It should not have surprised anyone with an interest in Connecticut politics to hear that on Friday, Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz finally declared herself an official candidate for the 2006 governor’s race. While the spectacular downfall of Republican Gov. John Rowland this summer may have made it more likely that a Democrat will capture the governor’s seat in two years, this race has long been on the minds of some of Connecticut’s leading political figures. And well it should be: While Connecticut’s challenges may pale in comparison to the issues at stake in the current presidential election, it will take more than a change of party in the governor’s office to secure a stronger future for all of Connecticut’s residents.
We live in a state with some of the largest gaps between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor; a property tax structure that unduly burdens our citizens in the latter category; and an economy that after a series of devastating crashes has not truly been revived. Gov. Rowland may have made some contributions to remedy the last problem, including allocating funds for redevelopment in New Haven, but as an executive, he was far more creative with his justifications for improper gifts than in finding ways to make the lives of his constituents better.
Connecticut’s next governor must be considerably more creative and courageous. The last tax increase the state passed, for example, was a 3 percent flat hike that applied equally to all Connecticut residents. Obviously, a graduated increase would have both reaped more revenue for a state in danger of running serious budget shortfalls and lessened the burden on Connecticut’s more impoverished residents. Opposing a flat tax hike would have meant taking on Connecticut’s more wealthy residents, many of whom live in Fairfield County, in defense of the state’s more vulnerable citizens, many of whom are concentrated in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. For obvious reasons, a politician might not want to champion the poorest part of the economic spectrum, but campaign contributions aside, it would have been the right thing to do.
Gov. Jodi Rell, who took office when Gov. Rowland resigned, will not be that kind of governor. When sworn in, it was notable how little voters knew about her, and while she may have 77 percent approval ratings now (it would be hard for Connecticut citizens to dislike her after the embarrassment that was the Rowland administration), she has done little that is new or surprising to earn those numbers herself. It will probably be up to one of the Democratic candidates to provide a fresh vision and ambition.
Secretary of State Bysiewicz’s decision to join the race adds another candidate to the Democratic primary, but one with neither of those qualities. Bysiewicz’s campaign messages of responsibility and reformed ethical standards may be poll-safe after the Rowland era, but they offer nothing new or truly promising to a state in need of more dramatic reforms. While she can tout a record of reforming the various bureaucracies for which she is responsible, putting documents and records online and looking into electronic-voting technology is not exactly a resume that qualifies one to lead a state. As governor, Bysiewicz will have to do considerably more than streamline business registration procedures and author biographies of Ella Grasso. Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy is similarly uninspiring. His campaign Web site offers potential voters little more than a community-policing scheme that was fresh thinking when it was adopted in New Haven more than a decade ago. Both campaigns may be long on funds, but they are decidedly short on useful ideas.
Only one Democratic candidate has dared to think big thus far in the election: New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Other contenders have been mentioned: Gossip has been circulating for months about the potential entrance into the race of Democratic heavyweights like Senator Chris Dodd and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, and Rowland’s dramatic downfall has raised the prospect that Bill Curry, who lost to Rowland in 2002 after raising warnings about the Governor’s ethical lapses, may decide to run again. The candidacies of any of these men would dramatically alter the dynamics of the Democratic primary and the election as a whole.
But so far, DeStefano is the only candidate in the ring with anything to really offer. His bold ideas for tax and transportation infrastructure reform, his experience both in bringing new businesses to New Haven and fighting for fair wages for working people, and his increasing commitment to building a strong, progressive Democratic Party should not be ignored simply because he hasn’t yet had time to introduce himself across the state. He clearly wants a chance to do the job, unlike Blumenthal, who seems to look wistfully toward each election season in the hopes that one of Connecticut’s Senate seats will open up. And in stark contrast to his opponents, DeStefano has used his job to transform the lives of his constituents for over a decade. The decisions that he has made and the policies that he has implemented — from building an innovative magnet school system, to improving community policing, to taking a stand for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples — will continue to improve the lives of city residents long after he has left office. He could do the same for the state. In the end, it may not be ethics reform that Connecticut needs to sweep out the cobwebs of corruption and failed policy in Hartford, but a fresh breeze of new ideas and optimism.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College and co-chair of the Ward 22 Democratic Committee. Her column usually appears on alternate Mondays.