Isolation from COVID-19 and polarization at the federal level spurred Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter to action.
It was time, he decided, to take everybody out to the ballgame.
To get members talking in the real world, Ritter (D) spearheaded an outing to a July 29 baseball game with the capital city’s resident minor league team, the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats. About 60 of the 151 House members attended.
The 2021 session had about 30 freshmen, and the hybrid/in-person format hindered their ability to get to know their colleagues, Ritter says. “You just didn’t have the same level of interaction you would normally get in the committee process and the public hearing process, because all of our stuff was done via Zoom for committee meetings and public hearings,” he says. “When you know people personally, it is so much easier to debate them on issues, because you know who they are, you know their family, you know what they do. When you don’t know somebody, words or debates that can be difficult are 10 times more difficult, because you don’t know where they’re coming from.”
When you know people personally, it is so much easier to debate them on issues, because you know who they are, you know their family, you know what they do. —Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter
That’s how the idea of going out for some peanuts and Cracker Jack arose. The game was a rainout, but the weather didn’t stop attendees from talking. “It turned into a social hour,” Ritter says. “We all stood under the stands where we were covered up, and still stayed until 8:30, 9 o’clock, and had a chance to catch up.”
Minority Leader Vincent Candelora (R), who attended, says it represented an opportunity to break the ice after an anomalous session. “There was very little conversation about politics, and a lot more conversation about people’s personal lives,” he says. “That’s where you get to know people.”
He adds: “Republicans and Democrats might have their philosophical differences, but it doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable. It’s important to be able to express your points of view without being attacked. We think that having events like that breaks down those barriers.”
Ritter and Candelora share the same perspective on these issues. “We both appreciate that tone is important, the way we treat each other is important,” Candelora says. “He [Ritter] felt it was a good idea to start with those personal relationships outside of politics. You start seeing each other as human beings as opposed to caricatures.”
They aren’t alone in their opinions in the Connecticut General Assembly. Representative Stephanie Thomas (D), a freshman elected to represent the state’s 143rd District in 2020, started planning a picnic before the baseball concept emerged.
While Thomas says avoiding the commute to Hartford was nice, there was a big downside to legislating remotely. “I’m a fairly shy person. I thought, ‘How am I going to meet Republicans?’” she says. “We don’t have caucuses together, there’s no offline conversation, and everything felt more siloed and partisan than I had predicted.”
Near the end of the 2021 session, a casual chat with a fellow freshman representative, Tammy Nuccio (R), led Thomas to organize a picnic for her fellow freshman lawmakers. At the time, voting was being done in person in Hartford, but the number of people on the House floor was kept to a minimum.
“Everybody was in their offices,” Nuccio says. “Nobody was talking to each other. There was no face-to-face interaction. If you were on the floor, you couldn’t see the people on Zoom, and the people on Zoom most of the time didn’t have their cameras on.”
She adds, “It was like legislating in a vacuum. You didn’t have the opportunity to sit down and talk about bills and debate things and see other people’s points of view—or get them to see yours.”
During a casual chat, Representative Stephanie Thomas, fourth from left above, and a fellow freshman representative, Tammy Nuccio, second from left, decided to organize a picnic for their colleagues.
Nuccio was sidetracked recovering from surgery, and Thomas handled most of the planning for the Aug. 8 picnic at the YMCA in Meriden, Conn. Both representatives say they are pleased with the outcome.
“It was good, because people were trying to sit with people they didn’t already know,” Nuccio says. “It’s imperative you get to know the people around you and understand what’s important to them, and they understand what’s important to you.”
Nuccio says she hopes the enhanced interaction outside of chamber will enhance the legislation that’s made inside of it. “I think a lot of people tuned out with the Zoom,” she says. “It was on in your office, you’re multitasking, you’re doing everything else. Who’s really listening to all of it? It just wasn’t healthy. Once you make those connections and start talking to people, then you can truly get into bipartisan work.”
More to Come
To that end, more bipartisan events are on the docket, including a happy hour at the Waterbury restaurant Verdi, owned by Representative Anthony D’Amelio (R), and a yet-to-be-scheduled event around the winter holidays.
Candelora says bipartisanship starts with listening. “I think that Speaker Ritter has made an attempt to do that: He will always listen to the other side, even if he doesn’t agree, and I think that’s important in the political process. It’s not all about politics all the time. It is about policy and the input that people have making that policy.”
Ritter seconds that opinion. “In my time as speaker, I refuse to let us become Washington, D.C.,” he says. “I will do everything in my power to check my party and the other party in my role as leader of the entire chamber. Sometimes, I may frustrate my own members, but we’re going to be civil to one another, we’re going to be respectful, we’re going to start at a good hour, we’re going to get out on time. We’re not going to devolve into chaos and finger-pointing.”
Thomas says that was the whole point of the picnic. “We all know this,” she says. “If you talk to anyone long enough, you’ll find out you have something in common. You grew up in the place, or, ‘Oh my gosh, you collect starfish, too,’ or something ridiculous.”
And that starfish collection might just be the catalyst for better legislation. “I think anything that makes it easier to talk or just approach someone to see where they are builds trust,” Thomas says. “We have to trust each other even to debate.”
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.