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State Rep. Urban looks back at 18 years in Hartford

January 4, 2019

During her 18 years in the General Assembly, Democratic state Rep. Diana Urban was never afraid “to rattle someone’s cage.”

Even if it was a member of her own party.

Example 1: Amistad America.

After reporting by The Day, Urban successfully pressed the state attorney general to investigate financial mismanagement and fraud by the state-funded entity while her colleagues in the General Assembly remained silent. Urban says leaders of her own party threatened that her proposed legislation would never see the light of day if she continued to press the issue, which she did anyway.

She said one party leader yelled at her to “back off” on the floor of the House while the state Department of Economic and Community Development official overseeing the schooner dismissed her criticisms, telling her she was only one legislator.

“That’s when I said ‘game on,’” Urban recalled Thursday.

Behind the scenes, she said, there were whispers of racism because the Amistad is a story of African slaves eventually being freed.

“When you start pushing, getting out on the ledge on policy, people will often try to get you in ways that are not kosher,” she said.

Urban, who often used salty language when having off-the-record conversations with reporters about legislative business, said she told legislative leaders she was determined to let the public and the media know what was going on.

In the end, the state probe led to the seizure of the ship from the financially troubled Amistad America, which had received more than 2 million by Amistad America, something she still regrets.

The 69-year-old Urban, of North Stonington, is the second-longest-serving legislator in southeastern Connecticut after Kevin Ryan of Montville, who was re-elected in November to a 14th term.

Urban was first elected in 2000 as a Republican to represent the 43rd District, which comprises Stonington and North Stonington. She was re-elected eight times, becoming a Democrat after she was re-elected in 2006. She decided last fall to not seek a 10th term and her tenure officially ends Wednesday, when Democrat Kate Rotella of Mystic is sworn in as the General Assembly begins its 2019 session.

Urban proudly points out she ran unopposed as both a Republican and a Democrat.

“I never thought about getting re-elected. The minute you do that, it colors your decision making and then you’re dead,” she said. “Looking around today and seeing what’s going on, I think we need more people to do that.”

She added, “I understand you like saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a legislator. I have a cool license plate. People call me representative.’ But you can’t let that be why you’re there.”

During her tenure, Urban’s name was synonymous with several issues: trying to get the state to deal with its ever-growing deficits by enacting results-based budgeting, introducing numerous pieces of legislation to improve the lives of children while she co-chaired the legislature’s Children’s Committee and successfully introducing legislation on animal cruelty issues which research shows are often a predictor of domestic violence.

Her children’s report card uses data to analyze what programs that serve children actually work. Her legislation on concussion training and protocols for youth sports was enacted, as was her bill that stops state employees convicted of certain crimes from receiving state pensions.

A former high school boys basketball coach, equestrian instructor and economics professor, Urban said that it was her students at Three Rivers Community College who first convinced her to run when she kept complaining that state officials did not understand economics. That, and her interest in protecting the environment, children and animals, remained the reasons she ran for her ninth and last term in 2016.

But after getting married in 2016 and now having a grandson, she said the time was right to step away. She now plans to help advocates in other states enact Desmond’s Law, possibly her signature legislative achievement. The first-in-the-nation law, named after a New Haven pit bull mix that was beaten, starved, strangled and killed by an owner whose was upset his wife left him, allows judges to appoint volunteer legal advocates to assist busy prosecutors in compiling information in animal cruelty cases. She got the law passed by presenting data that show links among animal abuse, domestic violence and the abuse of children.

Several years ago she also got a bill passed that requires cross-reporting of animal abuse cases between the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Children and Families, because research Urban provided shows those who abuse animals often commit acts of domestic violence. The bill is aimed at preventing that progression.

Urban said she brought her knowledge of economics into every issue she tackled.

That included her efforts to implement results-based budgeting, which requires officials to show data that their programs are not only working but are cost-effective in order to get continued funding for them. In a state where Urban says year after year money is poured into programs that are not successful, or cost far more per person served than they should, she met with a great deal of resistance. Results-based budgeting was implemented in only a few areas, as none of the governors she served under made it a priority.

She said one problem is that many of her fellow legislators and state officials do not understand data. And some fear it.

“They’re also worried that data (and what is shows) will not be politically popular,” she said.

If results-based budgeting had been enacted a decade ago, Urban said the state would be in far better fiscal shape today and its residents would be served by far more effective programs.

Urban said she will miss the everyday people passionate about issues, such as animal cruelty, who took time to help her get legislation passed, as well as those legislators from both parties who took the time to read bills, research issues and then have meaningful conversations about policy.

During an interview with The Day on Thursday, Urban also recounted some of her favorite battles over the years, including this one.

She said that several years ago, after the National Football League endorsed her bill to help prevent concussions in youth sports, her aide told her a letter arrived saying the league had decided to rescind its support because the bill called for a limit on full-contact practices.

Urban said she called the league official who wrote the letter and told him he had 15 minutes to change his mind or she was going to have a news conference to say the NFL was trying to kill her bill. She said the league official let the original letter of support remain.

“You know how much I enjoyed that call?” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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