Palm: Who Controls the Narrative?

State Rep. Christine Palm


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Everywhere we turn, people are debating “critical race theory,” questioning others’ motives, and trying to quantify the truth. These are important, painful discussions. From my perspective as a female state legislator who acknowledges my white privilege, these debates play out at the Capitol in real, and sometimes alarming, ways.

During the legislative session that just ended, much of this discussion centered on race, gender, equity and alleged voter fraud. And whether taking place in the wee hours or during prime time – and whether said as a toss-off statement or repeated during an hours-long filibuster – it’s quite clear that national discussions on hot-button issues have hit home.

Some have questioned why, when the Legislature was in session, Democrats didn’t push back harder on questionable statements made by Republicans. The simple answer is: respect for protocol. Much as I would have loved to have challenged these theories and comments at the time they were uttered, we elected officials are discouraged from doing so. Why? Because the parliamentary rules of Connecticut’s Legislature are time-honored and do not allow for back-and-forth debate on matters not directly related to the language of the legislation being discussed.

Sometimes, these parliamentary rules make eminent sense. For example, both sides must filter their comments through the Speaker on the dais – as a way to ensure that verbal sparring doesn’t break out. Being forced to say, “Through you, Madam Speaker” or “Through you, Mr. Speaker,” before and after every comment slows down the proceedings just long enough to defuse the impulse to argue directly. Members of the House are not allowed to roll their eyes, sigh, groan, address anyone by name or show any sign of disapproval. (Nor are we allowed to clap and cheer when we agree.)

Other times, the rules seem hidebound – especially to newer legislators like me. Use of the filibuster is the best example. The filibuster, while rooted in respect for protocol, can run counter to the public interest by setting up a dynamic that prevents good bills from seeing the light of day. Democrats, as the majority party, run the committees of cognizance – the bodies that raise bills and advance them for public hearings and, eventually, a vote on the Floor of the House (or the Senate). The role of the Republicans, as the minority party, is to counter bills they oppose by making the bill proponents defend them. My colleagues and I would “bring out” a bill (introduce it on the Floor and summarize its intent) while the other side of the aisle would begin by asking questions, give their opinions, do their best to pass amendments to change the bill, and then most often, ultimately vote against it.

Ideally, floor debate is a fact-finding session and a chance for a meeting of the minds. Often, however, the minority party will filibuster for hours on end in order to run down the clock to prevent additional Democratic bills from being introduced. The time-honored code of ethics on this is that neither side wants to curtail debate on important or controversial issues. But while a healthy exchange of ideas is a lofty goal, much of the time, what passes for “debate” is theatrics and stalling. One has to ask: to what end? Was the public interest being served by various legislators asking the same questions as their colleagues over and over again?

Now that the Legislative Session has ended, the record needs to be set straight on some of the remarks made by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. (The Italicized phrases below summarize sentiments that were said on the record, available for viewing in their original form in the accompanying video link, with date and timestamp.) My rebuttal follows the timestamp.

Female college students would not get raped if they would just stop drinking.

May 25th; (Time: 3:34:34)

While underaged drinking is not advisable, it will continue to exist. Blaming the victims for being raped is never justifiable. At least 50 percent of women on college campuses are raped when sober, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Fifty percent is a significant number, but while it proves that abstinence might cut assaults in half, it also proves that half of women are at risk when unimpaired by substances, because ultimately, the only thing causing rape is rapists.

Noticing skin color and gender obscures peoples qualifications.

March 24th (Time: 40:37)

Pretending gender and color are irrelevant disrespects fundamental aspects of what makes us unique individuals. It is irresponsible to imply that women and people of color are inherently less qualified; that when women or black or brown people are hired, appointed to a board, or elected to office, many got there because of tokenism, and not because of their qualifications. And it denies the fact that sometimes, white men get appointed, hired or elected not because of their qualifications but because they benefit from time-honored systems that work in their favor.

Voter fraud is a serious, documented problem in our elections.

May 11th  (Time: 1:58:00)

The claim that voter fraud is widespread has been debunked by courts across the country. What does exist, however, is the fear that disenfranchised people will be given the power they deserve and that the resulting votes will favor an agenda of social equity and economic fair play. Elected officials who are scared by this prospect and how it might affect their re-election chance have no business in public service.

Critical Race Theory is not based on scientific inquiry.

June 1st (4:19:27) CT-N: Connecticut House of Representatives June 1st Session

Critical race theory is a logical, systematic and truthful way to examine how race and power intertwine. (Additionally, it is a post-graduate pedagogical tool, not a class being taught to young people.) While cultural oral traditions and storytelling must certainly be honored and continued, they do not negate the statistically verifiable manifestations of systems that oppress certain groups of people. Perspective and point of view are subjective. If history is only taught from the lens of the dominant culture, it is inherently flawed. Calling this fact out does not equate with disparaging that culture. Can we love our country and still acknowledge its flaws? Of course we can. In fact, we have the moral obligation to take a hard look at our nation’s history and to vow to do better in the future, not despite our love for country, but precisely because of it.

When the Founding Fathers put in the Constitution all men are created equal” they meant women and people of color, too.

June 7th (Time: 11:58:18) CT-N: Connecticut House of Representatives June 7th Session

No, in fact, they didn’t. In the Constitution, people of color were considered less than fully human according to the “Three-Fifths Clause,” a compromise deal made between the North and the South as a way of boosting census populations without granting voting rights. And women couldn’t vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1921 (and Black women, effectively much later). If those groups had been included from the start, as my Republican colleagues insist, there would most likely not have been a Civil War and no need for the Suffrage Movement. This ignorance about our Constitution is a perfect example of why we need to apply in our school curricula the ideas that critical race theory seeks to uncover.

Women are too sensitive and overreactive.

June 7th (Time: 11:57:43) CT-N: Connecticut House of Representatives June 7th Session

Language is powerful. Systemic use of male pronouns implies superiority and primacy. Ever wonder why the generally accepted female alternative for “chairman” is now “chairperson” and not “chairwoman”? Why don’t we simply use “chair” for everyone? (And while we’re at it, let’s recognize that not everyone identifies on that binary. As a grammarian, I struggle with the use of “they” as a single pronoun but it’s not about me, and I respect everyone’s right to be called by the pronoun they choose.)

As long as Democrats hold the majority in the General Assembly, we can continue to pass legislation that serves and protects the public. But we can’t always set the record straight at the moment in which it’s being distorted – whether deliberately or through ignorance. Convincing millions of Americans that the truth no longer matters is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Donald Trump’s legacy. But distortion of the truth was gathering steam before Trump and it will, dangerously, continue without him — as evidenced by the shockingly high numbers of people who refuse the Covid vaccine despite overwhelming and irrefutable data that vaccines prevent Covid deaths.

And while the national GOP playbook has been increasingly leaning to the far right, Republicans have been taking their cues for 40 years from the industry-sponsored group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which creates templates for conservative bills.

Gaslighting the public with false information dishonors the respectful traditions of the Connecticut General Assembly. False narratives on such critical topics as racism, voting rights, and public health issues (not to mention climate change, juvenile justice, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, the pandemic, and a host of others) are on the rise. And whether they are promulgated in the State House and Senate, in town meetings, or on local school boards, they need to be called out. Voters of every political party, including those who are unaffiliated, deserve the truth. Controlling the narrative is tempting. But passing legislation based on the truth – however distasteful it may sometimes be – is the sworn duty of elected officials.

Christine Palm, a Democratic assistant majority leader, is a second-term state representative serving Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam.