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Fasano serving his loyal-opposition role to the end

State Sen. Len Fasano, minority Senate leader, let it be known in late March that he would not be seeking re-election. I say “let it be known” because Fasano opted to let the news slip out by informing his staff and town committees in his 34th District, rather than making a formal announcement during the pandemic. Fasano, it appears, recognized where that bit of news fit in the scheme of current events.

The state legislature will be poorer for his coming departure. As a centrist Republican, Fasano, 61, well fulfilled his role as the leader of the loyal opposition in this Democratic Party-dominated state — challenging the majority on issues of spending, taxation and business regulation — while also recognizing there were times more could be achieved through compromise.

His exit in 2021 will set off an eventual competition for Senate leadership, with Sen. Paul Formica in the conversation — if Formica survives the November election. Formica’s 20th District includes Bozrah, East Lyme, Montville, New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Salem, and Waterford.

Fasano continues to well serve his loyal-opposition role. He faced criticism when, on April 10, he released a letter he had sent to Gov. Ned Lamont expressing his “significant concerns” about the Democrat’s “recent executive orders” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate minority leader took hits for challenging a governor amid a crisis. I think Fasano was doing exactly what he should have been doing.

The executive powers handed the governor during a public health emergency are immense, circumventing the normal checks and balances our system of representative government provide. As arguably the top elected Republican leader in the state — Democrats control every statewide office, the state legislature, the two U.S. Senate seats and all five congressional seats — Fasano has a special responsibility to serve as a brake on Lamont’s broad powers.

And he has done so respectively. This was not a Trumpian call to “liberate” Connecticut. Rather, Fasano expressed concerns that Lamont, who had consulted with legislative leaders before issuing his earlier executive orders, had strayed away from that collaboration.

Fasano notes in the letter that some of the governor’s executive orders, such as how towns and cities should handle delinquent taxes  during the crisis, were running far afield of the “protection of public health” parameters the emergency legislation provides for unilateral gubernatorial action.

Fasano wasn’t saying cut it out. He was saying run it by the leadership, get some input.

“It seems that your emergency orders have now taken a tone of public policy … which is why collaborating with the legislature on these matters is so important,” he wrote.

But he delivered the message with a silk glove, not an iron fist.

“I know you are working hard to do everything you think is best for our state and its residents … but collaboration now more than ever is vital to ensure all perspectives, all ideas and all voices are heard,” Fasano stated.

Max Reiss, the communications director for the governor, said last week the administration is not sure what Fasano was alluding to. Lamont and his staff have been consistent in seeking legislative leadership input, Reiss said.

Fasano disagreed, but said communication has improved since the letter.

But Fasano seemed to swing and miss when, on Wednesday, he raised a new concern over the state's approach to purchasing personal protective equipment. A lack of PPE, particularly disposable gowns, has been an issue for health-care workers confronting the extremely contagious COVID-19 virus. Shortages of PPE for workers in nursing homes, which are accounting for roughly half the COVID-19 deaths, has been a particular problem.

In a letter to Lamont, Fasano said the administration's requirement that it will make payments only after it receives shipments of PPE supplies is putting it at a disadvantage with other states that are willing to pay upfront.

Connecticut Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said that the state has set aside standard purchasing rules to expedite PPE acquisitions. The far bigger problem, he said, is the failure of the Trump administration to temporarily nationalize PPE industries to coordiate distribution. That has left states, hospitals, nursing homes and the feds all competing against each other, causing inefficiency and jacking up costs, Geballe said.

So does this mean Fasano and other Republicans should stop the questions during the crisis? Not at all. But the questions need to be legitimate, otherwise they will be dismissed as playing politics.

In a conversation I had with him last week, Fasano had high praise for Lamont’s staff, saying they are always quick with answers and available. And he said he in no way thinks Lamont has abused his authority for any self- or political interest. But no governor, he said, should be above challenge. Who would disagree with that?

On April 15, Fasano wrote an eight-page, detailed letter to the members of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, which was appointed by Lamont to help him decide how, and when, to start reopening commerce that was halted to discourage the spread of the virus.

In the letter Fasano argues for making all reasonable efforts to get businesses reopened as soon as possible and lays out an approach to do so.

“Controlling the virus to a point where our health systems can handle those infected without stress may be the logical point to start to reopen business,” he writes.

This aligns to where the administration and the advisory panel appear headed. But having a Republican leader — responsibly — nudge the Democratic governor in favor of reviving business could help balance the debate.

“Don’t underestimate the private sector’s ingenuity to conduct business with restrictions and guidelines directed by the state,” Fasano writes.

For a brief period in 2017-2018 Fasano shared power with Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. The 2016 election had left the chamber split 18-18. Fasano was able to get a largely Republican constructed budget passed when three fiscally conservative Democratic senators peeled off to support it. The unlikely coalition led to approval of spending and volatility caps that have allowed Connecticut to accumulate a record budget reserve of about $2.5 billion, now proving critical to help the state get through the current crisis and the resulting loss of tax revenue.

Fasano had to be disheartened when, in the 2018 election with the Democratic base energized by opposition to President Donald Trump, Democrats regained their big majority and now control the Senate 22-14. I suspect, and probably so does Fasano, that 2020 will be another tough year for Connecticut Republicans. Rep. Themis Klarides, state House minority leader, announced last week she is not seeking re-election, though she raised the prospect of running for governor in 2022.

There is speculation Fasano could also return as a gubernatorial candidate. I don’t think so. I believe Fasano when he says he wants to devote more time to family and getting back to his legal practice. But with eight months left in his term, and even with the legislature not meeting, I expect Len Fasano will be heard from again.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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