Sen. Slossberg’s retirement could throw Connecticut Senate into chaos

Photo: Slossberg for State Senate

The fight to confirm Slossberg’s rival Andrew McDonald as Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court may have been the last straw for the longtime senator

Democratic State Senator Gayle Slossberg, who has represented Connecticut‘s 14th senate district for over a decade, has decided not to seek reelection amid growing controversy over her recusal from the state’s dramatic Supreme Court confirmation fight.

Slossberg has been a liberal fixture of the legislature, representing the towns of Milford and Orange as well as parts of West Haven since 2005 through both the administrations of Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy. Slossberg spearheaded a years-long effort to bring same-day voter registration to the state and supported Connecticut’s 2014 campus sexual assault safety reforms.

However, her relationship with members of her own party soured in 2017 as Democrats and Republicans deadlocked for control of the state Senate. Last year, the divided Senate spent months unable to pass a budget, leading Slossberg and two other Democrats to cross party lines and join with the Republicans in the budget fight. The so-called Gang of Three blindsided their party’s own leadership with a surprise vote to pass the Republican budget in September.

It was a move that earned condemnation from Democratic leadership and the Working Families Party.

“Just moments ago, as our legislature inched closer to a budget deal, three corporate Democrats in the State Senate betrayed the people of Connecticut, potentially prolonging a stalemate that could drive Connecticut into the red and have devastating consequences for working families,” said the Working Families Party in a statement following the vote.

The next month, a bipartisan budget bill was finally passed, and some credited the Gang of Three with actually ending the months-long stalemate.

Personal feud threatens Supreme Court nomination

Now Slossberg is at odds with her party again, this time over the process to confirm Associate Justice Andrew McDonald as the new Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. If confirmed, he would be the first openly gay chief justice on a state Supreme Court in the United States.

McDonald is a former state Senator himself who served alongside Slossberg for years. She voted to confirm him when he was first appointed to the court by Gov. Malloy in 2013 along with 29 other members of the Senate.

However, Slossberg and McDonald are not close. In fact, she had described their relationship as “untenable and frankly, caustic.” Her husband, lawyer David Slossberg, attempted to have McDonald disqualified from hearing a major case of his. McDonald was allowed to remain on the case and voted (as part of a unanimous decision) against Slossberg’s clients. That ruling cost his firm, HSSK Law, millions of dollars in legal fees.

Citing their bad blood, Gayle Slossberg announced last month that she would recuse herself from McDonald’s confirmation process. Under normal order, her recusal might not mean much, but McDonald is now caught in the center of an unexpectedly politicized confirmation battle.

Republicans in the General Assembly have grilled McDonald, accused him of “judicial activism,” and blocked his recommendation by the Judiciary Committee leading him to receive an “unfavorable report.”

With control of the state Senate tied at 18-to-18 between Democrats and Republicans, Slossberg’s decision to recuse herself from the case could give Republicans the opportunity they need to kill McDonald’s nomination.

Swing vote in Connecticut’s budget adjustment year

Today, Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano directly attributed Slossberg’s decision to retire to the blowback she has received from fellow Democrats for her recusal in the McDonald hearings.

In comments to The Hartford Courant, Fasano suggested Democrats in the General Assembly were using “bullying and intimidation tactics” against Slossberg.

Democratic Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz denied Fasano’s accusation.

However, if Fasano is correct that Slossberg is leaving the Senate due to unhappiness with her Senate colleagues, it could have wide implications for the General Assembly beyond McDonald’s confirmation.

The two-year budget following last year’s budget standoff is deeply out of balance. In accordance with the state Constitution, legislators’ top priority for the 2018 legislative session is to adjust the budget. With the Senate still split 18-18, another difficult budget fight is almost certainly around the corner.

Slossberg has already proven she is willing to buck party leadership and vote with the GOP on budgetary matters. Now that she is retiring and possibly at odds with her liberal colleagues, Slossberg has nothing to lose. That could make her the critical swing vote in upcoming negotiations.

Sen. Fasano already seems to be extending a friendly hand to her across the aisle, criticizing Democrats who are “throwing Senator Gayle Slossberg under the bus.”

A battleground district in 2018

Sen. Slossberg’s retirement also has implications for the broader balance of power in the Senate beyond 2018.

Slossberg first won her seat in 2004, defeating a six-term Republican. She has won reelection handily each term since, but her district of Milford, Orange, and West Haven is not necessarily safe for Democrats.

Milford voters only narrowly preferred Clinton to Trump in 2016, and Trump actually won in the town of Orange. Clinton performed more strongly in West Haven, but only part of the city lies in the 14th senate district.

That means Republicans will almost certainly be eyeing the district as a potential pickup in the 2018 midterms — one that could be enough to finally break Democrats’ control of the state Senate for the first time since 1997.