State Rep. Ernest Hewett, who was removed as deputy speaker this week after making what some saw as an inappropriate comment to a teenager, defended himself Friday.
“I have been disciplined and I haven’t ever had due process,” said Hewett, a New London Democrat.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said Friday he stood by his decision, which many other local legislators have backed. But State Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, came to Hewett’s defense on Friday and said Hewett didn’t do anything wrong.
Hewett himself said he was skeptical of how things had been handled but that he had no plans to resign.
During a Feb. 20 Appropriations Committee hearing, a female 17-year-old ambassador for the Connecticut Science Center asked the committee to continue funding the center’s ambassador program.
During her speech, she said the program helped her overcome her shyness and her fear of snakes.
According to an audiotape of the hearing, Hewett said: “If you’re bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here.”
On Friday, Hewett said, “If she had said elephants, I would have said elephants.”
He dismissed Republican calls for his resignation.
“I plan to stay in my job and represent the city of New London. Resign, not in my life,” he said.
He said he was 56 and didn’t have a blemish on his record.
“You are going to persecute me for sexual innuendo?” he said.
Sharkey said it hurt him to take away Hewett’s title because he has worked with Hewett for a long time.
“It pained me to make the decision on a personal level. It is not something I took lightly,” Sharkey said.
But, he said, “I think it was an appropriate response under the circumstances, and I don’t think it is appropriate to be calling for anything more at this point.”
Need for investigation?
State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, a member of the Appropriations Committee who was at the Feb. 20 hearing in which the comment was made, said Sharkey’s decision was a good one but that an investigation into Hewett’s past behavior might be necessary.
He said he wouldn’t go as far as to say Hewett should resign because he has never asked for anyone to resign — not even former Gov. John G. Rowland — but that an investigation would be appropriate.
Sharkey said he was not aware of any other complaints about Hewett, formally or otherwise.
“I don’t think there is anything to investigate,” Sharkey said.
He said calling for a sexual harassment retraining of Democratic legislators in or past their third terms and removing Hewett’s title were appropriate measures.
He also said he did not think he acted too quickly.
He scheduled the sexual harassment retraining after learning of the comment. After listening to the audio recording, he said he called Hewett and made the decision to remove his title.
Sharkey said this was an issue that required a zero-tolerance policy. Any other approach sends the wrong message to members of the caucus and the public, he said.
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women of Connecticut agreed and said in a press release that it looked forward to working with the legislature to “make sure state government has a zero tolerance policy toward this kind of behavior — whether unintentional or not.”
Rush to judgment
Most members of the southeastern Connecticut delegation agreed with the House speaker’s decision to strip Hewett of his deputy speaker title. But Moukawsher said he has worked with Hewett for 10 years and that he has always been very encouraging to young people.
“The last thing he meant to do was in any way make a comment that was lewd,” Moukawsher said. “I am disappointed that those who know him and serve with him have not stood up for him.”
Moukawsher said the decision to strip Hewett of his title happened too quickly.
“We are a caucus, we know each other,” he said. “I am sure the speaker didn’t want the perception of what people heard, of what Ernie said, to reflect badly in his caucus. And I think we need to stick up for each other when he didn’t do anything wrong.”
State Reps. Tim Bowles, D-Preston, Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, and Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said they agreed with Sharkey’s decision.
“I still think that the speaker handled the situation appropriately,” Jutila said. “I think he is paying a big price by losing his assignment as deputy speaker. He is embarrassed, obviously, he is clearly remorseful and he has apologized to everyone.”
Urban said addressing sexual harassment at the state Capitol was long overdue and that the latest incident hinted at a deeper problem.
“There are incidents of this, not as obvious and as public as this one was,” she said. “And I think we need to re-evaluate the way we treat each other in the General Assembly.”
After hearing Hewett’s remark, Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said it’s important to consider how others interpret such comments.
“Any reasonable person would interpret what he said as offensive. It doesn’t matter what he intended, it’s what he said and how others interpreted it,” he said.
He said it was a pretty “clear-cut situation” and that because it was caught on audio, it makes it even more definitive.
“It’s a serious situation because it is such a rude comment and to make a comment, to make a statement like that in an open public meeting, makes it even worse,” West said. “It’s not like it was a private conversation.”
West said he thought stripping Hewett of his deputy speaker title was appropriate. He said it was good that Hewett apologized and that if he were to go back on that apology, he would lose whatever “brownie points” he had accumulated.
“People in this situation have to demonstrate through their actions that they really got the message and are working to do better in the future,” he said.
Call for resignation
Connecticut Republican party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. said Friday that Hewett should resign. This incident damages the reputation and credibility of the Democratic legislative leadership, he said.
Sharkey said he is willing to accept criticism. “But the buck stops with me.
“I am the speaker, I am responsible for the entire House, not just the caucus,” Sharkey said.
Hewett said, “I’d like for this to have cooled down and hear what everyone else had to say and find out what the girl thought.”
The teen did not clearly hear the comment and didn’t know it could be perceived as offensive until reading news accounts, according to a statement by Matt Fleury, president and chief executive officer of the science center.
Hewett said he regularly attempts to inject humor during meetings. For instance, he said, during a Committee on Children meeting, legislators were discussing whether to lower the age for donating blood to 16.
“If I need a transfer, I want young blood instead of old blood,” he recalled saying.
“Everyone busted up laughing,” he said. “I am about building young people up.”