Connecticut House Speaker Seeks, and Finds, the Middle Ground
Matt Ritter ’04 had shown a gift for politics since his time at Colby
HARTFORD, Conn. – If there is activity happening somewhere in the stately halls of the historic Connecticut State Capitol, chances are Matt Ritter ’04 is at the center of it.
One day this winter, Hartford native Ritter, a Democrat who was sworn in this year for his second term as the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, moved fast through a packed schedule. He took part in a reproductive rights press conference and held meetings in his spacious office with a concerned constituent and lobbyists from Target, the AFL-CIO, and a police union. He also presided over a sometimes-emotional session of house lawmakers, the first time the body had met since a popular Democratic state representative was killed by a wrong-way driver earlier that month.
But Ritter still made time to chat and joke with aides, politicians, and others who crossed his path, all the while clutching his Dunkin Donuts cold brew coffee (no sugar added), like a talisman of New England fortitude and caffeine.
In his position, he needs both. As Speaker, he is continuing a three-generation family political tradition with skills that he honed while studying government at Colby, while trying to steer his state clear of the partisanship that has hamstrung Washington, D.C. To be effective in his House leadership role, Ritter said, he has to both represent his own constituents and work cooperatively with the 97 other Democrats in his caucus and the 54 Republicans in the house, all of whom can come to him when they have problems to solve.
“When you’re a rank-and-file member, you feel like you’re going a million miles an hour. Part of my job is to slow down. Time is a wonderful asset,” he said. “A lot can change in a day. And if you are too quick on things, if you’re too impulsive, this chair loses a little bit of its luster. You want to come in when it’s the right time to come in, and weigh in when it’s the right time.”
Getting things done
So far, his measured approach seems to be working. While it’s practically a national pastime to say that politics isn’t working, with the country mired in toxic divisions, acrimony, and gridlock, that’s not the case in Connecticut. Ritter, who comes from a political family with a 50-year record of public service, is doing his best to keep it that way.
“We’re a throwback to what it used to be,” he said. “I worry that will change over time, and so I do my damndest to keep it the way it’s been.”
That may sound quaintly old-fashioned, but the risk inherent in changing is clear whenever he thinks about how it’s going in the U.S. Congress. So little gets done in Washington that state governments have had the opportunity, or perhaps the obligation, to do more for their citizens. No one else is, he said.
“The trend that I’m noticing is Congress has become so paralyzed that the state legislatures are now on the forefront of a lot of these issues that used to be nationalized,” Ritter said. “Gun rights, reproductive rights, voting rights. In their absence, states are stepping in environmental policies. There’s this notion that the Connecticut legislature, like others, is doing a lot more. I think it’s because Congress is doing a lot less.”
The Connecticut House is managing to do more even though members don’t always agree with each other. Sometimes they disagree fiercely, with the same range of conservative and liberal members who are in the U.S. Congress. “But people buy into this because if you don’t buy into process and tradition, the institution crumbles and this place falls apart,” Ritter said. “And I think people at least like getting things done.”
Finding the middle ground
That’s true, said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora.
“Demographically, it’s a small state, and regardless of your party affiliation you do create relationships in the building that transcend politics,” he said. “There certainly can be issues that are more contentious than others. On the one hand, we certainly do debate the bills, but on the other hand, there’s a mutual respect for the institution.”
He thinks that Ritter has a lot to do with that.
“I have served with Speakers who are less inclusive and respectful of the minority party than Speaker Ritter has been,” he said. “I think he takes on the role of mediator lots of times. I think he prides himself on being able to get bipartisan support on legislation.”
The Republican House leader gave the speech seconding Ritter’s nomination to serve as Speaker this winter. It’s a turn of events that is simply unimaginable in Washington, D.C., where it took 15 rounds of votes before Rep. Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the House by his own party.
“I think our relationship is founded on trust,” Candelora said. “I hope it’s not rare throughout politics. But I think it’s an important component. If the leaders can’t be honest with each other, the system can’t work.”
Christopher Keating, the longtime Capitol Bureau Chief for the Hartford Courant, said Ritter has had his work cut out to keep own party together on issues, but he has managed to do it. The Democratic caucus runs the gamut from “major, major progressives” who want to raise the state income tax, a third rail of Connecticut politics, to fiscal moderates who adamantly do not want to do that.
“Ritter has to deal with liberals, moderates, and conservatives, and try to keep them all in line,” he said. “Holding his diverse caucus together, it’s a balancing act, and I don’t think it’s easy. It’s kind of like herding cats.”
On a personal level, Keating also appreciates the Speaker’s forthright approach with the press corps. “As a reporter, the most important thing is that a guy is a straight shooter,” he said. “Ritter is kind of known, I think, as a straight shooter.”
A gift for politics
As an undergraduate at Colby, Ritter was a government major and served as class president for three years.
“A little different being class president than maybe real politics,” he said. “But I had a lot of fun doing it.”
From the beginning, he displayed his political gift, said Sandy Maisel, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, Emeritus. Ritter was his student and also a participant in the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin study abroad program in London, which Maisel and his wife, Patrice Franko, Grossman Professor of Economics and director of the Global Studies Program, helped lead.
“We got to know him very well. He’s one of the standouts that we had,” he said. “His father was in politics as well. And it was just clear from Day 1 that he lived and breathed politics, and that he was really good at it.”
Ritter was smart, and friendly, and could talk to anyone, Maisel said—qualities that have served him well in politics. He’s also responsive and genuine, not necessarily traits shared by all politicians. When Cal Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, Emeritus, retired several years ago, Maisel sent letters to alumni to establish an award in Mackenzie’s name.
“I think that Matt was the first person to respond. That was just so typical,” Maisel said. “And he responded with a story, with a specific memory, and that was really important.”
Jumping into the fray
After Colby, Ritter went to the University of Connecticut School of Law and now works as a bond attorney for Shipman & Goodwin LLP, a firm based in Hartford.
But politics was in his blood. The family tradition began with his grandfather George Ritter, who returned home as a pacifist after fighting in World War II and became a union organizer, civil rights advocate, and local politician.
Tom Ritter, Matt Ritter’s father, was also active in state politics and served three terms as Connecticut Speaker of the House during the 1990s. The capitol, and the Speaker’s office, were familiar places for Ritter when he was young. “As a kid, this is where you’d come for Christmas vacation, or winter break, because where else are you going to be when you’re out of school?” he said.
And although he wanted to be a sportscaster growing up, it didn’t take him long to jump into the political fray. After graduating from law school, he was elected to the Hartford City Council.
“That was my first job. I remember asking my parents for permission—that’s how young I was. My mother said no because I was taking the bar [exam]. My dad said yes,” Ritter recalled. “So I said, ‘Dad wins this one.’”
At 28, he ran for the state legislature, defeating the Democratic incumbent by just two votes in the primary election.
“There’s a lot of luck and timing, which no one ever wants to hear about. Every young person I meet who likes politics, they have their whole life planned out. They’re going to run for this, they’re going to run for that,” Ritter said. “And it’s like sports. The ball’s got to bounce your way a little bit. If you want a seat with a really good incumbent, you may not get it. You may want to run for the Senate and someone may have $500 million to spend against you. You just never know what can happen. And so I remind people to be flexible and just do a good job where you are.”
Ritter said he’s likely to run for Speaker for one more term, making a total of three terms. No Connecticut Speaker has served more than that, and he doesn’t anticipate wanting to change that tradition.
After that, it’s not certain what’s next. He can see himself returning to full-time private law practice, traveling more with his wife, Marilyn Katz, a primary care physician and professor, being a sports dad to Emma, 7, and Jack, 9, and going to even more UConn Huskies basketball games than he does now. One day, he’ll maybe even follow up on his longtime dream of becoming a sportscaster.
“I think I’m a little different than most politicians. I like it, but it’s not my whole life,” Ritter said. “If I run for another office, I probably have one more in me, and that would obviously be a statewide office. But I really don’t want to go to Washington.”
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