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New CT Senate GOP leader seeks unity after upheaval

The new Senate Republican leader, Stephen Harding of Brookfield, glances at a Senate district map in the small cluttered office he eventually will vacate for the leader's suite.
The new Senate Republican leader, Stephen Harding of Brookfield, glances at a Senate district map in the small cluttered office he eventually will vacate for the leader's suite.

The new leader of Connecticut’s Senate Republican minority, a post Sen. Stephen Harding won Friday in an extraordinary mid-term challenge, moved forcefully to change senior staff over the long Presidents Day weekend, while taking care not to crowd his deposed predecessor, Sen. Kevin Kelly.

Temporarily, the center of power for the Republican caucus is the modest office Harding still occupies as ranking Republican on the Environment Committee in the Legislative Office Building, not the leadership suites in the LOB and Capitol still occupied by Kelly.

“I talked to Kevin today, and obviously I want to be respectful,” Harding said at the close of business Tuesday, when staff and lawmakers returned from a long weekend and tried to assess exactly how the GOP caucus will go forward. “We have a very positive amicable relationship that’s going to continue.”

While publicly solicitous of Kelly on the issue of his counsel and a timetable for occupying the leadership offices, Harding has made significant changes aimed at changing the internal dynamics of a fractious caucus that holds only 12 of the Senate’s 36 seats and faces a difficult election cycle in the fall.

John Healey, the political operative Kelly summarily fired last month — one of the sparks that ignited demands within the caucus for new leadership — was back as the Senate GOP’s chief of staff by midday Tuesday, wearing a lanyard holding his freshly reactivated ID and key card.

Gary DeFilippo, the genial former Shelton town committee chair and motor vehicles commissioner whom Kelly brought in a month ago as interim chief of staff, is out. Jack Shannon, a senior staffer under at least three Senate GOP leaders, resigned from his $192,000-a-year job and cleared out his office over the weekend.

Harding named Sen. Henri Martin of Bristol as his second-in-command, replacing an unwieldy roster of deputies that reflected Kelly’s tenuous hold on power after winning the leadership post by a single vote after the 2020 election. Other changes in assignments are under consideration.

“That will be forthcoming over the next couple of days,” Harding said.

The question at the state Capitol, where initial decisions are being made over what bills will take flight in the short session that ends on May 8, is whether the GOP caucus will unite behind a first-term senator whose ascension represents a generational shift, based on age and a personal distance from previous leaders.

“Will they empower him to be a leader?” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

Harding is 36, married and the father of two young children, a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. He is a lawyer from Brookfield, a community of 17,000 off I-84 on the outskirts of Danbury where former Gov. M. Jodi Rell got her start in GOP politics.

After four terms in the House, he was elected in 2022 to an open seat in the 30th Senate District. By area, it is the largest state legislative district in Connecticut, running along the state’s western border with New York to the Massachusetts line in the north.

Numerous sources with direct or indirect knowledge of the meetings that prompted Kelly to step down, clearing the way for Harding to become the consensus choice to succeed him, said Harding was a willing participant but not the organizer of the meetings that led to Kelly’s ouster.

Kelly stepped away without a formal removal vote, but not without a fight.

Kelly, 64, a lawyer from Stratford, never had consolidated power after winning the post, and he was viewed in the Capitol as less than fully engaged in the day-to-day operations of his caucus, frustrating his members and creating a vacuum filled to a degree by Shannon, who was described even by admirers as abrasive.

Neither Harding nor Kelly would discuss details of the talks preceding a final confrontation Friday, when it was apparent to Kelly that he had lost the support of his caucus. Kelly declined to say if there were any conditions under which he could have retained his post.

“I made my case, and it didn’t resonate,” Kelly said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m just gonna leave it at that.”

He spoke by telephone. Kelly has not been to the Capitol since last week but had planned to attend an Irish American Partnership networking function Wednesday evening at the Officers Club in the State Armory, next to the Legislative Office Building.

“Whether I’m leader or not, I’m still an Irishman,” Kelly said. He dryly added, “They can’t take that away.”

Kelly had hired Healey a year ago, bringing onto his staff a lawyer and campaign operative who had been a senior advisor to House Republican leaders for nearly seven years until departing to become New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart’s chief of staff in 2013.

Healey clashed with Shannon, who had a close relationship with Kelly but not so with several rank and file members. Sources say Healey made an effort to develop a relationship with caucus members beyond the leader who hired him.

Last month, Kelly fired Healey without consulting with his caucus members, some of whom were rattled by the prospect of going into a reelection cycle with an interim chief of staff. Healey’s dismissal came the same day he treated the staff to a pizza lunch, a morale builder ahead of the session.

Two hours later, he was gone.

Healey’s return and Kelly’s ouster made Shannon’s departure unavoidable. He had been close to Kelly’s two predecessors, Len Fasano and John McKinney. A legislative employee for most of his professional life, the 49-year-old Shannon said he had been thinking of leaving, albeit later this year.

“The decision probably became a little bit easier for me, having Sen. Kelly not being leader. So I resigned,” Shannon said Wednesday. “Sen. Harding and I have a really, really good relationship. I called him on the weekend and told him that I want him to be successful. I want the caucus to be successful. I’ve been there for 26 years.”

Fasano, who had helped Kelly win the caucus election to succeed him, said the unseating of a leader at mid-term, as has happened with congressional Republicans, was destabilizing.

“When these things happen, I get worried about the institution,” Fasano said.

“It appears clear that my old caucus is divided,” McKinney said. “To be divided at the start of session is not good for the caucus or good for Connecticut.”

It was unclear Wednesday what role Kelly, who is a declared candidate for reelection, would play for the rest of the session. Kelly currently sits on four committees and is the ranking Republican on three: Higher Education, Legislative Management and Executive and Legislative Nominations.

Like Kelly and Shannon, Harding declined to discuss in detail the events leading to the change in interviews Friday and Tuesday, but he saw the change as an opportunity for greater unity, not less.

Harding said that, for the benefit of his members, he already was working on establishing a closer working and strategic relationship with House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

“I think, ultimately, it makes our jobs on the campaign trails in the summer and the fall far easier when we have a straight, unified message between the Senate caucus and the House caucus, than if we were in individual silos,” Harding said.

Candelora said Harding’s focus clearly is to unite the caucus.

“Steve is eager to focus on policy and move on and I think try to bring the caucus together, including Kevin,” Candelora said.

On prominent display in Harding’s office are New York Yankees memorabilia, a black-and-white poster of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy that Harding calls a tribute to his Irish heritage, and a full-color map of the 36 districts in the state Senate.

Four of the 12 Senate Republicans won by less than 51% of the vote in 2022, and the prospect of Donald J. Trump topping the GOP ticket this fall is seen as a stiff headwind for Republicans in a state where they hold no statewide or federal offices.

“There’s no doubt that there are challenges,” Harding said. “And I think every single senator and every single rep would acknowledge that there’s challenges ahead of us.”

Harding’s voting record is in the mainstream of Republicans in the General Assembly, who work constructively with Democrats on many issues but break with them on others, most notably climate change, gun control and abortion. By all accounts, the effort to unseat Kelly was not ideological.

His supporters ranged from one of the most conservative caucus members, Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott, to social moderates like Sen. Heather Somers of Groton, one of the few Republicans to support a bill intended to safeguard and expand abortion services in 2019. Harding voted against the measure.

“For me, it’s not a political agenda,” said Sampson, a senator who has opposed his own caucus’s recent history of working on bipartisan budgets, a tendency he sees as blurring the lines between the minority and majority parties.

Harding voted as a House member for the bipartisan 2017 budget that expanded the state’s so-called fiscal guardrails, including a spending cap.

“I was proud to be in the House in 2017, when we passed the bipartisan budget,” Harding said. “And Gov. [Ned] Lamont, as a Democrat, very much points to the fiscal guardrails that were placed in that budget as the reason why we have the surpluses we have today and we have the record pension debt obligation paid down.”

As ranking Republican on Environment, first as a House member and now as a senator, he has acknowledged the need to address climate change but has been wary about granting greater authority for the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to address it.

Like the rest of his caucus, Harding was opposed last year to enacting regulations that would have committed to phasing out the sales of most gas-powered vehicles in Connecticut by 2035.

Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, the co-chair of the Environment Committee, said Harding works constructively across the aisle, even on issues where there is disagreement.

“He is reasonable. He is willing to listen. I consider him a friend. I understood and understand the constraints on his time, even more so now,” Gresko said.

The General Assembly is a part-time job, and Harding will have some of the same challenges as did Kelly, namely practicing law while leading a caucus. Harding is comfortable with the press, but he acknowledged that becoming its spokesman will be an adjustment.

On Tuesday night, he ended an interview to drive to a television station to tape an interview for a Sunday show. For Harding, it was a first.

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