March 23 was the 40th anniversary of 18-year-olds gaining the right to vote. East Haven High School celebrated this occasion by holding Democracy Day, and I was invited to speak to two classes about the importance of voting.
I didn’t have any prepared remarks, but the theme of our conversation quickly turned to how an ordinary citizen can make a difference in the political process. I asked the students how many they read a newspaper or an online news source. Only two raised their hands.
“If you want to take on the responsibility of choosing who to vote for and trying to better your community, the first step is being informed,” I told them.
I was peppered with questions about my new job as state representative and the more I answered, the more I realized the acute importance of the public hearing process. Every bill raised in the Connecticut legislature must go through a public hearing, where we hear testimony from public officials and members of the public. This, I gushed to my listeners, is a great way to get your voice heard. Legislators cannot possibly have expert knowledge on all of the bills that we hear so input from the public is a vital part of the process.
We don’t always hear from experts at these hearings, but we do hear from people from all walks of life with different and valuable perspectives. Testifying in front of a committee can be an unnerving experience and I have great respect for those who feel so passionately about an issue, that they are willing to come forward and speak about it.
On March 21, the Judiciary Committee, on which I sit, heard testimony on a bill regarding transgender rights. The day dragged on and the testimony became dry and repetitive. But my ears perked up when a young graduate student took the mic and introduced herself as Elizabeth Deck from East Haven.
Elizabeth is studying at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and was testifying in favor of equal rights for transgendered individuals. Her profession’s code of ethics, she explained, instructs her to “help people in need, address social problems and challenge social injustices.” She felt strongly enough about this particular social injustice to speak on behalf of an entire group of people of which she is not a member.
I went up to her after she spoke and introduced myself.
“Were you nervous?” I asked.
“A little,” she said, but then told me that she had testified last year in support of a bill for mandatory paid sick leave. Apparently she’s a seasoned veteran.
“Thanks so much for coming,” I told her. “You make East Haven proud.”
When the bell rang at East Haven High signifying the end of my Q&A with the kids, I smiled as many of them filled out voter registration cards provided by their government teacher, Mr. DeNuzzo.
“I’m going to start reading the newspaper now, Mr. Albis,” said senior Andrew Schneer as he completed his form and walked out the door to go to his next class.
This, I thought, is what Democracy Day is all about.