize his decision in February, but the time has come now.

The political nominating conventions are next month, though it remains unclear how they will function if social distancing still is the norm.

With everything going on, Fasano said he saw the story of his retirement on a scale of 10 as “a negative two.” He would have enjoyed one final session, a chance to savor the last months in a job and an institution that he says changed him.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides of Derby and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano of North Haven confer during the 2019 legislative session. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

“It has taught me so much. It has helped me to grow, to be a better person,” Fasano said. “If people go into that institution and come out the same way, they miss out on the great gift that institution can give.”

Aresimowicz said he is resigned to his last session as speaker not being the one he expected. 

“It really has been mixed. I miss being up here. I miss being around the people. I miss doing the job as we knew the job to be,” he said. “It’s a weird dynamic. I’m having a more immediate impact on people’s lives.”

Rather than dealing with overall strategy, he said he has been delivering food to constituents and answering endless questions by phone, email and social media. People want to know how they can get tested, how the governor’s executive orders affect them and their businesses, how they can help.

He presides over caucus conferences that are conducted by telephone, allowing the other 90 House Democrats to pose questions of administration officials and others. Representatives of the Connecticut Hospital Association will be on the line Thursday.

“It’s a weird dynamic. I’m having a more immediate impact on people’s lives.”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz

“Updating people on what’s going on, it really is an all-day process,” he said. “I think I was responding to the last text after 10 o’clock last night.”

Other leaders say their routines are variations of the same.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said her caucus hears from as many people during the hiatus as they would if they were in session. The difference is the calls are about one thing — how COVID-19 has changed their life.

“This kind of thing, the more people know the better. We’re getting constituent questions all day,” she said. 

Some they can answer, others they forward to the governor’s office. Many are seeking clarification of some of Lamonts executive orders.

“Everything from, ‘I don’t understand what he is saying,’ meaning the governor, to questions about an executive order. ‘Does it apply to me?’” Klarides said.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said he has heard from probate court officials whose courts are located in town halls now either closed or open on a limited basis. Some of their work is time-sensitive.

Others complain of unpredictable access to the offices of town clerks, where real-estate documents must be filed, and registrars of vital statistics, a source of birth and death certificates. He has suggested the governor require uniform hours.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said his calls and emails begin at 8 a.m. and continue until 11:30 p.m.

“We are the purveyors of information on the local level. We work with our local officials,” Duff said. “A lot of it is answering emails, questions on social media, pointing people in the right direction.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the caucus meetings by telephone are meant to keep everyone informed, so they can respond to constituents. The Department of Labor will be on a call this week to answer questions about unemployment and other benefits now available.

“We try to think how can we find the right people to have those conversations with them. Every day there is an update,” Ritter said. “I think we all are fairly well in touch with each other. Unlike a session, where you are focused on a number of issues, right now we only deal with this.

“Every conversation you have is around COVID-19.”

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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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