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Business as usual at Capitol takes tragic turn

March 17, 2019

Here’s your General Assembly with less than a month to go before legislative committee deadlines start crashing on the way to their June 5 adjournment.

The House and Senate are droning on about some semi-inconsequential nominations, opposed only by a handful of ultra-cons from places in Connecticut you’ve never heard. One of them is Rob Sampson of Wolcott, a former longtime House member who’s now in the smaller, more-opaque sandbox of the Senate.

Sampson is the lone vote against retired Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr. of New Haven, whose age necessitates that he must become a judicial referee. Harper, you might not remember but Sampson surely does, sided with the majority in the state’s landmark 2008 Elizabeth Kerrigan et al. v. Commissioner of Public Health.

That was the historic ruling, written by Justice Richard Palmer, declaring that the state’s civil union law was unconstitutional and that same-sex couples have the right to marry, too. The decision forced the General Assembly to codify gay marriage.

The Capitol’s bustling, with a bunch of committee meetings scheduled throughout the afternoon, after the House and Senate let out.

David Lehman, the Greenwich millionaire who Gov. Lamont wants to lead the state’s economic development, is working the halls against pushback, both perceived and real.

I’m trying to decide if he reminds me of Mary Tyrone, the tragic elderly matriarch lost in the third-act fog of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” remarking on how pretty her hands once were. Or maybe Lehman’s wearing the quizzical look of a Yale undergrad who just found out that his mom, Goldie Saxe, had written a big honking check for him to get accepted.

But what I’m really interested in is what turns out to be a more than four-hour meeting of the legislative Government Administration & Elections Committee, which is holding a public hearing on a raft of good-government bills, including an attempt by the State Elections Enforcement Commission to account for the so-called dark money that the 2010 Citizens United ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed to pollute Connecticut Politics.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill testifies for more than 90 minutes. First-term Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, wonders whether state statutes could be changed to allow people to obtain absentee ballots if they expect to be out of town at any time on Election Day. Currently, ABs are available only for voters who will be away all day.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Merrill says. A member of Merrill’s staff joins her and warns Blumenthal that a previous attorney general, who happens to be the young lawmaker’s father, had ruled against a particular proposal.

“I question his....” and the rest of Blumenthal’s remarks are lost in the welcomed laughter that only a crowded legislative hearing room can enjoy during esoteric arguments on ballot access. “Thank you madam chairman,” Blumenthal says, sheepishly, to Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly.

Sampson is the ranking member of the committee, where Republicans have a lot less clout than they did in the two previous years, when the tie in the Senate allowed the GOP to have a co-chairman who could help kill bills. Now, Merrill’s push for early voting and so-called no-excuse absentee ballots has a better chance.

“I’ve always seen no-excuse absentee ballots as essentially early voting,” Sampson says, asking Merrill what it costs to run an election. She said that since different towns have varying staffing levels and pay scales, it’s hard to tell. “There’s no real consistency.”

The reality, says Rep. Steve Harding, R-Brookfield, is that many communities struggle with public policy apathy. “Towns are finding it harder to get staff.” Merrill agreed. “Towns are having trouble finding registrars for $6,000 a year.”

It’s now early afternoon Friday in the State Capitol Press Room. Twenty-four hours ago, the door opened across the room from my desk by the east window and a familiar face appeared.

Rep. Ezequiel Santiago was looking for a fifth-floor office for a meeting, and had walked up the wrong staircase. A couple reporters with desks closer to the door pointed him in the right direction, and he turned to go.

“Wait,” I beckoned from behind my screen of plants. “You never come up here.”

I stood and walked the 15 yards to him, and asked Santiago if he had even been in this little-known corner of the historic, 1878 building. He admitted he hadn’t. I gave him a brief tour of the 60-foot-by-60-foot room, festooned with political campaign signs (“Rowland Governor”) from long-ago races, the map of Connecticut, the bookcases full of state statutes and walls covered with old newspaper headlines.

“Look, you have to see the centerpiece here,” I said, leading him to the Press Room’s pride and joy: a large framed photo of the famous 1970 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. It was an occasion when the president had bestowed upon Presley a vague anti-drug award.

Subsequent biographies of The King revealed that he was likely blasted out of his gourd that day on pills.

“Look at him,” Santiago said, noticing Presley’s bloodshot eyes, the cape, the hand-tooled belt buckle, the huge ’70s era shirt collar. He laughed, then left for his meeting. “Come up more often,” I implored. He promised he would.

Within hours, Ezequiel was dead, the victim of an apparent heart attack at 45.

Ken Dixon, political editor and columnist, can be reached at 203-842-2547 or at kdixon@ctpost.com. Visit him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT and on Facebook at kendixonct.hearst.