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Surreal times at a chamber luncheon

It seemed so oddly normal for such abnormal times.

The local congressman was speaking to a business luncheon organized by the local chamber of commerce. But while the locals gathered at the Mystic Marriott in Groton were chomping on their salads and sampling the lunchmeat Wednesday, the U.S. Senate was again convening in Washington, D.C., for the trial to decide whether the impeached president should be removed from office.

And Congressman Joe Courtney, whose vote helped impeach the president and put him on trial, wasn’t even talking about it.

The Second District congressman seemed happy to talk about anything else. Courtney went over the federal dollars that continue to flow to Electric Boat to support expedited submarine construction at the Groton shipyard. About the passage of legislation to provide care to victims of Agent Orange who served in the Navy, heretofore denied that care. He referenced the planned expansion of the Veterans Administration clinic in New London and the repeal of Obamacare’s so-called “Cadillac tax.”

But it wasn’t until prompted by Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, that Courtney talked about what was probably the most historic vote he will ever cast.

And then he made the subject sort of boring.

Courtney provided a 10-minute rambling, halting explanation to the chamber gathering. Little wonder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not pick him for the team to prosecute the impeachment case in the Senate.

It was made clear, once again, that the seven-term congressman did not relish the opportunity to impeach President Donald Trump. He had to do it, he not so effectively explained. Trump’s withholding federal military aid to try to strong arm Ukraine’s president into launching an investigation and embarrassing Trump’s potential 2020 opponent — Joe Biden — forced Courtney to make a choice he would just as soon have avoided.

After wandering this way and that — diving into the 1994 agreement that the United States was a party to and that promises Ukraine protection of its sovereignty in return for surrendering the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, and expounding on the Impoundment Control Act — Courtney finished up where he should have started.

“Sometimes there are votes where you have to do your best, to look inside your heart and your mind and do what you think is right and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what happens in a democracy. And I embrace it. I welcome it,” he said.

The audience applauded, including, seated at my table, Republican state Sen. Heather Somers of the 18th District. More surrealism.

How come? I asked.

“Everyone applauded. It was a good explanation. I think it was fair,” Somers said.

But did she agree with Courtney?

“I was kind of listening,” Somers added. She had indeed spent time on her smartphone while Courtney explained his impeachment vote. She was not alone.

“I’ve always found Joe to be a very fair and balanced person,’’ Somers concluded.

I wasn’t getting an answer.

We moved onto the upcoming state legislative session. Somers said her priorities would be health care initiatives and environmental protection legislation, details to follow.

It was emblematic of how the country is viewing this impeachment. Folks know this is a big deal. Many have picked sides. Others shrug. But everyone knows how the movie ends — Trump is acquitted.

Then it will be up to the voters to cast a verdict. And that fight for the top, with the potential to be as nasty and divisive as any this nation has ever seen, will cast a long shadow over all the other state and federal elections.

As Courtney noted, “Let the chips fall where they may.”

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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