40 Years on the Connecticut Capitol Beat
In January, I began covering my 40th legislative session as a reporter for the Connecticut Radio Network and almost as long writing about politics for Connecticut Magazine. Total recall is impossible. Legislative sessions tend to blur, but, looking back, there have been interesting moments along the way, some serious, some humorous.
Perhaps the most dramatic event was the death of Democratic Gov. Ella Grasso from cancer in February 1981, weeks after she’d resigned her office. Just prior to her final health crisis, Grasso, who’d always worked hard, had not been seen in the Capitol for weeks. Reporters heard she was in for a photo op with some children. We attended hoping for questions after the event ended.
We wanted to learn whether she felt she could still handle the day-to-day duties of being governor despite her illness. When I asked the question, I braced for a sharp response—reporters knew to expect tough retorts from Grasso. This time her look melted, and her voice quavered as she tried to say that she was still in control. We left knowing the end was coming. That was the last time I saw Ella Grasso alive.
The political demise of Republican Gov. John Rowland in 2004 over corruption charges was a different kind of drama. The self-confident Rowland rarely shied away from the media, but in the weeks leading up to his departure, Rowland was dodging journalists left and right.
Capitol insiders placed bets on whether Rowland would challenge lawmakers to impeach him, then remove him from office, or if he’d decide to exit on his own terms. A few months before he left, he was asked if he’d consider resignation. He replied: “Why would I resign when I haven’t done anything wrong?” Rowland, of course, did resign, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and served time in a federal prison.
On the lighter side, I still chuckle recalling the late Democratic Gov. William O’Neill attending a press Christmas party at a journalist’s Hartford home.
Always reticent around reporters, O’Neill apparently wanted to show he could be a “fun guy,” so he wore a colorful Christmas necktie with an embedded music chip. Upon arriving, O’Neill squeezed the tie and out came a holiday song. Reporters laughed and applauded. The satisfied governor squeezed the tie to stop the music, but it played on. O’Neill removed and pocketed the tie, but still there was music.
Days later, O’Neill told reporters his state police guard had put the tie in the cruiser, but the incessant Christmas carol still radiated from the glove compartment. Returning home, O’Neill gave the tie to his wife Nikki who said, “I’ll handle this.” According to O’Neill, she pulled a hammer out of a drawer and whacked the tie. Finally, it was silent night.
Perhaps the most important story about the General Assembly over the decades is its increasing importance in light of the gridlocked U.S. Congress. Advocacy groups interested in thorny national issues such as gun control, gay rights and the environment now bring their concerns to the Connecticut General Assembly (and other legislatures), finding a more receptive audience. Sometimes this pattern shames Congress into action, or affected industries reform their own practices rather than cope with a patchwork of varying state regulations.
That doesn’t mean the Connecticut legislature is perfect. It suffers from partisan bickering, mind-numbing debates and chronic procrastination. When the Capitol loudspeaker blares, “The Senate will convene in 15 minutes,” regulars know you could eat a foot-long sub, answer your emails, or, if you live close to the Capitol, go home and walk the dog, all before the Senate actually begins business. A lawmaker who stands in the House and says, “Mr. Speaker, since my colleagues have covered the important points already, I will be brief,” usually is uttering a bald-faced lie.
Before the Legislative Office Building was built in the late 1980s, lawmakers had no offices. The rank and file were jammed into rooms in the Capitol and given a phone, chair and the equivalent of an old high school language-lab cubicle for official duties. Now each lawmaker has an office for constituent meetings and other tasks. These creature comforts, plus a salary of $28,000 to $38,000 (depending on leadership status) and about $5,000 in expense money, make it easier to endure special sessions, summer task forces, etc.
Back in the day, lawmakers listed their occupations as “farmer,” “attorney” or “teacher.” Now many simply say their job is “legislator,” even though the Connecticut General Assembly is still considered a part-time operation.
Covering the action, however, has been—and is still—a full-time job.