NORWALK, Conn. – Bruce Morris is a spiritual man, which is why, he said, tears of pain accompanied his decision to run for state representative.
Morris, a reverend, said he prayed on running after years of being told to do so by people in his church. The message came through loud and clear, he said.
“Quite frankly I went home and cried,” Morris said. “Some people talk about the prestige you get with this position, but I knew the sacrifices that you make, the real commitment. I knew full well the misunderstanding you get sometimes, people maligning you. That is part of what it would take.”
Morris, a Democrat who has been representing the 140th District for nearly eight years, is facing a primary challenge Aug. 12 from former Common Councilman Warren Peña. He is his party’s endorsed candidate, having beaten Peña, 222-99, in the May caucus.
It seems that all roads lead to religion when Morris tells the stories of his life – and they are many and varied.
Morris was born and raised in New Haven. His father was one of the first African-Americans to be a Connecticut state representative, he said, and rose to be deputy speaker before deciding to place a priority on earning a living to support his family. Eventually, his father was convinced to run for state senator.
“It was a big loss financially,” Morris said. “It was a matter of what the community needs. … I got to learn a lot from my dad in terms of values.”
Morris said he and his brother went to a multiracial Catholic elementary school next door to a public housing project. Everyone wore uniforms, which was great because there were no class distinctions, he said.
His mother worked two or three jobs so her sons could go to a private all-boys high school in Colchester, he said. He was elected president of his freshman class, although all of his classmates were white, he said.
That was it for his first foray into politics. “I guess it was ‘OK, did that,’” Morris said, explaining that he never ran again. He was big on basketball and competitive chess, he said.
When he was 16, people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I remember telling them, I’m going to be a lawyer, I’m going to become a politician,” Morris said. “I loved what my dad was doing for the community, loved it, and I just had a knack for reading and quickly absorbing material and debating stuff. Then just kind of being able to fight for justice and stuff, kind of liked doing that. But it’s interesting; I said, ‘If I don’t become that, I’ll become an electrical contractor.’”
Morris, who as an eighth-grader, had considered being a priest, went to the University of Connecticut with the intention of being a lawyer, but had a spiritual transition, he said.
That was “A miracle,” he said. “I would rather not go into detail about it, but let’s just say I had a miracle where God saved my very life and my mind.”
He took an electrical apprenticeship, he said. There were “five years of night school in another type of training,” he said. Although he did not graduate from UConn, he has six years of post-secondary education, he said.
He also became active in prison ministry and hospital ministry, he said. He became an ordained minister, and got a contractor’s license, he said.
“I kind of had a vision one day about business,” he said. “I was given the name of the business and everything, it was connected to what I was doing in church.”
The idea was to treat employees like family and do everything on the up and up, he said.
“The goal was not for Bruce Morris to become rich,” he said. “The goal of the business – yeah, my name is, I am president of the company – the real president is one who has higher authority. Imagine sitting down with millionaires and having that conversation. ‘Yeah, my name’s on it but for me, Jesus Christ is really the one doing the business.’ Because my goal was I wanted to fund ministry, wanted to fund all the outreach things I wanted to do. If you’re commanding millions of dollars, you can do that.”
Morris initially walked away from lucrative paychecks because, he said, it would involve taking money for nothing, as sham companies were common at that time when it first became required that minority businesses be given a percentage of construction contracts. He paid himself nothing in the first year and little in the second year, he said, but his business became the largest black contractor in the state.
This coincided with his ministry. He first came to Norwalk in 1979 to help found Macedonia Church, he said. He was reverse commuting for a while, and bought a home here in 1989, but he lost the home and the business in the recession of the early 1990’s, he said.
That might not have happened, but he was ill, he said, diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1993.
In 1995 he was healed in a prayer vigil at his church for a young woman, he said.
“Everyone else went down and laid hands on her,” Morris said. “The most I could do was stay in the pulpit and hold out my hands. The good Lord healed me in that same moment. I went back to working 12 to 16-hour days that I was accustomed to working, I mean immediately. Immediately. I have been doing that ever since.”
He later became human relations director for Norwalk Public Schools, although he doesn’t have a college degree. The position became available but he didn’t meet the criteria, he said. The position was reposted and he qualified with five years of administrative experience and community relations, he said.
“I had been the voice of the community and I had done it with multiple diverse communities,” Morris said. “All the different bills there I met. What the board wanted to do at that time, they really needed somebody who understood the achievement gap in order to make the connections between the community and the board and the schools, PTO and all these other pieces. I was the perfect fit. I got hired for the job and everybody was tickled pink with my performance until I ran for state representative. There was no question about Bruce Morris’ performance until then.”
People have left comments on this site complaining that Morris is in Hartford during the legislative session and unavailable for his full-time job with Norwalk schools.
Morris said many of the HR obligations occur after hours. If you call his Norwalk Public Schools office the call goes directly to his cell phone. “I am the one person, I don’t care what time of the day, night, weekend, I am that accessible,” he said. Plus, “You learn how to manage your day, manage your time,” he said.
NoN addressed the situation with Norwlk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera.
“In his role as Human Relations Director and an employee of Norwalk Public Schools, it’s my expectation that Mr. Morris is required to invest the time necessary to respond to any personnel, student or parent matters that may arise, and for which he is accountable as part of his job description,” Rivera wrote in an email. “… The Human Relations role is expected to dedicate 4/5ths time or a minimum of 32 hours per week, solely on those duties, and at times that may include nights and weekends.
“Given the fluctuating needs and demands for his role and services and that there are no conflicts with his obligations to NPS, Bruce and I have agreed that a weekly log of activities, including time spent on NPS work on location at our schools, or outside of regular office hours will help address any questions that may arise,” Rivera wrote.
The position’s job description may be seen here: Bruce Morris job description
The beauty of CT-N is that testimony given during a public hearing is available online, he said.
One of the great things about a part-time legislature is that many different fields of expertise make their way to Hartford, he said. That includes other people who work for boards of education. The chairperson of the Appropriations Committee is head of adult education for New Haven.
“Thank God we have got these people in Hartford. … Would you rather have a bunch of bureaucrats who know nothing about education?” he asked, adding that in his first year as a legislator he stopped the first debate on a bullying law to permanently affect its outcome.
Other comments left on this site accuse Morris of being against gay people because he voted against gay marriage in 2007.
Morris said he voted for everything in support of gay rights before that.
“I fully supported civil unions,” Morris said. “… You can’t call me homophobic just because we have a disagreement on one issue, in the language one bill has been written.”
His objection to Connecticut law is based on religion, he said.
“Marriage didn’t begin as a civil right, marriage is a sacred right. … My position is the government didn’t have the right to redefine marriage. If it’s the issue of benefits and everything else, I said I’m 100 percent there. I’m a million percent there. But how do we accomplish that?” Morris said. “… For me, it’s a religious rite and I want to protect the faith communities as well.”
The federal government has no say in Holy Communion, a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, he said.
“We clearly understand those are religious rites,” he said. “If I could have my druthers then nationally everyone would have a civil union. Everyone. Because the question of marriage – if we understand it to be a religious institution, then let the faith communities fight it out, because it is there and government should have no role in it. Because, guess what? Faith communities are. The churches aren’t fighting with each other about it. … If it is important to you that you have that label, let’s recognize that is a religious label, go to your church and get it.”
There are comments criticizing Morris’ lack of educational credentials.
“I am a licensed unlimited electrical contractor, I have got an E1,” Morris said. “I would say that probably is equivalent to being electrical engineer without having an electrical engineer’s degree because I am qualified now, if you have a nuclear power plant I can take out a permit to build it. I have pretty much taken an alternate route to certification for everything.”
He might not have an MBA, but he had a very successful business before there was a recession, he said.
Morris and other incumbent Norwalk legislators are criticized because Norwalk is shortchanged in the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula.
Morris said that when he first ran, he said he would change ECS.
“We are not getting what we need to get, but for every year I have been there we have had changes in that formula,” he said. “What we are getting today as opposed to eight years ago is almost $4 to $5 million more. Between Priority School District grant and ECS it is almost $5 million more. And those are all formula changes.”
The conversation has changed, he said. “My biggest issue was imprisonment. We are spending $48,000 a year to incarcerate people and only $12,000 to educate.”
Teenagers are now given counseling when they are incarcerated, he said. More is being done with halfway houses, and recidivism is way down, he said.
“Everything that I have promised, guess what, I have done, I have impacted.” Morris said. “Not that there isn’t more I can do in every area.”
How long will he keep up this pace?
“Until the Lord says otherwise,” he said.
“Every day that I get up I realize I am living on borrowed time that God has blessed me with,” Morris said. “So when I talk about public service, this really is ministry. Being a state rep is an extension of ministry. Director of human relations is an extension of ministry.”