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Up for debate

January 27, 2019

GREENWICH — After being sworn in earlier this month, Alexandra Bergstein has embarked on a series of public events throughout the 36th State Senate district, which covers all of Greenwich and portions of Stamford and New Canaan. But as she has done so, the new senator has found herself on the receiving end of public opposition in the form of sign-carrying protestors. It’s something few state legislators ever face, fewer still so early into their first term in office.

Attendees at each of the three “public discussions” Bergstein held this week on improving the local business climate were met by a group demonstrating against her recently introduced bill to bring electronic tolls to state highways.

Bergstein has let her feelings be known about the opposition — and taken steps to control how it has been expressed at the public meetings. That has angered critics, who claim she’s trying to quash their voices. But Bergstein rejects the idea that debate is not welcome at her events.

“I want everyone to feel heard,” Bergstein said on Friday. “But I do expect mutual respect. That means no shouting, be courteous and civil and share your point without any intentional misinterpretation of facts.”

Bergstein, a Democrat, has issued a set of written guidelines for her public appearances calling for “civil discourse only.” The guidelines call for no personal attacks or false statements, “real facts only” for which people have to cite sources, a “calm, controlled and constructive tone” from speakers — and no signs allowed.

People who do bring signs are asked to leave them at the door and collect them at the end.

Lindy Urso, a Greenwich resident, attended Thursday’s event at Greenwich Library to protest the tolls bill. He said he tried to enter the event but was told he could not if he did not leave his sign at the door, even though he and others pledged they would not be vocal in any way.

“We tried to enter the venue quietly with our ‘no tolls’ signs and we were excluded,” Urso said. “Ms. Bernstein is your typical limousine liberal who ‘knows what’s best’ and will not tolerate dissent.”

Ed Dadakis, a town resident and member of the state Republican Party, said he was disappointed in Thursday’s event. He said Bergstein had said she wanted to have a conversation but instead her insistence on only accepting written questions made it seem like she wanted to avoid debate.

“You can’t have much of a conversation like that,” Dadakis said. “I’ve been to a lot of these kinds of events and the entire environment was very controlled. I think it was done that way to keep her from interacting with constituents.”

Bergstein’s bill backing tolls, one of several she’s drafted and submitted since being sworn in, could well prove to be popular. She was open about her support for tolls during the campaign, making it a centerpiece of her platform. Most of the packed audience at Thursday’s event gave her toll proposal and other views loud applause when she discussed them.

On Friday, she noted that the Go Fund Me page supporting the organization NoTollsCt.org recently received a donation from former state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, whom she defeated in the November election. Bergstein said the Greenwich Republican Town Committee had posted a tweet encouraging people to turn up for the Greenwich Library event to “send a message” to her and new Gov. Ned Lamont that they do not want tolls. She said she has been “harassed by phone and email for days”

“That doesn’t seem constructive,” Bergstein said. “I invited everybody to come inside and join the conversation in a civil, respectful manner. That’s the standard in this community. We don’t need personal attacks, intimidation or deliberate misrepresentation of facts. That is counterproductive.”

Bergstein added that she makes it a point to engage protestors at events she has done throughout the district.

“At every event I go up to them and learn their names and ask them about their stories,” Bergstein said. “I listen to them. I’ve been shouted at and there are people who have clearly not read my bill. I have invited them into the room and I have called upon them.”

Not everyone has seen it that way. Some attendees of her event in Stamford this week, held the night before the Greenwich event, characterized Bergstein as talking over and dismissing those who spoke in opposition to tolls. Speakers at the Stamford event did not submit comments in writing.

But the guidelines she issued did find a supporter from across the political aisle. Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, a Republican, spoke about the issue at Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting.

“Those guidelines include things like no signs, which I happen to agree with her on, because I don’t think (signs) really add anything to it,” Tesei said. “And come with your opinions, but based on facts and cite your sources. Obviously no yelling and so forth. That is something I’m endorsing what she’s doing because I think that’s a positive reinforcement of the type of dialogue we’d like to see.”

Bergstein said she is not approaching the issue across partisan lines. Tolls are in the best interests of the state, she said, adding she welcomes continued debate of the issue and discussion about her bill.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a problem solver,” Bergstein said.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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