January 30, 2013

Labor history on the legislative agenda

The state currently requires Connecticut schools to teach math, science, economics, physical education and even "the dangers of gang membership."
But if Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney has his way, the list may grow.
Looney, a New Haven Democrat, has proposed legislation to require the teaching of "labor history and law, including the history of organized labor, the collective bargaining process and existing legal protections in the workplace, as part of the public school curriculum."
The purpose of Looney's measure is to support "a well-rounded education."
Now labor history has its place, for sure. And it's probably too often ignored.
But the existing law doesn't require schools teach anything about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement or anything else specific. It just calls for students to learn "government and history."
Requiring only labor history to be studied when so much else is left to teachers to decide is... up to the General Assembly.
The proposal is now before the Labor and the Education committees, where it will probably die.
Here's what the law currently calls for:

In the public schools the program of instruction offered shall include at least the following subject matter, as taught by legally qualified teachers, the arts; career education; consumer education; health and safety, including, but not limited to, human growth and development, nutrition, first aid, disease prevention, community and consumer health, physical, mental and emotional health, including youth suicide prevention, substance abuse prevention, safety, which may include the dangers of gang membership, and accident prevention; language arts, including reading, writing, grammar, speaking and spelling; mathematics; physical education; science; social studies, including, but not limited to, citizenship, economics, geography, government and history; and in addition, on at least the secondary level, one or more world languages and vocational education. For purposes of this subsection, world languages shall include American Sign Language, provided such subject matter is taught by a qualified instructor under the supervision of a teacher who holds a certificate issued by the State Board of Education. For purposes of this subsection, the "arts" means any form of visual or performing arts, which may include, but not be limited to, dance, music, art and theatre.

I'm a little concerned about that English spelling of theater, but perhaps that can be fixed someday.

Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

January 22, 2013

Ward: Will not seek reelection this year

After three terms at the helm, Mayor Art Ward announced Tuesday that he plans to call it quits come November.
“Serving three terms as the Mayor of the City of Bristol, my birthplace and hometown, has been an honor, a privilege and a most humbling experience,” the mayor said.
Ward came to office just as the recession began hammering the economy, leading him to preside during a time of shrinking resources.
Mayor Art Ward and his assistant, Mary Suchopar
But, with the cooperation of municipal unions that accepted a number of pay freezes, he managed to pull it off without resorting to layoffs or major tax property taxes.
Even so, Ward nearly lost his last reelection bid in 2011 to Republican challenger Mary Alford and split so badly with his own Democratic Party’s leadership that he almost certainly could not have won its nomination for the city’s top job this year.
It hasn’t been clear, though, whether Ward would force a primary, run as an independent or take some other step to retain the office he’s held since 2007.
There is only one announced candidate for mayor so far, Republican city Councilor Ken Cockayne. But Ward’s decision is likely to unleash others soon.
Mayor Art Ward heads into meeting.

Ward, a former state veterans counselor, said that after eight years on the Zoning Board of Appeals, 14 years as a city councilor and a long stint as mayor “the time has arrived for me to take a respite from city government.”
“My longevity as an appointed and elected official has proved most gratifying and will always remain an integral part of my life,” the mayor said.
“My hope is that I have contributed as much to the people of the City of Bristol as I have been blessed to have received as a result of this wonderful experience.”
Ward said there have been considerable achievements during “the economic turmoil of the past five years,” including the opening of two new schools, consolidation of city departments and more regional cooperation.
Gary Lawton, an independent who twice challenged Ward for the position, said that given the mayor’s lack of support on the town committee “he is wise not to see another term.”
For more information, please see Wednesday’s Bristol Press.

 Here's the press release:
Mayor Arthur J. Ward Will Not Seek a Fourth Term

Bristol, CT, January 22, 2013 –  In a prepared statement, Mayor Ward announced that he will not be seeking a fourth term as Mayor. “Serving three terms as the Mayor of the City of Bristol, my birthplace and hometown, has been an honor, a privilege and a most humbling experience, said Ward.”

“Serving in local government for almost 30 years has given me the opportunity to learn, to experience and to contribute to the future of our great community.”

Ward served eight years on the Zoning Board of Appeals, fourteen years as an elected member of the Bristol City Council representing the first district, and three terms as Mayor.

The Mayor stated, “Community service can often times prove challenging and formidable, but the mission always remains constant - striving for the betterment of the community by insuring that the public safety, security, education and health needs of the people meet the utmost expectations of performance.

One person is hardly capable of achieving these goals alone, as evidenced by the financial impact of the economic turmoil of the past five years.

Bristol has withstood the economic challenges of this recession through the elimination of nearly fifty positions utilizing  the process of attrition, maintaining the practice of fiscal austerity through cooperative budgetary measures between the educational and city components of city government, the consolidation of multiple departments and positions, the presence of commitment of elected and appointed officials, City department heads, staff, employees and most importantly, the backbone of the community – the volunteers and  the citizens of Bristol, all of whom have dedicated themselves for the betterment of the city by collaboratively providing the foundation for the future of our community. .

Bristol has continued on the path of progress for tomorrow – with the stabilization of our excellent bond rating, solid city pension funds, construction and presentation of two new K-8 schools, multiple  regionalization practices, including regional and local resolutions which address longstanding
environmental and flooding concerns along the Pequabuck and Coppermine waterways, combining with neighboring communities in heavy equipment purchases and addressing lower costs associated in the providing of mutual community services, new energy and environmental efficiency provisions, long term commitments such as the new trash-to-energy contract, the proposed new recycling facility and new revenue enhancements such as the “pay as you throw” solid waste program.”

Ward continued: “Economically, Bristol remains strong as a result of the solid commitment of our business community, the ongoing revitalization efforts of our downtown areas - past, present and future and the dedicated residents of all ages possessing the enthusiastic, positive dedicated energy and involvement for the future of Bristol.

Resolution of these many concerns required negotiation, compromise and hard work by all, ultimately reaching the height of accomplishment for everyone – a better Bristol for us, our families and our future generations.

After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that the time has arrived for me to take a respite from city government; accordingly, I am respectfully announcing that I will not be a candidate for reelection to the office of Mayor of the City of Bristol for a fourth term in the upcoming November election.”

Ward concluded: “To my wife Patricia, our families, our friends, our supporters and campaign staffs – this dream would never have become a reality without you. Thank you for all of your love, guidance and support throughout these years

I would be remiss if I didn’t express my extreme gratitude for the abundance of support and the dedication of my administrative assistant, Mary Suchopar for her confidence, allegiance and “go the extra mile” spirit over these past five years.

 I have relished the opportunity to serve with you and to serve for you, I will forever cherish all of the fond memories and assure you that I will continue to exercise the due diligence deserved of both the Office of the Mayor and the people of Bristol throughout the rest of this term of office.

My longevity as an appointed and elected official has proved most gratifying and will always remain an integral part of my life. My hope is that I have contributed as much to the people of the City of Bristol as I have been blessed to have received as a result of this wonderful experience.

As we move forward as a community, I am confident that the people of Bristol will continue the process of responsibly exercising their right to vote and electing a most worthy candidate in the November election.

God Bless the City of Bristol, the State of Connecticut and the United States of America.”
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

January 21, 2013

Picking tobacco in Connecticut, like King did

A story I wrote in 2010:

SIMSBURY – With their weathered red planks and gabled roofs, the long, narrowtobacco sheds of this Connecticut Valley town seem a long way from the civil rights struggle in post-World War II America.

But, oddly enough, they actually played a critical role.
In 1944, a 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr headed north from Atlanta to the tobacco fields of Simsbury, a voyage he undertook mostly to get away from home.
He joined a horde of other young people – including many from nearby towns who rose as early as 4 a.m. to catch buses that took them to the jobs – who cared for the famous shade-grown broad leaf tobacco growing under a sea of gauzy cloth beneath the hot summer sun.
Working in the tobacco fields – miserable summer jobs by all accounts – helped shape the giant who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial less than two decades later to proclaim that he had a dream.
For King, the two summers he worked in the tobacco fields of the Connecticut Valley – in 1944 and in 1947 – were among the most crucial times of his life, his first prolonged look at a society without legally mandated segregation and the spot where he decided to devote his life to the ministry.
King looked back on the first trip to Connecticut in a passage published in his Autobiography a few years ago: “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.
“It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.
“The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect,” King wrote.
That’s the voice of the civil rights leader looking back on his life years later.
But there are also a few remnants of King’s time in Connecticut, the slim memories of an old friend and a handful of letters that King sent home.
King, who lived in a Spartan work camp at a farm owned by Cullman Brothers, snagged one of the best slots available – working in the kitchen instead of the fields.
“I get better food than any of the boys,” he wrote to his father, “and more I get as much as I want.”
That’s probably why one of his friends that summer later told a biographer of the civil rights hero that King was voted one of the two laziest workers that summer from among their group.
When you consider what the work out in the fields was like, it’s not hard to see why someone in the kitchen seemed to have a sweet gig.
Frank Nicastro, a Bristol politician, recently recalled what it was like working for Cullman Brothers about a decade after King’s first trip to Connecticut.
Catching a bus to the fields from Bristol at sunrise, Nicastro said, workers spent most of the day suckering the tobacco plants, or stripping off the little sprouting leaves in between the larger lower leaves.
“The only way  you could do that was dragging your backside” along the often wet or sandy ground down the long rows of plants, Nicastro said, with dirt seeping its way all over everyone.
As the tobacco grew, the next picking entailed kneeling before plant after plant, he remembered.
“It was tough,” Nicastro said.
Steve Emirzian, a writer who lives in Canton, said that when he headed out to the fields as a 13-year-old from his Farmington home in the 1970s, the bosses “barked orders at us kids. We had to grab the three leaves closest to the ground, which sounds easy except you had to determine if a tobacco leaf was ready to be picked,” a subjective term at best.
“The guys in charge would take delight in yelling at us all day” Not THAT one!’ or ‘"Don't pick 'em like a girl!’” Emirzian remembered.
Glenn Klocko of Southington said that at the age of 13 in 1968 he begged his mother to let him work in the fields. She finally relented so he climbed on a bus in Meriden and headed for a tobacco farm in Windsor Locks.
The youngsters were taught to get on their hands and knees and wrap their fingers around the base of each plant and strip away the suckers, the little leaves.
Within an hour, Klocko said, he felt cramped and filthy. When a thunderstorm rolled in, he got covered with mud, too.
Even his underwear was caked brown with the dirt, he said.
By the time he got home, stinky, sore and sunburned, his mother had to turn a hose on him before he could go inside.
“It was hard, hard work,” Klocko said. He never went back.
Brigid Fitzgerald Arace, a former Connecticut resident who lives in Ohio, said she worked with her sister Anne at an East Windsor farm, where they formed a sewing team after the picking was done.
After tying the young tobacco plant to a string early in the summer, she said, the pair shared a machine in the tobacco shed “and took threading two leaves of tobacco at a time onto a wooden lat.”
“I think it took about 20 pairs of leaves before it was full and then we took this lat and hung it on some kind of holder,” she recalled recently, where the tobacco would be left to cure before its sale for use in wrapping cigars.
Diane Davis, who lasted only two weeks because the job was so awful, said she used to come home stained green and smelling like tobacco.
Miserable as the job could be, King found it eye-opening.
“The white people here are very nice,” the 15-year-old King wrote to his father in 1944. “We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”
To his mother, King wrote, “I am doing fine and still having a nice time. We went to church Sunday in Simsbury and we were the only Negroes there. Negroes and whites go to the same church.”
King later wrote that he went to Simsbury just before going to Morehouse College “and worked for a whole summer on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents were doing.”
To his mother that summer, King wrote that he’d had a day off so he went into Hartford with friends and “had a nice time there.”
“I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there,” he wrote.
King returned to pick tobacco again in the summer of 1947, when he “led religious service for his fellow student workers at a tobacco farm” in Simsbury, according to Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr Papers Project at Stanford University.
But it may have been beer that propelled King to declare his intention to become a preacher that summer.
According to Taylor Branch’s magisterial history of King, police accosted King during some sort of beer in the barracks shenanigans, though they didn’t make an arrest. But concern that the episode might reach his father’s ears in Atlanta may have convinced the future civil rights leader to tell his dad about his career choice quickly in order to fend off the possibility of trouble at home.
Carson said that “about all we know” of King’s early forays to Connecticut comes from his letters.
It happened so long ago that few if any people have any memory of King from those summers, he said, and he would look skeptically at claims by others to recall much of anything about King in those days.
After all, he said, King was just a teenage boy at the time with “no real strong connections” to the area.
Other than the summers picking tobacco, Carson said, probably the only other times that King went to Connecticut were to give a speech or two.
Connecticut Public Television’s Connecticut Journal determined that King spoke at least a dozen times at Yale, Wesleyan and in Bridgeport in the years after the Montgomery bus boycott. He also gave at least one address at Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium.
It isn’t clear whether he ever mentioned his earlier trips to Connecticut during one of his addresses at the height of his fame.
But what is obvious is that Connecticut left its mark on King, who would be 81 years old this month if an assassin hadn’t gunned him down.

Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

January 20, 2013

Ward may decide soon on mayoral run

I'm hearing from quite a few people that Mayor Art Ward will announce as soon as this week whether  he will seek reelection to a fourth term as the city's leader. The consensus bet? He won't run again.
On the GOP side, only city Councilor Ken Cockayne has declared an intention to seek the office. He may face a challenge from fellow Councilor Henri Martin. Other Republicans may be eyeing the contest, too.
On the Democratic side, if Ward chooses not to run, expect a free-for-all unless former Mayor Frank Nicastro, who's currently a state representative, chooses to reclaim the office. He would make a formidable candidate, by all accounts, having never lost a race in a quarter century.
If Nicastro doesn't run, the possibilities include city Councilor Kevin Fuller, former city Councilors Ellen Zoppo and Kevin McCauley and, well, a host of others.

Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com