State Representative Minnie Gonzalez describes her role in the legislature as being a vocal female Puerto Rican with her own opinions, and says that some people at the state Capitol “don’t like that.”
The dislikers were grinning at the start of the state legislature’s 2019 session. Gonzalez was no longer a member of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, an influential panel that had been the Puerto Rican-born legislators’ primary bully pulpit for the last 14 years of her 22 years in the House.
It was from this stage that the Hartford legislator launched much of her brassy polemics against the state’s Family Court system, an institution which she cast as unfair to the poor and put prospective state judges through relentless inquisitions.
A disappointed and unrepentant Gonzalez said prior to the opening of the new session that she did not know why Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz did not appoint her to the judiciary panel. “I think there could be a lot of reasons,” the politician suggested, who was waiting to talk directly with the Democratic chief, a conversation she viewed as perfunctory. “The list (of committee assignments) is already out,” she said.
Gonzalez noted that Aresimowicz, according to legislative protocol, is beginning his final term as speaker, “and who cares if he gets rid of a couple of representatives” from the committee. Another legislator, off the record, said that the speaker might want to reward his supporters with key positions.
While Gonzalez, and some legislators, cited possible retaliation for her controversial and often intemperate opposition to some major judge nominations and her unabated attacks of the Family Court system as issues that may have cost her the judiciary appointment, the speaker has offered a different explanation publicly.
When asked for a comment recently, Aresimowicz said that Gonzalez and others got new assignments due to the logistics of apportioning committee seats to an expanded Democratic delegation in the House as the result of the 2018 elections.
“We added 12 seats in the election to our caucus membership which now totals 92, and we have named 11 new House committee chairs, so the make-up of each committee has changed dramatically with these numbers,” Aresimowicz said. “Rep. Gonzalez is a prominent member of our House leadership team while also holding a seat on the Appropriations Committee as well as two others with cognizance over many issues important to her constituents,” he said.
Hartford will continue to have a Hispanic representative on the judiciary committee thanks to the appointment of Rep. Julio Concepcion. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who was not on the committee last year, succeeds now state Attorney General William Tong as co-chairman with hold-over Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven. A freshman legislator, Matt Blumenthal, the son of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, is the House co-vice chairman.
In regard to Gonzalez, some Democratic leaders said that irritation with Gonzalez may have reached a breaking point last year when she helped the Republicans derail Governor Dannel Malloy’s nomination of Supreme Court Associate Justice Andrew McDonald for chief justice by voting against him in committee and on the House floor.
One prominent Latino legislator said he heard through “the grapevine” that Gonzalez losing her judiciary committee seat was “payback” for her anti-McDonald vote.
Gonzalez has been accused by gay advocacy organizations and others of opposing McDonald’s promotion to chief justice because he is openly homosexual, noting she voted against the same-sex marriage bill in 2009.
However, Gonzalez said, that this is not the right reason, “but if they want to use that they can say whatever they want.” She said that she opposed McDonald, a former legislator who served on the judiciary panel for a half-dozen years before becoming a judge, “because I do not like his attitude.”
Another factor in Gonzalez losing her judiciary seat, according to a prominent non-Hispanic legislator, was her controversial demeanor. “Minnie was fighting a good fight, but she did not always go about it in the best way. Some of her colleagues, even some who supported her, were tired of the approach,” the veteran lawmaker said.
Gonzalez got herself in hot water with the legislative leadership several times, notably in 2015 when her unfiltered criticism of a Republican member of the judiciary panel, contained in an email, brought the work of that committee to a halt, stalling the proceedings on several dozen bills. She also became known for her withering interrogations of prospective judges during the confirmation process.
Gonzalez is far from apologetic about being very vocal. “I am the people’s voice, particularly for those who don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer” in divorce and child custody proceedings. “I was elected to defend the people’s rights, the people of the state of Connecticut,” she said.
“What was going on with the Family Courts was not right,” Gonzalez said, “There were a lot of problems; people were losing their kids because they did not have the money to hire a lawyer.”
Moving forward, the legislature faces at least two more years of “Minnie being Minnie.” Despite some issues related to her campaign practices and stiffer opposition than usual in the last Democratic primary, she is starting her thirteenth term in the House.
The Hartford politician has no intention on being quiet, particularly in pursuing changes in the Family Courts and its guardian ad litem procedures, and plans to continue her reform efforts through the introduction of bills.
Gonzalez said that any attempt to quiet her in the legislature is “an insult to my community, the Puerto Rican community.”
She also plans to work with advocacy groups, such as the Council for Connecticut Family Court Reform, to oppose certain judges and policies. “Now I will have more time to organize,” she said.