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Welfare Scorn Decades Ago Still Drives Hartford Legislator

By JEFFREY B. COHEN | Courant Staff Writer

August 09, 2008

It's been decades since Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey went on welfare with two children, but the feeling still sticks with her.

"I know what it is to be looked down upon because I had that happen to me when I was on welfare," said Kirkley-Bey, a state representative from Hartford running for her ninth term in office. "I was not judged by quality of my character, but by the source of my income. I know what that feels like. It's never left me. It feels demeaning. Very demeaning."

It's that feeling that has motivated Kirkley-Bey's latest run for the General Assembly. She's the incumbent; her opponent, eight-term former state Rep. Abraham L. Giles, 82, is the party's endorsed candidate. He, too, is campaigning to improve the lives of the city's poor.

They face each other in a Democratic primary Tuesday.

Born Sept. 18, 1941, in New Britain, Kirkley-Bey had no brothers or sisters, 128 cousins, a father who loved sports and a mother who made boring days fun.

Now, the roles have changed. Kirkley-Bey is the caregiver for her 91-year-old mother, who says she feels safe and strong when her daughter is around and less so when she's not.

It's a demand that has led to what she and others say is her greatest weakness these days her lack of visibility in the neighborhoods.

"Maybe you're not going to see her walking around the district because she's taking care of her mother, and everybody knows that," said state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, also of Hartford. "But you don't have to be visible in the district to do the job. ... She's visible at the Capitol."

Kirkley-Bey says it's a fair criticism, but one that has a good explanation.

"My mother makes that kind of difficult, and I don't think people understand that," she said.

But the 66-year-old legislator says she still has a fire in her gut. And she's directing the flames at Giles, who has called her ineffective. ("Marie has not paid attention to the community in many years now," Giles said. "She's aggrandized herself.")

"It's not a job where you can go and take naps. It's not a job where you can miss major votes," she said, referring to Giles.

Giles, when he served, was criticized for missing important votes that would have brought money to Hartford. "It's not a job where you do that because, when you do that, you hurt the people that you serve."

Sure, they both care about constituent service, Kirkley-Bey said.

"But he does it so you owe him for a vote," she said of Giles. "I don't say, 'Put this [speed bump] out here, and everyone on Martin Street should vote for me.' I do it because it's the right thing to do for the kids out there. These cars would hit them and kill them."

Her strengths, she says, are her ability to bring money into the city for everything from the Boys and Girls Club to new housing to programming and infrastructure for the young and the poor.

She also says her leadership status within her party and her good relations with Gov. M. Jodi Rell with whom she says Mayor Eddie A. Perez has an often strained relationship are assets. Lastly, she points to her style.

"I don't play games. I don't know how," she said. "I don't tell lies. I would forget. What you see is what you get. If I give you a 'no' on a bill, there is nothing you can do to change my mind. If I don't believe that bill is helpful to the people I serve or it goes against my value system, I'm not going there. Period."

State Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford, said Kirkley-Bey's style is an asset.

"Marie will say things at times that people might not want to hear, but that need to be said," said Harris, a co-chairman of the legislature's human services committee, where he has worked with Kirkley-Bey on key issues such as reducing child poverty.

What others see as attitude, though, she says is the confidence her father gave her.

"My father said to me, 'There will be people with more education, there will be people with more money, but there's never anyone better than you unless you let them be.'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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