National News

Candidates for Connecticut Governor Agree It’s the Economy, Stupid

GROTON, Conn. — In the race for governor of Connecticut, there is one thing every candidate seems to agree on: The state’s economy is in serious disrepair.

Posted Updated

Lisa W. Foderaro
, New York Times

GROTON, Conn. — In the race for governor of Connecticut, there is one thing every candidate seems to agree on: The state’s economy is in serious disrepair.

“Most folks on both sides don’t think Connecticut is working,” said Ned Lamont, who has the Democratic endorsement for governor. The Republican designee, Mark D. Boughton, echoed that assessment: “It’s puzzling as to how and why and where we lost our way, but we lost our way.”

For a state that is still viewed — in the popular imagination, anyway — as a prosperous bedroom community, Connecticut has its share of serious problems. There’s negative economic growth, urban poverty, multibillion-dollar budget deficits and the flight of corporations to other states.

Which party, and which candidate, will be chosen by voters to try to solve those problems will not be known until November, when the midterm elections are expected to see a “blue wave” of Democrats eager to register their anger at President Donald Trump. The potentially high turnout — coupled with the fact that registered Democrats in Connecticut outnumber Republicans 5-3 — could catapult a Democrat into the governor’s office.

Indeed, Connecticut is perceived as a reliably blue state; its governor, both U.S. senators and all five House members are Democrats. Yet, the last time a governor’s race in the state was captured by a candidate of the same party as the exiting governor was in 1924, according to Ballotpedia.

It is with this set of conflicting trends that voters will head to the polls Aug. 14 for the primaries to decide who will be on the ballot for governor in November.

Earlier this year, the race had enticed more than two dozen prospective candidates, thanks in large part to the open seat: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a two-term Democrat, is not running for re-election.

But the nominating conventions in May greatly narrowed the field.

On the Democratic side, Lamont will be joined by Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, who clawed his way onto the ballot by collecting more than 15,000 valid signatures. (To be safe, he amassed 32,000.) Ganim, who was mayor of Bridgeport in the 1990s and early 2000s, staged a remarkable comeback after being convicted of corruption and going to federal prison.

Because Lamont has the party nomination, he will appear first on the ballot.

Lamont, a successful businessman, wants to attract business by investing in transportation and training workers. The state, he said, can ill afford a massive tax cut as it faces a yawning deficit next year.

“We are at one of those moments where you need someone who is willing to take the slings and arrows of all the lousy choices we have to make,” he said after an event at a union hall here.

“I have a $2 billion deficit as far as the eye can see, and flat or declining revenues,” he added. “I’m running against people who say they’re going to eliminate the income tax. They will tell you what you want to hear. I’ll tell you the truth, but you’re not going to like it.”

Lamont is likely the most known candidate for governor; he engineered a stunning upset of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary, before losing in the general election to Lieberman, who ran as an independent. He then ran for governor in 2010, but lost to Malloy in the primary.

On the Republican side, voters will decide among five candidates, including Boughton, who also earned the top spot on the ballot by winning the nomination.

His challengers are Tim Herbst, former first selectman in Trumbull and perhaps the most conservative on the group; Steve Obsitnik, of Westport, a Navy veteran and technology entrepreneur; Bob Stefanowski, of Madison, a former chief executive of DFC Global, a payday lending firm; and David Stemerman, of Greenwich, who founded a multibillion-dollar hedge fund.

Boughton, the nine-term mayor of Danbury, wants to phase out the income tax as a way to jump-start growth. He points to the state’s introduction of the income tax in the early 1990s as the beginning of Connecticut’s downward slide. To make up the lost revenue, he said he would shrink state government.

“Prior to 1991, people knew, ‘Oh, that’s a place without income taxes; I’m going to go there,'” he said. “That was our marketing niche. That was our thing. We got rid of that and became like the rest of the states and we lost growth.”

Bolstering Republican optimism is Malloy’s status as the least popular governor in the nation, based on a recent survey by Morning Consult, a polling company.

“Connecticut has voted Democratic in every presidential race since 1992,” noted Ronald Schurin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. “But the Republicans have made a lot of gains in past cycles at the state level.”

Boughton, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and for governor in 2014, has seized on Malloy’s rock-bottom popularity. Asked whether he preferred to run against Lamont or Ganim, he said he was indifferent. “I think the public is ready for a change and ready for a Republican governor, so it really doesn’t matter,” he said.

But as someone who likes to tout his workingman credentials — he lives in an apartment off Danbury’s Main Street and drives a pickup — Boughton, 54, said he found it “intriguing” to oppose Lamont.

“We are just completely different people,” he said. " Ned is a plutocrat from Greenwich. I’d love to have a conversation about who’s more connected to voters.” Politics is in Boughton’s DNA. His father was mayor of Danbury before becoming a state legislator. Boughton followed the same path, though in reverse. After teaching social studies in Danbury, he successfully ran for state representative before running for mayor in 2001.

Despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Danbury by 3-2, Boughton was elected eight more times. Under his watch, Danbury launched a 311 complaint hotline, introduced a discount prescription drug card for residents, cut the homeless population by half and streamlined the permitting process for new businesses.

“In the last six months,” he said, “we have cut the ribbon on about 40 new businesses, from a new brewery to clothing boutiques and everything in between.”

For his part, Lamont, who lives in Greenwich, points to the business acumen he developed in the telecommunications field. 1984, he founded Lamont Digital Systems and got in on the ground floor of wiring colleges campuses. In 2015, Lamont sold the business to a Texas company.

“I would be the first governor who started a business and created jobs,” he said here, after receiving an endorsement from Rep. Joe Courtney. (Lamont served one term as selectman in Greenwich.) Talking to business leaders around the state, Lamont said he hears the same laments. The state’s transportation network makes commuting difficult, and thousands of jobs go begging because firms cannot find employees with the requisite skills.

The next governor, he said, must address both issues. “I will quickly make investments in community colleges so we can train people for the next generation of jobs,” he said. “And we have to fix our roads and we really have to fix our bridges.”

Like Boughton, Lamont, 64, said he wanted to see a return of Connecticut’s economic eminence. In recent years, the drumbeat of corporate departures has grown deafening, with General Electric, Aetna and Alexion Pharmaceuticals all announcing plans to decamp for nearby states.

“I’m not going to solve it in a year and I’m not going to solve it in four years,” he said. “But we have to give people a sense of direction.”

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.