WEST HAVEN — For a Democratic Party dispirited by the resignation of a young state lawmaker facing corruption charges, the willingness of 27-year-old Councilwoman Treneé McGee to seek the open seat seemed like a gift.
But the nomination of McGee, a motivational speaker and daughter of clergy, is testing the degree to which Democrats can comfortably accommodate a candidate at odds with the party on the issue of the moment: abortion.
“I consider myself pro-life for the whole life, from the womb to the tomb,” McGee said.
While polls show voters to be more flexible, the two parties now occupy clear places on abortion rights in terms of platforms and top-of-ticket candidates, with Democrats branded as being in favor of abortion rights and Republicans being anti-abortion.
But McGee said she never considered joining the Republican Party when she came of age.
“Not really, because I knew instantly that I’m against the death penalty, euthanasia,” McGee said. “I believe in quality health care for everyone. I believe students should be able to go to college and not be in debt for the rest of their lives. You know, those things I foundationally believe.”
McGee said anti-abortion Democrats are hardly rare among voters, but she acknowledged they generally keep a low profile among office holders in Connecticut.
And McGee, who once was convinced she would be an actress, doesn’t do low key.
“I knew that I would be kind of like a unicorn, and knew that I would be different, that my perspectives would be different, that I would oftentimes challenge my own party. And then I thought, ‘That’s OK.’ I would rather be honest,” she said. “I would rather walk away from something having been honest, and maybe disliked, than to have been liked by everyone and dishonest.”
Voters in the 116th House District, one of three in this city, go to the polls for a special election on Dec. 14 to elect a successor to former Rep. Michael DiMassa, D-West Haven, who is facing criminal charges related to his alleged misuse of federal relief funds in his job as a city employee.
McGee’s advocacy on abortion is not an issue raised by either of her opponents, Republican Richard DePalma and Portia A. Bias, a former Democratic council member who petitioned for a spot on the ballot as an Independent. Both said they were unaware of it.
DePalma says he is opposed to abortion except in cases of rape. “I can’t see how anybody can go and get pregnant by accident tonight,” DePalma said. “I mean, you can get condoms in every grocery store. Anywhere you are, you really got birth control and stuff like that.”
Bias, who says she lost her council seat when Democrats endorsed McGee over her in 2019, said she believed in choice in all things. “I believe in freedom of choice,” Bias said.
Asked if that extended to abortion, she said, “We’ve been given choices in life and if that’s one of the choices we’ve been given, who is to make judgment on someone else’s choice?”
If not an issue in West Haven, McGee’s position is a matter of conversation in Hartford.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who has fielded concerned calls about McGee from advocates of abortion rights, said he had two blunt conversations with her about where she would stand in the House Democratic caucus regarding a 30-year-old state law that codifies the framework of Roe v. Wade, which established a right to abortion.
“I told her, surely, there will never be a bill called as long as I’m speaker that ever whittles away or attacks a woman’s right to choose,” Ritter said. “She understands that. There was no debate about that. She was very comfortable. I don’t anticipate her introducing legislation to overturn it.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the Democratic coalition is broader and more tolerant than the Republicans, but he declined to answer the question: Is abortion a litmus test for Democrats?
“I’m not going to get into that,” Looney said.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, did. She said abortion is, or should be, a litmus test, one that Democratic town committees should enforce.
“Of course people have personal beliefs, but when it comes to policy, the Democrats should be pro-choice, and we should support pro-choice policies,” said Gilchrest, a former director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. “I also think this is illustrative of [how] we need to do a better job with our DTCs, that they screen candidates and also ask important questions before nominating candidates to the House.”
McGee, who is Black, is supported by members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, including those are who ardent defenders of abortion rights.
“The challenge for a person like her is to get people to stop for a second and say, ‘Maybe I should listen to who they really are,'” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, one of the caucus members backing her candidacy.
“I think as a Black woman I’m always happy to see one more, as long as it’s not a Republican who sort of works against everything that I do,” said Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, a former employee of Planned Parenthood. Of McGee, she said, ‘I would expect her principles are aligned with Democrats. This is one issue.”
Liz Gustafson, the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, was circumspect when asked about McGee.
“This conversation is about more than just one single candidate or legislator in one single moment of time here in Connecticut,” Gustafson said. “This is a conversation about the reality we have been and are currently facing, which is that abortion access has been systemically under attack in this country for decades and has been undermined by barriers, political interference and stigma for decades.”
In oral arguments Wednesday, conservative justices dominating the Supreme Court seemed inclined toward upholding a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a dramatic break with the current standard barring states from outlawing abortions before fetal viability, generally 24 weeks.
Connecticut Democrats used the hearing as the basis of a fundraising appeal Friday that described the party as a reliable defender of “reproductive rights against the GOP’s anti-women crusade.”
Despite the party’s strong self-identification as the party of reproductive rights, Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, the leader of the Progressive Caucus, said, “We are a big tent. I see us like a messy, beloved community. The Progressive Caucus does not agree on every issue at all.”
Hughes said she was confident Democrats would find common ground with McGee, possibly on her pet issue — fighting the closure of labor and delivery departments at two hospitals serving urban Willimantic and small rural communities.
“It really impacts rural, low-income and often Black and brown women in terms of safely delivering their babies,” Hughes said. “So you know, that’s pro-life too, but it’s also about having access to critical reproductive justice and health care. And, you know, I believe health care, basic health care, includes the right to abortion. Other people don’t. That’s fine. We don’t have to align on everything.”
McGee used the word “choice” several times in an interview, saying she believes the number of abortions can be reduced by providing greater choices, especially to young women of limited means she knows who have had abortions.
“They felt like they had no other choice. And so I always think about the access to abortion, and how we can increase the access of other resources for women so that that’s not the only choice,” McGee said.
The middle ground that once drew support from elements of both sides of the divide — reducing the number of abortions with programs that provide information and ready access to contraception, as well as support for new mothers — has all but disappeared, she said.
“There is no middle ground,” she said.
McGee said she never has attended a demonstration or vigil outside a Connecticut abortion clinic, actions that some clinic patients and employees see as harassment. But she witnessed one in California, where she was attending a workshop.
“I prayed. And I prayed for the abortionist, and I prayed for the women getting abortions, because I hope that one day it’s unnecessary, it doesn’t have to be a choice, because there’s more for women,” McGee said. “But in my heart of compassion, I don’t want to spew hate, because that works against the work that I want to do. And so I prayed.”
While some of the conservative religious groups affiliated with the anti-abortion movement are opposed to gay rights, McGee said she is not. Winfield said there have been whispers to that effect, but he noted at a recent campaign event that Erick Russell, a married LGBT activist and vice chair of the state Democratic Party, was in the audience applauding McGee.
McGee is a defender of pregnancy crisis centers that offer counseling and support to pregnant women thinking of abortion, which also puts her at odds with the Senate and House Democratic caucuses. In Connecticut, she said, the fight over abortion is about providing options to abortion and not attempting bans.
“I just want women to know about the pregnancy crisis centers. I want young girls to know about the safe haven laws,” McGee said. “I want young women to know about their value.”
McGee testified during a public hearing in the past session against Senate Bill 835, a measure that bans deceptive advertising by the pregnancy centers, some of whom had been accused of misleading women seeking abortions.
“I did get a call from someone from Planned Parenthood. I got a call from a couple of people asking me about that. They sent me the article. They told me about the testimony,” said Moore, the senator who once worked for Planned Parenthood. “And I said, ‘Would you rather have a Republican?'”
The measure passed without a Republican vote.
In her opposition to the bill, McGee would have been in a small minority in the Democratic caucus, but not alone.
The bill was opposed by three Democrats in the Senate and six in the House, including the leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. of Waterbury, and two deputy speakers, Reps. Michelle Cook of Torrington and Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford.
Nationally, at least, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., says the party needs to be more tolerant of social conservatives. In an interview earlier this fall, he bemoaned the Democratic Party’s inability to tolerate a broader range of opinions, limiting the number of states in which it can compete.
“The Democratic Party used to be a much bigger tent than we are,” Murphy said. “I don’t think it’s been constructive for our party to push out individuals who are more socially conservative but do understand the benefit of some Democratic priorities, like investments in Medicare and the social safety net.”
No Democrat from Connecticut’s congressional delegation, General Assembly or statewide office signed a letter circulated by Democrats for Life in 2020 that urged the Democratic National Committee to restore language from the 2000 platform that acknowledged a diversity of opinion on abortion.
The 2000 platform supported Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose, but it also stated, “The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.”
The only Connecticut signatories to the Democrats for Life letter were from West Haven: Robbin Hamilton Watt, the council’s majority leader; and a first-term district council member, Treneé McGee.