Mayor John DeStefano Jr. formally announced his candidacy for Connecticut governor Monday, marking the beginning of an effort to reach out to the general public and build momentum for his effort to defeat incumbent Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whose approval ratings have consistently ranked among the highest in the nation.

Although DeStefano has been campaigning for governor for nearly two years, Monday’s speech was one of his first attempts to present his platform to a general audience, campaign spokesman Derek Slap said. DeStefano, who walked to the podium to the opening notes of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” emphasized his commitment to addressing issues that affect working-class families and repeatedly referred to his own roots in New Haven as the son of a police officer and a hairdresser.

Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, DeStefano’s opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, also announced Monday that he had received more endorsements from elected Democrats in Meriden, as well as the formal endorsement of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. Perez is a member of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, which had previously voted to endorse Malloy.

The audience at Monday’s rally in City Hall chanted along as DeStefano repeated his campaign slogan, “Aim Higher,” and pledged to reform the property tax system, design a system of universal health care, and develop a plan that could bring the rate of job growth in Connecticut to among the top 10 states in the nation within five years.

“Public policy should not exclusively benefit the privileged,” he said in his speech. “Sadly, under 12 years of [former Republican Gov.] John Rowland and Jodi Rell, that too often has been the case.”

In addition to the morning rally in New Haven, which was emceed by Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango, DeStefano held a similar rally in Hartford later on Monday, when he was introduced by Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan.

Participation in the New Haven rally reflected DeStefano’s popularity among the labor community, as the audience included members of Locals 34 and 35, SEIU 1199, and other local unions. Many of the union members present said their leadership had communicated with them regarding the gubernatorial campaign and had informed them of Monday’s event.

“We know what the mayor’s done for us in New Haven,” said David Roche, the business manager of a union of sheet metal workers from Rocky Hill, Conn. “This Rell that’s there now, she just has not shown us a plan for job growth.”

This year is the first that an August primary will be held between gubernatorial candidates, and the two Democratic candidates for governor face a serious challenge in engaging voters in the primary fight, said Michele Jacklin, director of policy and research for DeStefano’s campaign and a former political columnist for The Hartford Courant. The primary used to be in September like New York’s, she said, but was moved earlier to allow the challenger more time to develop a campaign and raise funds.

Considering that voters are not accustomed to an August primary, some at the rally questioned whether the general public would focus on the election this early. Robert Walsh, president pro tempore of the Bridgeport City Council, said that while he is prepared to canvas door-to-door for DeStefano, it is still too early to begin that campaigning.

“I don’t think it’s high on the radar screen right now,” he said. “It’s more talk among the politicians.”

Walsh said the race will become more of an issue during and after the Democratic party convention on May 20, when delegates from around the state gather to determine which candidates have enough support to be listed on the ballot.

Chris Cooney, Malloy’s campaign manager, said campaigning for an August primary is a new experience for everyone, but that the attention being paid to the campaign had been increasing markedly in the past month.

“Our phones are ringing more, [and] we have many more volunteers now,” he said. “People are starting to ratchet up their interest, but certainly, after the convention … it will pick up.”

Cooney said Malloy is not planning a formal candidacy announcement like DeStefano’s, but will continue announcing additional endorsement and policy proposals.

A small controversy arose after DeStefano’s speech, as Malloy’s campaign accused DeStefano of lying when he said Malloy had supported a cut in the estate tax, which both Rell and President George W. Bush ’68 endorsed. Malloy’s campaign released a statement Monday afternoon saying Malloy did not support reducing the tax, but DeStefano’s campaign responded by pointing to comments Malloy made to the New Haven Independent that cutting the estate tax could aid economic development.

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