'There are certain people that drink heavily.' CT lawmakers talk about alcohol use in session

Photo of Ken Dixon
Among the memorabilia in the basement of the State Capitol is a plaque from the early 1970s containing the names of an informal drinking club called the Hawaiian Room, which for decades occupied space on the fourth floor. Names include then-Lt. Gov. T. Clark Hull of Danbury and William O'Neill, a state representative who went on to become governor, succeeding Ella Grasso.

Among the memorabilia in the basement of the State Capitol is a plaque from the early 1970s containing the names of an informal drinking club called the Hawaiian Room, which for decades occupied space on the fourth floor. Names include then-Lt. Gov. T. Clark Hull of Danbury and William O’Neill, a state representative who went on to become governor, succeeding Ella Grasso.

/ Ken Dixon / Hearst Connecticut Media

HARTFORD — Alcohol is a tried-and-true diversion for members of the General Assembly. And in this year of the pandemic, which forced hundreds of lawmakers to work remotely in staff offices away from the House and Senate chambers, it got a little out of hand, legislative leaders say.

Last month, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, fearing extracurricular partying could distract lawmakers from the business of public policy, ordered his 54-member caucus to move back from their offices in the nearby Legislative Office Building to the State Capitol itself, closer to the action, to avoid distractions.

Speaker of the House Matt Ritter read his 97-member caucus the riot act after lawmakers began tailgating on the roof of the Legislative Office Building’s garage. Most recently, one House member admitted that wine at dinner and the accumulated stress of the legislative session contributed to her failure to speak complete sentences during a floor debate on a bill on May 27.

And while the drinking might not be good public relations - or optics - for the legislature, people with institutional memories say it’s no worse than it ever has been, especially toward the end of the session long after committees have finished their work and the only thing for rank-and-file members to do is wait to cast votes in the House or Senate.

After all, the infamous all-male Hawaiian Room, where beer and booze flowed on the fourth floor of the Capitol, closed down in the late-1970s. What remains, on a plaque in a basement display case, are the names of Hawaiian Room officers from the early 1970s, including then-Lt. Gov. T. Clark Hull of Danbury, who was an “honorary director” and William A. O’Neill, a state representative about 10 years away from becoming governor, then on the “Board of Directors.”

In the state Capitol, state Rep. David Rutigliano of Trumbull stands outside the historic House of Representatives with the 20-gallon "Columbus Urn," a commemorative water vessel that is purported to have once been filled with champagne for a party that is now lost in the mists of time.

In the state Capitol, state Rep. David Rutigliano of Trumbull stands outside the historic House of Representatives with the 20-gallon “Columbus Urn,” a commemorative water vessel that is purported to have once been filled with champagne for a party that is now lost in the mists of time.

Contributed photo

Veteran state Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, who as a caucus whip spends many hours of the day on the House floor, said that he rarely sees lawmakers join a debate if they have been imbibing.

“I am sure there are people drinking in the building, but it’s unusual for them to talk,” Rutigliano said. “If they are in a room where they are having an adult beverage, I think they keep to themselves.”

“Honestly it depends on who you are,” said third-term state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden. “I will have a couple drinks in my office, but I’m not raging on the roof.” As Elliott has risen in responsibility - he is the co-chairman of the Higher Education Committee - he needs to focus on legislation.

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden,

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden,

Dan Haar /Hearst Connecticut Media /

“I am trying to read these bills,” he said in a phone interview Thursday night. “In the first year, you have zero responsibility.”

The issue came to a head this week when Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, chastised his caucus after Rep. Robin Comey of Branford admitted that wine and the pressures of the endgames of the General Assembly caused her to overindulge on the night of May 27. She apologized to her caucus and constituents.

“The incidents are on both sides,” Ritter said Thursday. “I want to be very clear. There have been incidents on both the Democratic and Republican side that needed to be addressed and cleaned up, and we have done that. It’s a chamber-wide thing that had to be addressed.”

“Rep. Comey has made her statement,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas. “She’s apologized to her constituents and to everyone. And I think we’re all ready to move on and make sure we engage in the right behavior that everyone expects us to do here.”

Elliott said he was unaware of any over-indulgence until Ritter spoke to the caucus during a virtual zoom meeting, which is still the main method of communication, as COVID rules on masks and social distancing in the House chamber will continue through the end of the session at midnight on June 9. The public, including lobbyists have been banned from the Capitol complex since March 12, 2020.

Last month, Candelora, R-North Branford, told his caucus to start working in the Capitol itself on days the House was meeting.

“When we began to open up capacity in the House chamber, we had asked everyone to come over to this building to avoid those kinds of temptations,” Candelora said on Thursday. “By and large we have not had an issue in our caucus and what I told them is that I’m happy we haven’t had an issue and don’t make a liar out of me. So hopefully until June 9 it will stay that way.”

Candelora, who was first elected to the House in 2006, said that lawmakers are typical of the population. “I think generally speaking, we are a snapshot of society and so there are certain people that drink heavily and may even have a drinking problem, and then there are some that like to socialize and have a glass of wine with dinner. Given that we are here at times 16 to 18 hours a day, there could be individuals that might partake at any given level.”

Candelora said lawmakers watch out for each other. “Whether it be revolving around a substance abuse issue or just down to social drinking, it has always been a part of this building,” he said. “I personally don’t think it’s a good thing. People should really refrain from that activity because we’re elected to make laws because you want all your faculties about you when you’re voting on legislation that impacts residents of your district.”

Michael J. Riley, a veteran lobbyist, who remembered the Hawaiian Room’s legends and myths, said hot dogs from New Britain and Russian black bread from Colchester were always on hand along with the booze and beer. Some lawmakers would stay up there all afternoon into the evening, taking time out only to vote, he recalled.

“There was always one guy who was sloppy early in the afternoon,” said Riley, a Capitol fixture since 1971. And speaking of fixtures, it is said that upon at least one occasion, the silver-plated “Columbus Urn” a 20-gallon water vessel outside the House, was filled with Champagne to celebrate an event that is now forgotten in the mists of the history of the 1878 building.

Longtime State Capitol lobbyist Michael J. Riley, in a file photo.

Longtime State Capitol lobbyist Michael J. Riley, in a file photo.

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Riley was the originator of a long-held St. Patrick’s Day tradition of an Irish coffee hour on a March morning with Irish whiskey flavoring the breakfast drink. It evolved from a small affair, to one attended by hundreds, including music and singing. “New staff people would be in awe because they could actually talk to the governor and hang out with the big guys,” Riley recalled of the jam-packed third-floor Capitol meeting room.

That was then. “Every year it loses a little more fun,” Riley said.

“People rarely get out of line and it hasn’t been a problem in the past,” said Riley, recalling that since the 14-acre Capitol campus has been closed to the public for 14 months, lobbyists and taxpayers have been denied access and lawmakers have been left to themselves, their staffs and whatever may be in their desk drawers or office refrigerators.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who was first elected to the legislature in 1980, said Thursday that the current culture has drastically changed from 40 years ago. “There was a lot more casual acceptance of alcohol as a social beverage then, than now,” Looney said.

Drinkers have a long history in the legislature, he said, but mostly among the rank-and-file. “It could be a problem sometimes, especially when the night ran long,” Looney recalled of the 1980s. “There were times when the speaker would have to admonish people to calm down, pay attention and not let the debate too raucous.”

During dinner recesses, there would be four groups.

“There would be a number of people who would stay in the building and actually do work and maybe send out for food and during that time they would either do legislative work or work for their private businesses,” Looney said. “The second group would go out to dinner. The third group would be the group that would go out to a bar. And the fourth group would be a group of one, consisting of (now U.S. Sen.) Dick Blumenthal, who would go swim laps at the Hartford Y.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT