Leadership and the CT Legislature 2020
This week we not only saw the most chaotic, historic and energized Election Day in history, but behind closed doors and through the wonders of ZOOM, the four caucuses of the legislature held their biannual election of caucus leaders. It made me think of John Maxwell—a well-known author and guru of modern theory in leadership development—and a quote of his that kind of lays out the journey ahead for the newly elected legislature and, more specifically, for their newly selected leaders.
"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” -John Maxwell
To say we can’t predict the weather or even the wind in 2021 is an understatement. With the COVID-19 virus rearing its ugly path, Connecticut’s economy under siege, historical amounts of Connecticut residents unemployed or underemployed, small business fighting for their economic lives, the majority of Connecticut’s workforce still working from home and the commercial real estate industry under water, the challenges that lie ahead for this group of 187 legislators and their leaders is unprecedented. We’ve been through a real estate calamity in 1988, we’ve been through bad times in our economy in 2008, we’ve been through a transition of Connecticut’s old workforce into the new workforce and we’ve been through natural and health “disasters.” But all at once? Not in my lifetime.
How the leaders take on the challenge and adjust the sails of government will be their legacy. In the Senate we saw a newly selected Republican leadership team of Senators Kevin Kelly and Paul Formica. On the Democratic side, we see the return of the one-two punch of Senators Martin Looney and Bob Duff. The numbers have changed a bit (now at 24 Democratic senators and 12 Republican senators, with a couple recounts under way) but the process for adoption of legislation still remains as such—“If you have the votes, VOTE, and when you don’t, TALK.” The manner in which the new leaders manage the Senate will at times challenge their leadership. Doing the process right is different than doing the right thing.
So the Democrats, who have a supermajority, can ignore the other side of the circle, tee up a controversial issue, sit out the 10-hour debate and vote to approve the bill, knowing the Governor will sign it and then toss it down to the House for a real free-for-all. Or they could convene at least the key players in the Senate Republicans and Democrats with a clear understanding that they can force passage or look for collaboration, consensus and a better outcome to meet the needs of all residents. The ball is in their court. Let’s see how they play their hand.
In the House, without a supermajority, but with 99 votes, you’d think the newly minted Democratic leaders Reps. Matt Ritter and Jason Rojas would have the same choice, but nothing is simple in the House! In the freshman class you’ll see additional members of the fast-growing progressive side of the Democratic team, and with many moderate Democrats not seeking re-election, Speaker Ritter will have his work cut out for him. So before he and Rep. Rojas can count their votes, they will need to caucus their 99 members to test the water on where the simple majority of 76 is, on not just the controversial issues but even on the simplest issues, since we all know the floor of the House is the biggest “let’s make a deal” game in town! Newly selected Republican leaders—Reps. Vin Candelora and his deputy Tom O’Dea—might just have more bargaining power than you’d think, given the 99-53 spread of Ds to Rs.
There’s also the matter of style of leadership that will change in the House. Current Republican Leader Themis Klarides and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz enjoyed a long and close personal relationship over the years, and they could be counted on to do the right thing, not just “do the thing right.” Everyone believes that as the four new House leaders get a better feel for their new roles, they will have to find ways to forge a relationship in order to bring some sense of calm and direction to the House, especially given the HUGE issues facing them in 2021 and 2022. Incoming Speaker Ritter has already talked about his leadership style, and described how he would like to lead the House. (Little known fact—all 151 legislators actually elect the Speaker on Opening Day, not just the Democrats!)
Rep. Ritter said he’s a problem-solver. When an issue of importance bubbles up to the House, or is perceived to be a statewide initiative, he will work to get the parties together early and often. Discussions should start well before the actual bill even gets raised, and the bill heard at a virtual hearing should reflect some of the elements that can be agreed upon. He wants folks to talk before it gets too toxic to find common ground. He wants committees to work together on those topics they know will be referred to them, and to know there’s a real need not to focus so much on winning and losing, but problem-solving so everyone can manage the outcome. He’s realistic to think that there’s still going to be the hand-to-hand combat we all experience on really contentious issues, but he believes that talking up front, early, often and frankly can help the House find a better resolution.
So as the winds of change start to blow, we’re all looking to see whether these new leaders adjust their sails, rise to the challenge and meet the test of leadership. Or do they fall prey to managing the process and getting out of Hartford on June 9th?