Gaston, Gee juggling legislative roles with Bridgeport city jobs

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Though technically a part-time job, being a state legislator is still a time-consuming responsibility — between helping constituents locally and attending meetings and votes at the state Capitol in Hartford.

Yet two of Bridgeport's newly elected lawmakers — Democrats Herron Gaston and Fred Gee — also have full-time municipal jobs and are local religious leaders as well.

And some wonder if they will be able to juggle it all, or if the taxpayers funding their city and state salaries will get short-changed.

Gaston and Gee were elected last November to, respectively, the state Senate and House of Representatives, just in time to benefit from a pay hike that saw legislator's salaries increase for the first time in a couple decades, from $28,000 to $40,000

Gaston also earns $142,591 as Bridgeport's assistant chief administrative officer. That department, run by CAO Janene Hawkins, essentially manages the city for Mayor Joe Ganim and is currently short-staffed. Ganim fired a second assistant CAO last July.

And Gee is in charge of the city's small and minority business development office. He is paid $95,385 annually.

Both are non-union political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

Gaston and Gee are also local pastors, the former of Summerfield United Methodist and the latter at the Impact Church.

The General Assembly convened Jan. 4 at the Capitol in Hartford for the 2023 session, which adjourns at midnight June 8. Hearst Connecticut Media has for the last few weeks reached out to both Gaston and Gee to discuss their busy schedules and whether they intend to remain full-time Bridgeport employees, and received no response from either.

Ganim in a statement gave no indication that their municipal workloads will be changing or that he has concerns about their productivity.

“The City of Bridgeport currently and under previous administrations has had many state legislators who have worked for city government," Ganim said. "Senator Gaston and State Representative Gee are no different. When they are conducting their legislative responsibilities, they are not being compensated by the city unless they are utilizing their personal or vacation time. But like all legislators, they will be given some level of flexibility to perform their city duties while also attending to their legislative responsibilities."

Connecticut law forbids employers of 25 or more from discriminating against individuals who run for and serve in the General Assembly, even if they lose time from work to do so. The statute requires employers allow shift-workers to alter their hours if necessary, but also specifies that it is not a violation for an employer to withhold "wages or salaries for any such time lost."

Callie Heilmann, a head of the Bridgeport Generation Now civic group, said taxpayers have a right to know more details about "how the city plans on managing their time."

"Bridgeporters deserve strong leadership up at the Capitol (in Hartford) and we deserve dedicated people working full-time at City Hall to deliver high quality services," Heilmann said. "Being present for the legislative session and constituent services is very time-consuming. Public hearings alone can last 10 to 12 hours."

As Ganim noted, Gaston and Gee are not the first Bridgeport staffers to also be part of the General Assembly and face questions about time management. 

When he was first elected to the legislature, state Rep. Chris Rosario was also then-Democratic Mayor Bill Finch's anti-blight chief.

"It wasn't as easy as I thought it was gonna be," Rosario, whom Ganim laid off after defeating Finch in 2015's primary, admitted in a recent interview. 

Rosario said now that he has more experience and seniority at the Capitol he is better able to balance those responsibilities with a day job. 

"Them coming in as new members, at least for this next term probably is a little bit more of a juggling act for them," Rosario said.

Thanks to technological changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, rank-and-file legislators can still attend committee meetings and vote over a computer. But when the full House and Senate meet, which will happen more and more in the final weeks of the current session, lawmakers are expected to show up in Hartford. During this time, business eventually is conducted all day and sometimes late into the night.

Bridgeport City Councilman Scott Burns, co-chairman of the council's budget committee, said he will be interested to learn if Gaston and Gee still wind up receiving their full salaries this fiscal year. He added both the CAO's and the small business offices will, like other municipal departments, be scrutinized for performance as part of the upcoming spring budget process.

"(But) we have to do things within the context of (union) contracts and the (municipal) charter and state law," Burns noted.

State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, has also for the past few years worked part-time for Bridgeport as an advisor to Ganim on sustainability and environmental initiatives.

"There are plenty of other legislators that have full-time jobs in other places that manage it," Gresko said this week. "It's a time management skill that needs to be either implemented or learned."

Gresko said he gets paid for working 19 hours per week for Ganim, but will work more during the non-session months of July through December to make up for the time he has to be in Hartford earlier in the year.

"In July, August, September, October, I'm putting in close to 40 hours a week (in Bridgeport)," Gresko said. "When it comes time for session, I'm still putting in for 19. I might only have been there for seven hours, so I'm using some of those 'banked' hours. ... So it all comes out in the wash."

But Gresko also acknowledged that, when offered a job with Ganim, "I asked for part-time because of what I viewed as time constraints on both positions" with the city and the legislature.

Just-retired state Rep. Charlie Stallworth for a period of time was in the same situation as Gaston and Gee, the latter of whom is his successor in the legislature. Stallworth was a state representative, ran the East End Baptist church and earned $99,000 as a full-time aide to Ganim.

"It's doable. I think planning is just so necessary," Stallworth said.

He added he would sometimes work on municipal business Saturday and Sunday evenings and also use up his city days off for legislative duties.

Stallworth, however, when running for reelection in 2016 faced intense criticism ahead of that summer's Democratic primary from opponent Maria Pereira, who had researched his attendance record in the legislature and found it lacking when it came to participating in committee meetings.

“I can do better as all of us can do better,” Stallworth had said at the time. He had also insisted that, when it came to matters important to Bridgeport, he worked hard with the rest of the city’s legislative delegation to get things done.

Stallworth this week said people like himself who seek to take on the challenge of having multiple roles within and for their communities are not doing it for love of power or for the money.

"I think service is kind of at the core of my heart," Stallworth said. "Those are just expressions of service. I like serving."

Pereira, currently a councilwoman and a former school board member, argued this week that people with as many jobs as Gaston and Gee cannot possibly do them all well.

"One thousand percent not," Pereira said. "It's not possible. ... They really are pretty much full-time commitments, to do it and do it really well. (And) it's truly double-dipping on the taxpayer dime at the municipal and state level."