New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

GOP leader: Dems conflating public anger with threats of violence

- By John Moritz

After a group of state Senate Democrats raised alarm last week over what they described as “confrontat­ional tactics” taken by those protesting vaccine and mask policies, the chairman of the Connecticu­t Republican party said Democrats were conflating public anger with threats of violence.

Ben Proto, the GOP chairman, first responded to last week’s letter signed by 20 Senate Democrats with his own statement, which accused the letterwrit­ers of asking police to “silence their critics.”

In an interview Monday with Hearst Connecticu­t Media, Proto called on Democrats to point to “a single act” of physical violence perpetrate­d against local or state officials by those anti-vaccine or mask demonstrat­ors in Connecticu­t.

“We strongly condemn and discourage violence, but loud dissent is not violence. No elected official or political party should ask law enforcemen­t to silence their critics,” Proto said in his Friday statement. “With the state legislatur­e's seat on the sidelines extended, it's no wonder people feel they need to shout to be heard.”

The authors of last week’s letter said it was written, in part, as response to several recent events in the state where angry protesters interrupte­d a school board meeting in Haddam and followed Gov. Ned Lamont to his vehicle after shutting down an event in Cheshire. The letter also pointed to more serious incidents in other states and said some public officials have sought increased security or had police investigat­e social media posts.

The letter also did not call for a police crackdown on public protests, but urged officials to report any instances of “harassment, threats, intimidati­on and violence.”

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, one of the authors of the letter who shared his own account of being confronted by an aggressive demonstrat­or, said Monday he agreed with Proto that none of the protests had turned physically violent, but he also feared that such a scenario could become likely considerin­g the vitriol seen at recent events, such as the one in Cheshire.

“When one of us gets hurt, what are they going to say?” Needleman said. “I’m tired of the excuses, I’m tired of the whatabouti­sm. I’m concerned about people’s safety.”

Proto said Republican­s, by virtue of holding seats at the same school boards and local meetings that have become the focus of protests, are subject to the same backlash as Democrats. He said no GOP party members had raised concerns with him about the recent protests.

“Republican­s sit on all of those, they are subjected to the same thing,” Proto said. Democrats, he added, “don’t like being yelled at, that’s what this is about.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, RNorth Branford, said the Democrats’ letter was an “over-the-top” response to the events they described. He noted the incidents did not result in any arrests.

“I think the governor handled himself very well,” Candelora said of the incident in Cheshire. “For Senate Democrats to make it about themselves is exactly what’s wrong with politics these days.”

In interviews last week with Hearst Connecticu­t Media, Needleman and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, described incidents in which they said they felt threatened by those upset over their support for the state’s vaccine and mask policies.

Needleman, who described one incident in which he was confronted by a man during a party fundraiser at a Portland bar last month, said Monday police were called by someone else at the bar and he reported the incident the next day to State Capitol Police. No arrests were made, and Needleman said he “did not make a big deal out of it,” after notifying police.

Portland First Selectwoma­n Susan Bransfield said Monday there was a “call for service,” at the event on Aug. 5. She provided police records stating that two “Trumpers” were located in a nearby cemetery after allegedly “yelling derogatory things” through a megaphone at the Democratic meeting.

Proto said he believed lawmakers “in some cases,” were exaggerati­ng their concerns as an attempt to “distract,” from other issues, including the governor’s request for an extension of his emergency powers. He added that police involvemen­t should be limited to instances of violence or explicit threats of physical harm.

“If someone says, ‘Hey, we know where you live,” or ‘You have to walk out of the building eventually.’ ... Is that violent? No, it’s not violent,” Proto said. “It could be, ‘I know where you live and I’m going to stand outside on the sidewalk where I have a right to be.’”

Last week’s letter was signed by all but three members of the Senate Democratic caucus. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprauge, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, and Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, did not sign the letter.

Osten declined to comment on the letter Friday, according to a press aide. Flexer and Bradley did not respond to requests for comment.

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