GOP lawmakers: Group too political for aid

Hartford — Some GOP legislators are seeing red over a proposal to give state funds to a New Haven community center with ties to the Communist Party.

The two Republicans on the State Bond Commission voiced strong objections Thursday to a forthcoming item on the commission's agenda for $300,000 in assistance to the New Haven Peoples Center. The money is slated for roofing and other repairs to the nonprofit organization's 161-year-old brick house.

Founded in 1937 by Jewish working-class immigrants, the center describes itself as a "meeting place of labor, community, peace and social justice groups."

The building also contains a regional bureau of People's World newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA and a "direct descendant" of the former Daily Worker communist paper.

The center's president, Alfred L. Marder, is a longtime communist who, in the mid-1950s, was tried and acquitted of advocating for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. News reports of that era say he came to the attention of authorities after writing several letters to newspapers to protest the death sentences imposed on husband-and-wife spy team Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Joelle Fishman, current chairman of Connecticut's chapter of the Communist Party, is also a lead organizer for the center's activities.

During a news conference Thursday in the Capitol complex, state Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, and Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown, said they hope Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other bond commission members will choose to remove the Peoples Center from the agenda before Monday's scheduled meeting.

The request was taken off the commission's April agenda after questions arose concerning the center's tax status.

The Republicans contend it is wrong to devote state money for renovations to any organization with such an overtly political agenda.

"I would hold the same objection if $300,000 were going to an arm of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the Libertarian party," Roraback said.

"The facts are that housed in this building is a newspaper whose stated mission is to popularize the ideas of Marxism." he said. "If that isn't a political activity, I don't know what is."

State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Appropriations Committee, requested the funds on behalf of the center's operator, Progressive Education and Research Associates.

Harp said the center's request was placed back on the agenda this month once all of the earlier concerns were addressed and the organization was found in good legal standing. She was shocked that Republicans have seized on communism as a reason to deny much-needed renovations to a popular community center in her city.

"The Berlin Wall has been down for many, many years, and the reality is that these folks who own this building do many things individually to contribute to the life of our community," Harp said.

In a phone interview, Marder said that about 10 different organizations use the Peoples Center as a meeting place, including youth groups, labor organizations, a peace council and a women's health group. The center is open to any person or group, regardless of political affiliation.

Historically, the center was a leader in civil rights and today is a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. It was the organizing site of an early interracial theater group as well as an interracial basketball team, the New Haven Red Wings. It also had a role in a campaign to open up bus driver jobs to African Americans.

"McCarthyism was such a tragic period in our history," Marder said Thursday. "I thought we had left that period, but I guess the Republican Party wants to return our country to it."

During the Republicans' news conference, Williams said his main concern is the stewardship of state dollars.

"I have every confidence that the people who run this organization are good and decent people," he said. "They have every right to have whatever political beliefs they have. ... But that does not entitle them to be the recipients of tax dollars to prop up those activities."

Roy Occhiogrosso, senior adviser to Malloy, defended the center's bonding request and accused the two Republicans of playing "outdated and stale politics."

"The New Haven Peoples Center is a space that makes itself available to many different people — youth groups, labor organizations and yes, political meetings," he said. "How this project is different than the many libraries, town halls or community centers that received funding and are used by Republican Town Committees for meetings is a question best answered by these legislators."

State Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, is helping to organize a military, veteran-led protest today outside the Peoples Center, situated at 37 Howe St. in New Haven.

"A $300,000 giveaway to a group with communist ties is a slap in the face of veterans and their families who fought for freedom and against the spread of communism," said Coutu, who is running for the 19th District state Senate.

j.reindl@theday.com

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