Police bill plays big role in Connecticut legislative races
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — While Democratic candidates for the General Assembly contend they have a strong record to run on, despite COVID-19 greatly limiting legislative successes in 2020, Republicans have latched onto the police accountability legislation that passed in a special session, believing voters will agree it goes too far.
The bill cleared the Democratic-controlled legislature in late July along mostly party lines. GOP incumbents and challengers throughout the state argue it’s an overreach that makes it more difficult for officers to do their jobs.
“Police officers, unions from across the state from the beginning made their point very clearly that passage of that bill would be harmful for the police community and to police officers individually,” said Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton. “Quite frankly, the Democrats who supported the bill either didn’t hear it or didn’t care. And people took note of that.”
But Democrats contend the new law, which attempts to change police procedures and policies in light of the killing of George Floyd and other Black people, has been mischaracterized to create alarm, and argue they’re the party with the pro-union record, not the Republicans.
“There’s really nothing in the bill that a hardworking, honorable police officer should fear,” said Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. Among other things, the wide-ranging bill removes governmental immunity protections for officers in certain serious situations, creates a new inspector general to investigate police use-of-force cases, and requires periodic mental health screenings for officers.
Looney noted that Democrats helped negotiate long-awaited, bipartisan legislation in 2019 with unions and local municipal leaders to provide one year of workers’ compensation coverage to police and firefighters suffering with post traumatic stress-related psychological injuries, without having had a physical injury. The legislation is being touted by Democratic lawmakers as they seek reelection this year.
“At that time, the police were extraordinarily grateful to us and they were saying it was something that they would always remember and that it was something that they had been looking for for years,” said Looney.
Democrats currently control both chambers of the Connecticut General Assembly; 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House of Representatives. While the Senate’s membership was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans after the 2016 election, the Democrats rebounded in 2018.
It’s unclear whether the GOP will have enough momentum this year to capture control of the chamber, especially in a presidential year with a Republican president at the top of the ticket who is relatively unpopular here.
Besides the PTSD bill, Democrats are also campaigning on other major bills from the 2019 session, including legislation providing most workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member, a new child or their own serious health condition by 2022; and a new minimum wage law that incrementally increases the rate to $15 an hour by 2023 and then ties future increases to the employment cost index, which is calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some Democratic candidates are also holding themselves out as protectors against Trump administration policies. With the appointment of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, they’re pointing to state legislation that incorporates much of the federal Affordable Care Act, including protections for people with preexisting conditions, as well as legislation passed years ago which codified provisions of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in state law.
“State legislatures are the first line of defense to protect citizens’ rights and Democracy,” State Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, promises on her website.
Her opponent Ryan Fazio, like other Republicans, has focused on the pitfalls of Democrats retaining large majorities in the General Assembly. On Facebook, he’s raised concerns about the possible regionalization of schools, limits on local zoning and implementation of highway tolls — all issues raised by other GOP candidates during this year’s election season, as well.
But no issue appears to have been embraced more by Republicans, both incumbents and challengers, than the police reform debate. And they have welcomed the political endorsements from local police, some candidates promising they’ll work to revisit the issue when the General Assembly reconvenes in 2021.
Some police union leaders, however, contend they didn’t intend to just endorse Republicans.
“It’s not about political affiliation. We’ve never been involved. And we try to stay out of it because, politically, it’s a difficult task to balance,” said Sgt. John Milligan, president of the New Canaan police union. A Democrat himself, he noted that his party tends to be more supportive of collective bargaining rights than the GOP.
But Milligan said the police reform legislation went too far “to the left” in trying to address problems that he said are happening in other states, not Connecticut.
“There’s so many good men and women in this state that are doing a great job and we’re being punished,” he said.
Sgt. Anna Tornello, president of the police union in Wilton, agreed.
“We’re not endorsing candidates just for their political affiliation,” she said of the slate of Republicans her union is backing for the first time in recent memory for the state legislature. “I’m endorsing candidates who have approached me and have asked to understand.”