In First Interview as Senate Minority Leader, Stephen Harding Sketches Out His Approach

State Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield (CT Examiner)


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DANBURY – After the Senate Republican Caucus forced Minority Leader Kevin Kelly to step down in a stunning move on the Friday afternoon before Presidents Day weekend, his replacement freshman State Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, spoke to CT Examiner about his new role as Senate Minority Leader.

Senate Republicans on the record are saying it was time for new leadership and that both men are committed to working together for the betterment of the caucus.

One person familiar with the situation, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, told CT Examiner that “the writing was on the wall” and that the change was needed. Another, who also asked for anonymity, told CT Examiner on Monday that ”different members had different feelings [about Kelly]. It wasn’t just one issue.”

An issue for some, according to one person familiar with the matter, was that a number of members were upset about the sudden firing several weeks ago of Senate Republican Caucus Chief of Staff John Healey  But that firing, according to the source, was not the final straw, just one issue at play.

In an exclusive interview from his Danbury law offices Monday morning Harding told CT Examiner that he had no idea that a change had been made until he arrived at work at the Capitol on Friday.

“I’m not going to go into the details of the caucus but I will say that, you know, Kevin felt it was the right time and the caucus felt it was the right time to move in the direction of a new name to be leader, that being myself,” Harding said. “I’m humbled by that.”

Sources said there was no caucus vote on removing Kelly, rather Kelly and Harding, who served four terms in the State House of Representatives prior to his election to the Senate in 2022, met privately and then agreed that Harding would take over the reins of the caucus. That had the full support of the 12 Republican Senate members, sources say. 

The Democrats have a 24-12 majority in the state Senate.

Kelly, who served in the post as minority leader for three years, has declined press attempts – including by CT Examiner – to discuss the matter other than to issue a joint press release with Harding.

“I have been incredibly honored to serve as the leader of this caucus and will work collaboratively with Sen. Harding going forward,” Kelly said in the statement. “Our caucus is made up of hard-working individuals who love our state and are ready to fight for it.”

Harding told CT Examiner that he will lean on Kelly’s guidance and suggestions and that he wants to continue where Kelly left off.

“I hope to talk to Kevin on a regular basis,” Harding said. “I think that, in order for me to be successful in this role, I’m going to have to talk to Kevin on a regular basis. He’s extremely smart and he’s an incredible advocate for this caucus and for his district.”

Harding added that Kelly “has offered me his full support and we have spoken since my appointment in this role. I think Kevin and I both believe in making this transition as smooth as possible for our caucus.”

Asked if he planned on bringing Healey back to run the caucus as chief of staff, Harding told CT Examiner, “No decisions have been made on anything. Our caucus has to make decisions on what is the best path forward and so, you know, we are considering a lot of different things as a caucus. Decisions on a number of issues, staff related and non-staff related, will be made in collaboration with all the [GOP] senators.”

Both Harding and Kelly have filed papers to run again for their respective seats in 2024.

Harding told CT Examiner that he and Kelly have similar philosophies and that he will continue to move forward on issues important to the caucus.

“Kevin and I are both commonsense Republicans. We have similar philosophies and are both pragmatic,” Harding said.

The main issues that are important to the caucus, Harding said, revolve around lowering the cost of utilities, keeping fiscal guardrails in place and pushing back against plans to adopt California’s emission standards and mandating a shift to electric vehicles by 2035.

“Kevin was a great leader for this caucus and, I think, he advanced on a lot of great causes and was successful in a lot of great causes for our caucus. I point to the recent EV mandate,” Harding said. “He has also been a huge advocate for keeping the fiscal guardrails we have in our state. I think it’s one of the main reasons why those fiscal guardrails are still in place and why, i believe, the governor has been championing that effort – because of the collaboration with Sen. Kelly and others in maintaining those fiscal guardrails. Kevin has been critical to that.”

Harding said he’d continue pushing forward where Kelly left off on issues like keeping the 2017 fiscal guardrails in place.

Harding said another big issue for residents is the cost of utilities, something that he said is a topmost concern for the caucus.

“Utility rates being lowered is something I hear from my constituents on a regular basis, whether it be at the supermarket, a gas station, or even the football game on Friday night,” Harding said.

Harding said he believes it’s not out of the question for Republicans to pick up two or three or more seats in the State Senate in November.

“I believe we can [pick up more seats],” he said. “It’s about advancing those causes we believe in. It’s messaging. It’s ultimately about getting that message across to the voters.”

Harding’s colleagues say he was the perfect choice to take over as Senate Minority Leader.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, told CT Examiner that published reports that she wanted the job were untrue, and that Harding had always been the first choice to replace Kelly.

“I’m not sure where that information came from,” Somers told CT Examiner. “I was never interested in being the leader of the Senate.”

Somers said Harding will be “a terrific leader that will help us gain more seats. He has a lot of experience, having served many years in the House. He has shown great leadership skills and has great temperament. He also has a great relationship with the House. He is a very big people’s person and is good at communicating. Everyone in the Senate will have an ability to weigh in and have their voices be heard.”

State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, told CT Examiner that Harding  is “earnest and genuinely wants to see what is best for the state. He’s always trying to generate the best outcomes and work with others in order to achieve those ends.”

Harding told CT Examiner that Gov. Ned Lamont reached out to him soon after he was named Senate minority leader and that the two spoke on the telephone Monday morning for about 15 minutes.

“It was more or less an introduction,” Harding said. “We’ve met each other a couple of times in passing, but I’ve not really had too many substantive conversations with him. I think we are both committed to sitting down and hearing from each other on the issues that are important to my caucus and the issues that are going to be important to his office. I think it’s important for all of our caucuses to have a relationship where we can sit down with the governor’s office and promote our caucuses’ messages. That’s ultimately good government, in my opinion.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950