J.R. Romano, the top Republican party official in the state, and Democratic state Sen. Mae Flexer of Killingly disagree on just about every major public policy question.
Yet this week, Romano heaped praise on Flexer for her swift and strongly-worded denunciation of her fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty.
Flexer was the first Democratic officeholder in Connecticut to call for Esty’s resignation after details about the 5th District congresswoman’s handling of threats made by her male chief of staff to a female colleague. Following Flexer’s comments late Friday, other state-level Democrats echoed her call and Flexer was featured on CNN.
“Mae has spoken out condemning this type of behavior before and she’s not doing it for political gain but because she believes in it,’’ said Romano, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican party.
Romano said members of the state’s congressional delegation — who have all declined to publicly call on Esty to step down — could take a lesson from Flexer.
A lifelong resident of the Danielson section of Killingly, Flexer, 37, is used to going out on her own. She joined the local Democratic town committee at 18 and became the youngest ever town committee chair at age 23. She was elected to the state House in 2008 and is now the youngest state senator.
“It’s not pleasant to speak out against someone from your own party,’’ Flexer said. “But you have to look beyond that tribal instinct.’’
This isn’t the first time Flexer has tangled with her fellow Democrats on issues relating to sexual harassment. Well before allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a sweeping reassessment of how such matters should be handled, Flexer was speaking out. In 2013, she condemned a state lawmaker who made a sexually suggestive reference to a snake under his desk to a teenage girl during a legislative hearing.
Flexer also denounced state Rep. Angel Arce, a Hartford Democrat who sent a series of inappropriate messages to a teenage girl. Arce resigned last week.
“It’s not pleasant to speak out against someone from your own party. But you have to look beyond that tribal instinct.”— State Sen. Mae Flexer
Flexer’s sprawling eastern Connecticut district includes some of the most conservative communities in the state, as well as Wilimantic and Storrs, two of the most liberal.
One of her constituents, Toni Moran, a Democrat from Mansfield, called Flexer courageous for her willingness to call out bad behavior, regardless of party affiliation.
“She’s one of our heroines,’’ said Moran, who serves on the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, a nonpartisan research organization created by the General Assembly. “Her courage on speaking out on sexual harassment issues has put her at odds with her leadership but that’s the kind of courage it takes to make change.”
Flexer’s parents were not political but she became involved at a young age, jumping into town budget battles while she was still a student at Killingly High School.
Her father is a veteran who served in the Vietnam War. Her mother is an Irish immigrant whose own parents did not set aside money for their daughters to go to school, though they did fund their sons’ education.
Growing up in Windham County, the family struggled and her father suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Flexer attended UConn on a Pell grant, a federal scholarship program for the neediest students.
She has become one of the loudest voices in the legislature on the need to reshape policies on sexual harassment and assault. Flexer is also the executive director of Emerge Connecticut, the local chapter of a national group that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
She said her activism on behalf of the #MeToo movement isn’t motivated by one incident but rather the accumulation of a lifetime of experience as a woman.
“I draw on my own experience and on the experiences of the women I love and care about and respect,’’ she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney credited Flexer with helping push the issue of sexual harassment to the forefront of the legislature’s agenda.
“She does have a strong sense of how public policy should be ethical and moral and that that should apply across the board, regardless of party,’’ Looney said. “She really is now in the mainstream of issues that growing numbers of Democrats are concerned about.”
On Tuesday, the legislature’s judiciary committee approved an omnibus bill to overhaul state laws dealing with sexual harassment and assault. The Time’s Up Act would strengthen sexual harassment training requirements, reform the complaint process and eliminate the statute of limitations on certain sexual assault crimes, among other changes.
Flexer said she’s hopeful the current reckoning will result in lasting change.
“If we want equality for women, we have to expect better behavior,’’ she said.