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Rep. Ernest Hewett has put the snake incident behind him

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 06/14/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 06/13/2013 11:42 PM

I have long thought state Rep. Ernest Hewett got railroaded back in February when he was accused of sexually harassing a young woman testifying before the General Assembly, telling her he had a snake under his desk.

By itself, the comment might sound worrisome.

But when you hear the whole thing in context, it is totally innocent, as Hewett snapped on his microphone during a crowded hearing and attempted to make light of the young woman's own testimony about her fear of snakes.

"I was trying to make her feel comfortable," Hewett told me this week, in his first full interview about the incident since it happened. The remark cost him his deputy house speaker leadership post.

The only black legislator among the six deputy speakers when he was demoted by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, Hewett also took a $6,000 pay cut.

I was under the impression at the time it happened that Hewett was the victim of ingrained racism that has led over the years to many black men being unfairly accused of sexual-related crimes, especially in instances where white women are involved.

In this case, the young woman herself, an ambassador for the Connecticut Science Center, later made it clear she did not feel harassed and had no interest in filing a complaint against the New London lawmaker.

Really, why did so many people, from the governor to the speaker of the house, infer sexual connotation in a remark that both people involved - Hewett and the intern - agreed was about snakes, not about sex?

Hewett told me this week he agrees that the response and punishment he got for the snake remark were probably the result of discrimination, with people's minds persuaded by stereotypes rather than the facts.

"Other people turned it into something sexual," Hewett said. "I can't take ownership of that."

Hewett also recalled this week the difficulties he had in weathering the criticism, staying home and away from the General Assembly at first. One of the good things that came out of it all, he said, was that he lost a lot of weight because of the stress, weight he intends to keep off.

The worst part of the punishment, Hewett said, was the total lack of any due process. He was never even asked what happened or given a chance to explain himself before the leadership post was taken from him, he said.

The representative said his staying at home while the storm of controversy passed - he got calls from reporters from as far away as India - allowed him some time to spend with his 1-year-old grandchild. It was the support of his family, including his wife and three kids, that helped him get through it all, he added.

"You have to have family in this business," he said.

Hewett said he thought about but never really considered resigning, knowing, he said, he has done nothing wrong.

"It's not how you fall. It's how you get up," he said.

Hewett told me he is determined to make something positive from the whole event. He said he also feels a new freedom from the political leadership in Hartford, who can't use his leadership post anymore to try to make him vote the way they want.

I met Hewett at the doughnut shop on Broad Street in New London that he turns into a makeshift office when he wants to be available to constituents at home.

Judging by the jaunty greetings he got from so many people the morning we met, I would guess that Hewett's political base in the city is secure.

The lawmaker said he also got a warm and enthusiastic response in Hartford from many fellow legislators when he returned to the General Assembly.

What's now left to really bury the whole unfortunate incident is for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who called the New London lawmaker's remark "repugnant," and for Speaker Sharkey, who unreasonably and summarily demoted the city's representative, to publicly apologize.

They need to offer apologies not just to Hewett but to all his constituents, black and white, whom they insulted when they unfairly attacked the legislator who represents New London.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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