Progressives multiply in State Capitol
In 2019, half of House Democrats will be members of a fledgling caucus of progressives committed to reforming Connecticut’s tax structure, raising the minimum wage and passing paid family and medical leave.
Leaders of the Progressive Democrats Caucus, formed in April, say they will have 45 members, up from 31, when the legislature resumes work in January. That’s 45 out of 92 Democratic state representatives, or nearly a third of the 151-member state House of Representatives.
They could create a significant voting bloc.
“I am just thrilled about the level of excitement, especially from the new members,” said state Rep. James Albis, an East Haven Democrat and a co-chair of the caucus, on Wednesday.
The caucus has defined “progressive” as supporting “equitable taxation.” This generally translates to raising taxes on the rich and lowering them for poorer residents, so the two groups spend more equal percentages of their income on taxes. It could involve changes to the income tax and property tax and possibly others, said Albis.
“Equitable taxation is in my mind the most important issue that we can deal because it directly impacts the most families, but it is also probably the hardest to deal with,” said Albis.
The caucus is likely to propose bills on topics like raising the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, legalizing recreational marijuana and fighting climate change, said Albis. The group, which met for the first time with its new members Sunday in New Haven, is still developing some of its priorities.
They may find an ally in Democratic Governor-elect Ned Lamont, who championed these ideas on the campaign trail, as well as in the Senate, which will have 23 Democrats in 2019, many of whom who identify as progressives.
Many newly elected Democrats are embracing the “progressive” label. At least six of the 45 will be new state representatives, elected in the recent blue wave.
“They automatically considered that I would be part of it (because) I have a little bit of a reputation of being quite liberal, quite progressive and in favor of the people and not special interests,” said state Representative-elect David Michel of Stamford, mentioning his work on Occupy Wall Street outreach and documenting dolphin slaughters in Japan.
The trend of more progressives winning election is mirrored on the national level where the Congressional Progressive Caucus is also expected to grow in 2019 from 78 members to more than 98, although several progressive stars and candidates endorsed by the caucus lost in midterm elections.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of New Haven is the only member of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation who is now part of Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Movement with old roots
In reaction to the Tea Party movement of 2009, the presidential bid of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the election of President Donald Trump, some Democrats have pulled to the left, increasingly embracing the progressive label in national politics, said Gwendoline Alphonso, associate professor of politics at Fairfield University.
Today’s progressives, like the Progressive Party of the early 20th century, are focused on reforming the status quo to fix social and economic inequalities, said Alphonso, but with a different goal in mind: to equitably redistribute government resources instead of fundamentally transforming government.
“(Earlier Progressives) were nationalists,” said Alphonso. “It was about creating national strength and national durability... now when we think about it the discourse of small ‘p’ progressives is not so much focused on nation — it is a little bit — but it more focused on specific groups and making sure specific groups have their say in government policy. It’s really not so universalist in its approach.”
In Connecticut, while the current progressive caucus is new, the group is actually a reincarnation of an earlier group that existed from the Vietnam era to 1992. It dissolved after helping to usher in a state income tax in August 1991.
The revival was spearheaded by 33-year-old first-term state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who in early 2018, questioned House Democrats on where they stood on a slate of progressive issues, charting their responses on a spreadsheet. If they did not espouse progressive views, Elliott threatened he would find a more progressive colleague to challenge them in a primary. He backed a progressive candidate to fill the seat of Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, who voted for the Republican budget proposal in 2017, but the candidate failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot, said Elliott.
The reborn progressive caucus was officially announced on April 25, 2018, two weeks before the end of the legislative session. Albis credits the caucus with helping pass a new “pay equity” law, which prevents employers from asking job candidates about their salary history before extending them an offer.
State Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, first elected in 1988, was a member of the former caucus and now the new one.
“While the motivations and the circumstances are different, I think the thought process, the focus, still remains what is best for working families,” said Godfrey, who jokes that he is the “historian” of the caucus.
With close margins in the state House and a tied Senate making it difficult for new legislation to pass, Godfrey said frustration made the old caucus ripe for return.
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