State Sen. Kevin Kelly (opinion): As CT reopens, democracy does not

March 26, 2021

Op-ed as it appeared in the Connecticut Post

Charles Chiusano watched and waited for his turn to speak via Zoom to the General Assembly’s Planning & Development Committee. He was one of many signed up to testify at a virtual public hearing on a series of bills related to local zoning control. The hearing went on into the night and eventually into the next morning. He listened and waited patiently.

But Charles’ turn never came.

Mr. Chiusano’s voice was suppressed, along with nearly 70 percent of those who signed up to testify who were turned away from speaking at the hearing.

Why? Because Democrats who control the committee decided they had heard enough. Republicans sought to recess the hearing and restart it at a later date or time so that voices both in support and opposed to the bills in question would not be lost. Democrats denied their request.

In a normal year, Charles could have made his voice heard in other ways. He could have come to the Capitol to stand with fellow members of the public on the day of the hearing to show the sheer number of opponents — or supporters — there were for any such bill. He could have grabbed his local legislator in the halls of the Legislative Office Building to explain his perspective. He could have stopped by his senator’s office to talk to their staff about his thoughts on a proposal.

But this year is different. The Capitol is closed to the public. That virtual public hearing was his only chance to join hundreds of other voices in a unified and visually powerful way. But he was deprived of that right.

This is not the first time Connecticut residents were denied access to democracy this year. Nearly 2,000 people signed up to testify at a Public Health Committee hearing last month. Over 80 percent of those individuals were turned away from testifying when Democrats decided they had heard enough.

It’s a pattern that should outrage anyone concerned about preserving our democracy and giving all people an equal voice in government. Democrats have proposed bills on issues that are notoriously divisive and provoke strong feelings on all sides such as removing the religious exemption for mandatory school vaccinations, physician assisted suicide, legalization of marijuana and eliminating a town’s right to have zoning rules. At the same time, they have turned people away from participating in the process.

Democrats have argued that making all public hearings virtual has increased access. But there are many voices being left behind: those who do not have access to technology, those who do not have the capacity or skills to use the technology, and those who Democrats have intentionally shut out of the process.

Democrats have gone out of their way to find historically controversial issues and then use virtual technology to limit conversation, exclude people and suppress their voices.

And now, as our state reopens all around us, those same Democrats continue to argue that the Legislature should not follow the same rules that have been deemed “safe” for restaurants, gyms and all other public places. They not only want to keep the people’s building completely closed to the public, but they also haven’t done their homework to reestablish our Legislature as a co-equal branch of government. They’re asking the teacher for an extension by expanding the governor’s powers further, instead of being the peoples’ voice at the Capitol.

Since January, Republicans have been calling for lawmakers to develop a path to reopen democracy. We asked to work together to determine which executive orders need to be modified or codified into law, and which ones need to be phased out and when. This entire legislative session should have been focused on restoring the checks and balances of government and giving the people back their voice.

Instead, Democrats focused the last three months on using the closed-door legislative session to advance controversial bills and partisan agendas, even going so far as to suppress people’s voices at public hearings. And they don’t want that to change.

If it is safe enough for our state to reopen the private sector, why is it not safe to reopen government to the people? Why do Democrats want to continue governing in the dark?

State Sen. Kevin C. Kelly serves as Senate Republican leader. He represents the 21st District, which includes Monroe, Seymour, Shelton and Stratford.