Duo led way on Dems’ key is­sues

Porter, Kush­ner teamed up to push through min­i­mum wage hike, fam­ily leave

Connecticut Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kait­lyn Kras­selt

As state Rep. Robyn Porter, D­New Haven, en­tered the 14th hour of lead­ing de­bate on the $15 min­i­mum wage in early May, her co­chair on the la­bor com­mit­tee, state Sen. Julie Kush­ner, D­Dan­bury, en­tered the House cham­ber to bring Porter a small bou­quet of yel­low flow­ers.

They com­ple­mented Porter’s soft yel­low power suit as she moved through the fi­nal mo­ments of the marathon de­bate, bat­ting down the last of the hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tions from her col­leagues.

It was a sym­bol of the work they’d done to­gether, the dif­fer­ences they’d over­come, the amount they’d learned from each other and also the ca­ma­raderie that brought them to this point. It wasn’t easy, even in a year when pro­gres­sive poli­cies were ex­pected to sail through the leg­is­la­ture.

“I'm a mom, and Julie is a mom, and it kind of felt like the birth of a prom­ise, the birth of our baby, you know, like the joy of be­ing able to de­liver for the peo­ple that have en­trusted you to do the work,” Porter said, re­flect­ing on the mo­ment dur­ing a July in­ter­view. “And it's taken years. So the fact that this was the year and we were ac­tu­ally able to get it done, th­ese land­mark pieces of leg­is­la­tion, was just very hum­bling. Be­sides be­ing a par­ent, you know, this is the most hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence I've had thus far.”

The 2019 leg­isla­tive ses­sion was de­scribed by many Capi­tol veter­ans as odd — it was a year of tran­si­tion in both the leg­is­la­ture and the ad­min­is­tra­tive branch with a laun­dry list of ma­jor leg­is­la­tion that in­cluded every­thing from tolls to casino ex­pan­sion to la­bor laws like the $15 min­i­mum wage and Paid Fam­ily Med­i­cal Leave.

Many as­sumed that with Democrats hold­ing the tri­fecta — ex­tend­ing their mar­gins in the House and Se­nate and main­tain­ing con­trol of the gover­nor’s of­fice — little would stop the pas­sage of ev­ery pro­posed pro­gres­sive pol­icy. In re­al­ity, many of the year’s big­gest pro­pos­als are still be­ing ne­go­ti­ated, with no light yet at the end of the tun­nel.

And so, on the heels of the Year of the Woman, it was the un­likely duo of Kush­ner and Porter who buck­led down, leaned into their dif­fer­ences and led the pas­sage of the two la­bor bills that were ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant pieces of leg­is­la­tion to pass this year.

It was a de­fi­ant win for the pair, who, for all they have in com­mon, couldn’t be more different. And not only in the ways that are black and white.

Kush­ner, 67, grew up in a ru­ral farm­ing com­mu­nity of 1,500 peo­ple in the Mid­west where her fa­ther owned the lo­cal gro­cery store.

Porter, 53, was born in Har­lem and raised by her grand­mother in Brook­lyn and Queens where they shared a crowded three­bed­room apart­ment with her three sis­ters, her mom and her mother’s two youngest broth­ers.

Kush­ner, a mom of three, was a sin­gle par­ent for a short time, but later re­mar­ried.

Porter, also a di­vorced sin­gle mother of two, never did.

Kush­ner worked as a union or­ga­nizer for nearly four decades. She made it her life goal early on to ad­dress the needs of marginal­ized and mi­nor­ity women through her work in the la­bor move­ment.

“I recognized that while we have a different ex­pe­ri­ence, we all de­serve the same care and treat­ment and the same op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Kush­ner said. “And so, you know, that's what I ded­i­cated my life to.”

Porter was one of those women — she had her first child, a son, at 21, and her sec­ond, a daugh­ter, at 28. Her daugh­ter was born pre­ma­ture and spent the first two months of her life in a hospi­tal, while Porter post­poned her ma­ter­nity leave to work mul­ti­ple min­i­mum wage jobs in or­der to pay the bills. Once her daugh­ter came home, she re­quired round­the­clock care. First her ma­ter­nity leave ran out. Then her va­ca­tion time. Then her sick leave. Fi­nally, she was forced leave her job and sign up for pub­lic as­sis­tance to make ends meet and still care for her daugh­ter.

“So my lived ex­tent ex­pe­ri­ence was the strug­gle of a min­i­mum wage worker,” Porter said. “The strug­gle of of a mom who didn't have paid fam­ily med­i­cal leave at a time when it would have not only ben­e­fited me but the sys­tem be­cause that money that we use on th­ese safety nets, you know, can be used, di­verted to ed­u­ca­tion and the more im­por­tant things. So yeah, I've been there, you know, I know what it is to go to bed hun­gry be­cause there's only enough food to feed the kids. I know what it is to have to de­cide which bill I'm go­ing to pay this month or need gas but not have gas money, and you have to ask your­self, ‘Am I go­ing to take the chance to run into the store on E, you know, am I go­ing to make it back home?’”

And so, while their goals were the same, their dis­parate back­grounds were as much an ad­van­tage as they were a source of con­flict. While they could con­nect to a broader swath of Con­necti­cut — Kush­ner to the sub­urbs and busi­nesses she’d worked with as a la­bor or­ga­nizer, and Porter through her roots in the cities — and though they’d known each other for years, they had to learn as much about each other as they did the leg­is­la­tion they were work­ing to pass.

“I told her ‘You’ve got to be the chair,’ and what re­ally ex­cited me about it was her rep­u­ta­tion, her work in the move­ment, her decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in the move­ment and what she's been able to ac­com­plish, and just re­ally the idea of hav­ing two women chair­ing the la­bor com­mit­tee,” Porter said. “But it’s also been a chal­lenge. I have to be hon­est about that be­cause we don't have shared ex­pe­ri­ence, you know, her lived ex­pe­ri­ences are very different from mine. And she would say, ‘well, I've been help­ing th­ese peo­ple all my life,’ and I'm like, ‘It's a dif­fer­ence be­tween help­ing them and be­ing there.’”

But Porter said the two women came out of the grind of writ­ing leg­is­la­tion, be­fore the de­bate in the cham­bers ever started, with a new appreciati­on, un­der­stand­ing and re­spect for both points of view.

“It's chal­leng­ing, but every­thing is pos­si­ble when you are self­aware, when you re­ally look to build bridges with peo­ple instead of fo­cus­ing on dif­fer­ences,” Kush­ner said. “I don't think if we hadn't had so much in com­mon in terms of our vi­sion for what makes Con­necti­cut bet­ter for work­ing fam­i­lies, it would have worked. But both of us have such a strong and long­stand­ing com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing con­di­tions for work­ing fam­i­lies. That's what re­ally made it gel. That's what made us work so well to­gether. And I think ul­ti­mately that's what helped us to get th­ese bills across the fin­ish line .”



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