Connecticut chief justice defeat becomes election year issue

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Senate's rejection Tuesday of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's State Supreme Court chief justice nominee, mostly along partisan lines, set off political reverberations in a state where an open governor's seat and control of the General Assembly are at stake in November.

State Democrats and various candidates pounced on the 19-16 vote opposing the confirmation of Associate Justice Andrew McDonald as the high court's top justice, linking Connecticut Republicans with President Donald Trump and Washington Republicans. Malloy and other Democrats have accused GOP lawmakers of opposing McDonald for political reasons and in part because he is openly gay. He would have been the first openly gay state supreme court chief justice in the U.S.

"The exploitive action of these Trump-Republican senators to vote as an alliance to block Justice Andrew McDonald is a blatant, precedent-setting discriminatory act that every Connecticut resident, no matter what political affiliation or persuasion, should strongly condemn," said Guy Smith, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Republicans have strongly denied the accusations of homophobia, contending McDonald, a former Democratic state senator, has been an activist jurist, among other issues.

"The courage demonstrated by these senators in the face of intense and highly offensive bullying from Gov. Malloy and his hyper partisan allies is a testament to their commitment to protecting our most important institutions," said Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Herbst.

It's unclear whether Tuesday's defeat of McDonald will resonate with voters in November.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he believes it will. He said politically active groups have been closely watching the debate over McDonald's confirmation.

"The bridge is finally connected between Washington Republicans and Connecticut Republicans based on all 18 state Senate Republicans all voting no on a qualified candidate. It's totally unprecedented," Duff said. "This shows that they are basically bear-hugging the tactics of the Trump administration and (U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell down in Washington. There's a lot of constituencies out here who will not forget."

Republican Joe Visconti, who recently switched from running for governor to U.S. Senate, fired back at Duff on Twitter, telling him "to get used to it pal" and to "get your Kleenex ready" when Republicans take control of the General Assembly and governor's mansion.

JR Romano, the chairman of Connecticut Republican Party, acknowledged there was "a lot of drama happening up at the state Capitol" on Tuesday during a live announcement on Facebook. He accused Democrats of trying to deflect attention from the state's fiscal woes and "not wanting to talk about what's really happening" in Connecticut.

"While you hear all of this other drama that the Democrats are creating about Washington, about all of this nonsense in terms of these accusations against Republicans that are unfounded, the reality is, it's because they have failed you," Romano said.

There was an immediate political backlash against some state senators who opposed McDonald. For example, the Groton Democrats sent a message via Twitter that Republican state Sen. Heather Somers of Groton should be defeated in November because of her vote.

And Malloy, who is not seeking a third term in office, distributed a document to reporters showing how some senators who opposed McDonald on Tuesday had previously opposed several gay rights measures dating as far back as 2005, saying he personally would not vote for anyone who voted against McDonald.

"And I think anyone who has a gay friend, or child or relative should think twice about supporting anyone who voted against Justice McDonald," Malloy said. "Let there be no doubt that Andrew was treated differently than any other person so nominated. And quite frankly, the only difference is, that he was openly gay."

McDonald's nomination narrowly cleared the House of Representatives earlier this month by a single vote. But it became an even bigger challenge in the Senate, where there are an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. One Democrat had recused herself, requiring GOP support.

In the end, Democratic Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury joined all 18 Republicans in opposing the nomination. McDonald, who said in a written statement that he doesn't know what the future will hold for him, can remain on the court as an associate justice.

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