State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield is so closely associated with the drive to repeal Connecticut's death penalty that he says someone once asked him, "Do you work on anything else?"
In fact, the two-term Democrat from New Haven noted that he has been involved in several high-profile issues at the Capitol, from transgender civil rights to an effort to ensure all kids are reading by third grade.
"But the death penalty gets more press,'' Holder-Winfield said Tuesday, the day before the House of Representatives is scheduled to debate the future of capital punishment in Connecticut.
Last week, the Senate voted to repeal the state's long-standing but seldom-used death penalty. Instead of execution, those convicted of the most serious crimes would face life in prison without possibility of release.
Both supporters and critics expect the bill to win approval in the House after a lengthy debate.
It's a cause Holder-Winfield, now vice chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, has championed since arriving at the Capitol after his election in 2008. The following year, he helped shepherd the bill through the legislature only to watch with disappointment as then-Gov.M. Jodi Rellveto it. (This year, Gov.Dannel P. Malloyhas pledged to sign the measure, which is written to apply only to future crimes and, at least in theory, will not stop the 11 men currently on death row from being executed.)
Back in 2009, Holder-Winfield was a freshman in a place where seniority is key, yet he "did the heavy lifting'' on the bill, said Michael Lawlor, who chaired the judiciary committee for 16 years before leaving the General Assembly to take a job as the Malloy administration's undersecretary for criminal justice matters. Lawlor stressed he was speaking as a former lawmaker who worked closely on the judiciary committee with Holder-Winfield and not in his official capacity as a member of Malloy's team.
Holder-Winfield won over lawmakers not through passionate persuasion but by listening as they hashed out the difficult legal, political, ethical and moral questions that swirl around capital punishment, Lawlor said.
Holder-Winfield's main strategy "was just talking it through with people, [he] helped them develop a level of comfort," Lawlor said. And, Lawlor added, "he got people to think about it in the world here at the Capitol where there are a million things to be distracted by."
Rep. John Hetherington, a death penalty supporter, sits next to Holder-Winfield on the committee.
"He's a strong and determined advocate,'' said Hetherington, a Republican from New Canaan. "But he's always respectful of other people's viewpoints. Sometimes I say to him, 'I wish I could vote with you Gary' and he'll say 'You have to do what you think is right.'"
He has also reached out to fellow lawmakers and constituents as one of the General Assembly's most prolific users of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, as well as old-school face-to-face meetings. The tools have been helpful, he said, because some of the causes he's championed are not, at first glance, among the most politically popular.
"Most of the issues I take on are issues people have to struggle with,'' he said. "My position is, what other people see as improbable, I see as possible."
Holder-Winfield, 38, grew up in the Bronx, raised by his mother after his father succumbed to drugs, according to his official biography. He served in the Navy and now works for the American Association of University Professors.
He said his opposition to the death penalty is rooted in a belief that it is unjust and the wrong public policy for the state. He has spoken to former Rep. William Dyson, whose seat he now holds, and former House Speaker Irving Stolberg, who has since died. Both men fought vigorously against the death penalty during their time at the Capitol.
Faith also plays a role. Born Catholic, Holder-Winfield attended Catholic school and now identifies himself as a Baptist. "Jesus Christ,'' he noted, "was executed by the state."