“I don’t know how you legislate equality” asserted Rep. Kimberly Fiorello at a recent meeting of the Judiciary Committee. Republican Fiorello was elected last fall to fill the 149th district Assembly seat vacated by retiring state legislator Livvy Floren, at the time considered the most moderate Republican in the CT General Assembly (though her voting record was anything but progressive).
Commenting on language in the bill to legalize marijuana that includes remedying and preventing inequity and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, Rep. Fiorello claimed, “bills can’t do this; it’s not possible.”
Beyond doubting the ability of government to promote equality, she called the effort to even attempt to do so “very problematic” and not “the proper role of government.”
Our country was founded on the self-evident truth that people have “certain unalienable Rights” and that to “secure these rights, Governments are instituted.” It is disturbing and unacceptable that Rep. Fiorello, who took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, is so divorced from the fundamental underpinnings of our republic.
For more than 50 years since the civil rights movement began, state and federal governments have passed laws to deliver on our original promise in the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. While the murder of George Floyd, and the Trump-inspired, white supremacist-led, insurrection on Jan. 6, make painfully apparent that much still needs to be done to achieve racial equality, civil rights laws have remedied past discrimination and prevented new attempts to discriminate against protected classes of Americans.
Perhaps Rep. Fiorello is unaware that by his 1949 executive order, President Truman ended segregation in the military, as clear an example as any that government can promote equality. Truman’s actions set the stage for the civil rights movement that achieved its most ambitious successes with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Facing the most far-reaching agenda of voter access laws to come before the CT General Assembly in recent memory, Rep. Fiorello needs to appreciate that it is incumbent upon government to pass laws to advance equality, and to admit that they work, especially when it comes to voting rights.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a profound impact on voter access and election outcomes for Black Americans. In Mississippi, voter registration among eligible Blacks skyrocketed from 7 percent in 1964 to 67 percent just five years later. By 1980, the proportion of Southern Blacks registered to vote surpassed the rest of the country. The number of Black elected officials increased more than ten-fold in the decade following passage of the VRA in the nine Southern states that required Justice Department preclearance for proposed changes to voting laws.
Ironically, to convince herself that laws can prevent discrimination, Rep. Fiorello need look no further than the conservative Supreme Court justices whose 2013 Shelby v. Holder ruling held that Section 4 of the VRA—the preclearance provision—was unnecessary, because the law had been so effective. But Shelby also serves as a glaring example of why anti-discrimination laws are so essential. Within hours of the ruling, Republican legislators in North Carolina and Texas moved to restrict voting; other states began to enforce laws that earlier had been prohibited by the VRA preclearance requirement.
Constituents in the 149th District need to put Fiorello on notice: she must accept that government has an essential role to play in advancing equality, and vote accordingly. If not, she doesn’t belong in office. Rep. Fiorello can be reached at email@example.com.