Reactions to controversial statements by State Rep. Ernest Hewett have garnered a variety of local reactions, with some residents supporting calls for him to step down and others believing that much has been made of a minor issue.
After reading an article on the statements, New London resident Jackie Rivera said she thought Hewett should resign.
"I'm pretty much appalled by the whole situation," said Rivera. "I'm very very taken, and can't believe in this day and age to see something like this coming from politicians."
Another New London resident, who asked only to be identified as Bill, said thought Hewett's remarks were ill-advised. However, he said he thought people were reading too much into Hewett's statement.
"If this was said 30 or 40 years ago, no one would have thought it was something sexual," he said.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey stripped Hewett of his deputy speaker title, which he received in January, following a comment he made to a 17-year-old girl at a Feb. 20 Appropriations Committee hearing. The girl was speaking in support of funding for the Connecticut Science Center, which would lose $630,000 under Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget. At one point in her testimony, the girl mentioned how her work as an intern at the center helped her overcome her fear of snakes.
According to an audio recording of the hearing, Hewett asked to speak at the end of the girl's testimony and commented, "And if you're bashful, I've got a snake sitting under my desk here."
State Rep. Elissa Wright (D-41st District), whose district includes Groton, said the speaker made the right decision.
“The speaker took appropriate action, a response was made, a protocol was put in place and we’re going to move forward from here," said Wright. "It’s important that we treat each other and members of the public with the dignity and respect that we all deserve.”
Jerry Labriola Jr., chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, earlier called for Hewett's resignation and has since started a petition calling for the same. Other Republicans were more forgiving. Kurtiss Vibber, a Waterford resident and member of the party, said he did not think Hewett should be forced to resign.
"Hewett made a mistake," said Vibber. "I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion, and I think firing him is way beyond what is necessary to correct the situation."
Hewett said he meant to make a humorous remark and realized later that it could be interpreted as sexual innuendo. Connecticut Science Center CEO Matt Fleury said Hewett made an apology to the girl through the center and she accepted it.
However, Hewett has also been criticized for statements made after the apology. According to the Hartford Courant, Hewett said on Friday that he "purposely will not have female interns" in his office. He said, "I've had female interns in the past that sit in my office all day. I thought it was totally weird and I didn't want another." Hewett said he did not have the ability to choose whether he had a male or female intern assigned to him.
"That's why I was so leery about staying away from interns. I don't know what they're going to give me," Hewett said. "They may give me a female, but I don't want a female intern. That may sound sexist but I really don't. That way that keeps me good and that keeps everybody else good."
According to The Bulletin, Rep. Mae Flexer - a Democrat from Killingly - said she was offended by this remark and considered that Hewett "[made] it sound like he can’t work with a female intern without sexually harassing her. It’s a misogynist set-up." Flexer also said Hewett has acted in "inappropriate ways" before but did not go into details.
According to the Hartford Courant, State Rep. Arthur O'Neill, a Republican from Southbury, said Hewett has made questionable remarks in the past and that his remark at the committee was "not the first time I've seen his behavior raise some doubts in my mind about what his thinking was." Hewett, who is married, said he has complimented women on their appearance but denied that he has sexually harassed anyone.
The New London Republican Town Committee was expected to discuss whether to ask for Hewett's resignation and "address the possible cover up of his behavior by the State Assembly Democrats." Labriola has also criticized Sharkey's punishment, which included the loss of $6,446 given to leaders above the regular $28,000 legislator's salary, as too lenient.
Labriola said in a Monday post on the Connecticut Republican Party website that the deputy speaker title was "largely ceremonial" and that Sharkey's action was "a slap on the wrist." His petition for Hewett's resignation, posted on ipetition.com, calls his Feb. 20 remark a "disgrace and an embarrassment. The fact that it was made to a 17 year-old intern visiting the State Capitol to attend a public hearing sends an absolutely atrocious message."
The petition had collected 1,739 signatures as of Tuesday morning; the petition does not allow visitors to see who the signatories are.
Several residents asked about the controversy said they were unaware of Hewett's remarks.
"I don't really know that much about it because I actually didn't follow it to hear what he actually said, maybe because I was kind of scared about what he actually said," said Quaker Hill resident Andrea Rossi-Reder. "That's all I can say, really."
Hewett, who has represented the 39th Assembly District since he was first elected in 2004, told the Courant on Friday that he does not plan to step down.
Groton Patch editor Deborah Straszheim contributed to this report.