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Connecticut Democrats Push For Broader Social Justice Agenda In Special Session

Danielle Wedderburn
The Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford

Democratic legislative leaders in Connecticut have pledged to expand the agenda for the upcoming special session with a number of COVID-related social justice issues. 

That’s in contrast to Governor Ned Lamont, who would like lawmakers to prioritize police accountability and  the use of absentee ballots in the November election. 

Lamont says a brief special session in the middle of summer is not the right time for lawmakers to take up a wide range of bills to deal with systemic racism. He says that’s why he’s calling for the session to be narrowly focused.  

“Two things we want to work towards, one police accountability, we’ve discussed that a fair amount in terms of what we’d like to accomplish with a special session. We haven’t spent quite enough time talking about making it easier to vote, absentee ballots, voting by mail. Again a COVID-related event because we don’t want seniors waiting in long lines to vote.”

However, Democrats who have the legislative majority want to consider a number of social justice issues. They met this week during a virtual town hall meeting with about 400 members of a liberal southern Connecticut interfaith group called Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, or CONECT.

A member of the group, Phil Kent, asked Senate President Martin Looney about releasing more people from state prisons.

“Will you push the governor to add the issue of COVID in prison to the agenda for a special session? Will you also have a bill that creates a targeted common sense release plan with immediate implementation?

“The question as you’ve just phrased it would certainly come in under the category of criminal justice reform. So that is something I believe that we should address in a special session,” Looney said.

Democrats have told Lamont that they want to expand the agenda to include COVID-19-related prisoner releases, more state money for COVID testing and rental assistance to the undocumented. Looney says an initial $2.5 million state fund Lamont set up to provide rental assistance to the undocumented in the form of $1,000 grants to landlords is not enough.

“In terms of assistance to people who are undocumented, I think the fund needs to be much bigger both in terms of housing assistance and in general assistance.”

Looney says lawmakers are also concerned that renters have been affected by the downturn in the economy.

“I believe that there is a potential for an eviction crisis. My office has been in touch with some housing advocates in the city of New Haven.”

But the biggest issue the Democrats will consider is the creation of an independent prosecutor within the Attorney General’s office to handle cases involving police abuse and violence.

Senator Gary Winfield, an African American from New Haven, co-chairs the Judiciary Committee that’s writing the bill. He says it will go beyond police accountability.

“What we need to be doing at this time is recognizing that the issue isn’t just police accountability. It’s a symptom of the foundation of this country and everything that’s grown up from the foundation.”

Senate Republicans say they would support the creation of a nonpartisan inspector general to oversee investigations of police. But it has to be outside of the Attorney General’s office in order to avoid political influence.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano says he would have liked to have discussed the Republican proposal at the CONECT forum, but he wasn’t invited to speak.

“Obviously they never wanted me in the conversation. They never reached out to me. And that’s the problem that we have in this state and this country.”

Forum organizers say they didn’t ask Republicans to speak because the GOP are a minority in the legislature and do not control the agenda.

But Lamont, a Democrat, says he will seek bipartisan consensus for the special session agenda. He says his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, is talking to leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Lawmakers and the governor have yet to decide on a date for the special session. 

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
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