HARTFORD – The Yale College Democrats intensified efforts to make DREAM a reality in Hartford Wednesday afternoon.
Over 15 Dems encouraged legislators in the state capital to support the Connecticut DREAM Act, which would allow students who are illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition fees at the state’s public colleges. As well as explaining the benefits of the DREAM Act, the students lobbied for legislation that would end the state’s use of the death penalty, introduced Jan. 5 by Democratic Representative for New Haven Gary Holder-Winfield. The legislature will hold a public hearing on abolition of the death penalty March 7 and one on the DREAM Act March 15.
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The Dems noted in their pitch to legislators that similar versions of both bills have been passed before — the DREAM Act in 2007 and the repeal of the death penalty in 2009 — but both were vetoed by then-Governor Jodi Rell. Governor Dannel Malloy has indicated he will sign both acts into law if they reach his desk.
Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and State Senator Edith Prague kicked off the event in the Senate Majority Caucus Room, exhorting students to articulate their position to other state politicians because they have a significant impact in shaping views. Looney told the assembled Dems they would be particularly effective at “making sure people understand what the issues are,” adding that misinformation about both pieces of legislation threatens to hinder passage of the legislation.
“If you can convince one legislator, two legislators, it will certainly make a difference, because these bills are not going to pass with overwhelming support,” Prague said to the students. “You don’t have to come [to Hartford], but you want to, and that shows me the kind of character you have.”
Beau Wittmer ’13, the Dems’ lobbying coordinator, said he was “amazed by the number of students had join[ed the campaign] during this midterm season.” At the end of the talk, he presented Looney with signatures supporting the DREAM Act that the group collected at its New Haven City Hall event last Saturday, which attracted over 150 people.
Students handed out flyers and met personally with over 20 state representatives and senators, Wittmer said. He said the group primarily met with those legislators who had voted against the DREAM Act or death penalty repeal in the past, or who were new to Hartford since both acts were passed.
Democratic Representative Claire Janowski, who sits on the state’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee where the DREAM bill is currently being discussed, voted against versions of both the DREAM Act and death penalty repeal in the past. She said she was very impressed by the students she spoke with, adding they helped “clarify her views” enough to potentially vote the bill out to the full legislature.
Another representative, Bobby Sanchez, said the students he spoke with were more convincing than lobbyists who have approached him in the past on the two issues.
“This was definitely one of the best Hartford days this group has had,” Wittmer said. “We made our case, found supporters and even changed a few minds. All in all, a good day.”
Reinstated in Connecticut in 1973, the death penalty has become a particularly contentious issue in recent times, said Rep. Roland Lemar at a Feb. 21 panel discussion organized by the Dems.
He explained that the Cheshire case, in which three people were killed and one of two suspected perpetrators, Steven Hayes, has been convicted and sentenced to death, has given an “emotional backdrop” to the discussion of repealing the death penalty.
“Emotion is informing the politics more than the actual policy is,” he said. “People hear about this one case, and they think there is something evil going on — you know you are not connecting with someone who is thinking about policy.”
The Dems made a similar case to legislators Wednesday.
“The death penalty has a whole myriad of problems with it: an arbitrary application, a high cost and a history of discrimination,” Wittmer said. “Perhaps most of all, it is irrevocable. Innocent people can, and have, died across this nation from this. That possibility needs to end.”
The Dems said in their flyers that Connecticut has only had one execution since capital punishment was reinstated and criminologist and police chiefs “agree that the presence of the death penalty in the judicial system does not deter crime.” The taxpayer cost of maintaining the death penalty, it goes on to say, is higher than if life in prison were the maximum punishment.
Wittmer said that due to the success of lobbying on Wednesday, the Dems are planning another similar trip to Hartford in April.