Minority legislators sense moment to pass 'bold' legislation

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Connecticut House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, right, speaks with State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, left, during session at the State Capitol in Hartford, Conn., on Monday, April 19, 2021. In July 2020 after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Black and Latino members of the Connecticut General Assembly worked to enact sweeping changes to policing in the state, and since, have continue to flex their collective muscles. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

In July after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Black and Latino members of the Connecticut General Assembly worked to enact sweeping changes to policing in the state, and since, have continue to flex their collective muscles.

Vowing that was “just the beginning,” the lawmakers have turned to other long-standing issues affecting communities of color, from insisting any new recreational marijuana program will benefit those most harmed by the war on drugs, to addressing the impact of racism on public health disparities that were underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We pretty much said that no bill will pass if it’s not equitable to the communities of color. We pretty much said, ‘That’s our mantra,’” said Rep. Geraldo Reyes, a Democrat and chairman of the influential Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, which has a record high 32 members this year in the 151-member Connecticut General Assembly.

They led passage of a bill in March making it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their hairstyle, with lawmakers recalling during emotional floor debates the indignity they and their relatives have experienced for wearing their natural hair in work places or at schools. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont signed it into law.

In state legislatures across the country, minority legislators and their allies are seizing on the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice to insist equity be considered in a range of legislation. And many are urging their colleagues to be bold.

“If we don’t do it now, we will never get it done,” said Connecticut state Sen. Doug McCrory of Hartford, a Black legislator who called for an end to “Novocain” legislation: numbing, incremental bills that don't make major improvements for people of color regarding housing, economic opportunity, education and more.

A similar sentiment was echoed in California, where the first Black lawmakers to lead that Legislature’s two public safety committees promised to bring “radical change” to improve the treatment of Black and Latino people by law enforcement.

“We can now focus like a laser to make sure that our communities are not continuing to be oppressed,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles.