If you live in Connecticut, chances are you’ve recently seen a political advertisement for the governor’s race, whether on television, Facebook or Twitter. The Nutmeg state’s gubernatorial race, featuring Democratic nominee Ned Lamont SOM ’80 and Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski, has been embittered by mudslinging as the candidates pit national politics against state issues.
“We just can’t trust #NewTaxNed.”
“When Bob rebuilds, Connecticut loses.”
“He’s like Malloy third term. He’s just doubling down.”
Lamont attempts to link Stefanowski to President Donald Trump, and Stefanowski attempts to link Lamont to Gov. Dannel Malloy, who is known for his low approval ratings. Upon seeing these ads, which depict unflattering black-and-white attack images of each candidate, one might forget the implications of this gubernatorial election in a state teetering on the brink of fiscal collapse.
“This is probably the most important gubernatorial contest we’ve had in so long, largely because of the multiple problems facing the state,” said Gary Rose, frequent gubernatorial debate panelist and political science chair at Sacred Heart University.
With less than a week left before the Tuesday, Nov. 6, election, the race is a complete toss-up. Despite Malloy’s massive unpopularity, Lamont has led almost every poll conducted over the past few months.
But a new poll released Thursday by Sacred Heart University has Stefanowski ahead by 2.4 percentage points. The poll surveyed 500 likely voters between Oct. 29 and Oct. 31, and also found that 12.2 percent of respondents are still unsure of who they will vote for.
Other polls also show a narrowing margin between Lamont and Stefanowski going into Election Day. A Oct. 30 poll by Quinnipiac University had Lamont up only by four points, a significant difference from his 9- to 13-point leads in September.
Stefanowski — running primarily on the platform of eliminating the state income tax — has put up a strong fight. The former General Electric and UBS bank executive looked poised to only win the metaphorical runner-up’s trophy for most of the campaign, but this late push has him in the driver’s seat five days before the election.
In addition, Oz Griebel, a former 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate now running as an independent, has made an unexpected splash in the race. His debate performances and high-profile endorsements, combined with the relative unpopularity of the major-party candidates, have boosted his poll numbers in recent weeks. A jump from 4 to 9 percent, however, is unlikely to have much impact beyond potentially drawing voters away from the two main candidates, and according to the Oct. 30 Quinnipiac poll, nearly half of Griebel’s voters are still thinking of changing their vote.
Each candidate is challenged with the task of succeeding Malloy, who, according to an October poll conducted by Sacred Heart University, currently has the lowest approval rating of any governor in the nation. It stands at 14.6 percent.
But come mid-January, whoever takes up residence in the governor’s mansion will be in charge of leading a state in budgetary and economic peril. In the second public debate between Lamont and Stefanowski, held in New Haven, the two candidates both listed “jobs” and “taxes” as the most important issues in this election. Their rhetoric and campaigns have focused on little else, but politicos such as Journal Inquirer columnist Chris Powell agree that both candidates’ plans to address these woes will likely do little to reverse the course of a state that has been slowly sinking into the quicksand of economic distress.
The Scorekeeper’s Son and the Greenwich Heir
After watching Stefanowski’s second debate performance in New Haven on Sept. 17, Gary Rose came away with one main impression of the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s debate style.
“It is very obvious that Bob Stefanowski is going to stay on message irrespective of the question,” Rose said.
And stay on message Stefanowski has. He has taken debate questions ranging from the first executive order he would implement to his stance on paid family leave and turned them into his go-to tax speech. Stefanowski argues that Lamont will raise taxes, while he will lower them — and that is why you should vote Stefanowski.
When asked to comment, the Stefanowski campaign said that the only issues that matter in this election are taxes and jobs.
“Like most of Connecticut, Bob understands that the primary issues facing our state are the budget and the economy,” said Kendall Marr, director of communications for Stefanowski’s campaign in an email to the News. “This election is about undoing the damage that has been done to this state by politicians who have continuously kicked the can down the road.”
At every possible turn, Stefanowski and his campaign have sought to draw these types of contrasts between him and Lamont. According to Stefanowski, Lamont is Dannel Malloy 2.0; he is not. Lamont will raise taxes; Stefanowski will not. Lamont is a continuation of failed economic policy; Stefanowski is not.
Yet another comparison Stefanowski has pushed between the two is that of upbringing. Lamont was born rich, and Stefanowski was not. Stefanowski often talks about his childhood in his speeches — noting that through hard work and dedication, he was able to make it as a businessman.
“Unlike Lamont, I went to the public schools in North Haven. I got a terrific education,” said Stefanowski in the second gubernatorial debate.
Take, for example, a Sept. 6 op-ed Stefanowski wrote in the Washington Examiner in support of his plan to eliminate the income tax over a period of eight years.
“Ned must have missed the econ class at Yale where they taught that you cannot simply tax an economy into prosperity,” Stefanowski wrote in his article.
Based on the rhetoric of Stefanowski, the differences in the gubernatorial candidates’ upbringings could not be more obvious. While Lamont was editing the newspaper at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most elite boarding schools on the East Coast, Stefanowski was helping to work the scoreboard at the Yale Bowl, where his father worked as an assistant. Lamont spent four years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying the arts before defecting to Yale for his master’s degree in business administration, while Stefanowski majored in accounting at Fairfield University and got a job as an auditor immediately following graduation. Both are businessmen who have ended up in positions of wealth and stature, but Stefanowski has implied that the paths they took to get there could not have differed more.
And there are elements of truth to this narrative. Lamont’s father was an economist whose most notable accomplishment was helping the U.S. government administer the Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of post-World War II Europe. His great-grandfather was Thomas W. Lamont, a partner of the financier and capitalist J.P. Morgan. He is the progeny of at least three generations of men who went from Exeter to Harvard before pursuing careers in finance.
Lamont made his money primarily in the cable television industry, working for Cablevision for four years following his graduation from the Yale School of Management. He then started his own cable company in 1984, called Lamont Television Systems, before selling it in 2015.
Stefanowski gradually worked his way up the corporate ladder after his graduation from college, holding various financial positions at Metro-Hartford Alliance and General Electric, among others, before becoming the chief financial officer of UBS, a global bank with $939 billion in total assets. From 2014 to 2017, Stefanowski served as the chief executive officer of DFC Global, a payday lender.
“Waste, Fraud, and Abuse”
The two candidates also have stark differences in their prior political involvement.
Lamont is a veteran of Connecticut politics, although he has yet to win a major race. The highest elected office he has served thus far was as a selectman of Greenwich from 1987 to 1989. But Lamont has also served in a number of nonelected political roles. Most notably, he served on the State Investment Advisory Council, which oversees the investment of state pension funds, and co-chaired the Connecticut campaign for former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 run.
Lamont burst onto the national spotlight with his 2006 U.S. Senate run, defeating former Senator Joe Lieberman D-Conn. in the Democratic primary by less than four percentage points. Lamont’s fierce opposition to the Iraq War was a key point in his primary victory, but when Lieberman ran as an independent in the general election, he soundly defeated Lamont to reclaim his seat in the Senate — despite Lamont pouring nearly $17 million of his own money into the campaign. Lamont’s single-issue campaign drew the ire of state and national party officials, a fact he has proudly stated at numerous debates this election season as evidence of his political mettle.
Lamont also ran for governor of Connecticut in 2010, but lost both the state party convention — where Democratic officials and representatives nominate candidates — as well as the primary election. He was defeated by Malloy in both cases, by 36 points at the state party convention and by 17 points in the primary vote.
Stefanowski, on the other hand, is a political blank slate, unmarked by past public political stances or an extensive voting record. During the 2018 Republican primary campaign, Stefanowski was criticized by opponents and pundits alike when voting records from his hometown of Madison, Connecticut, revealed that he hadn’t cast a ballot for a period of 16 years.
“I worked in London for eight years and two years in Philadelphia,” he said. “I should have mailed in an absentee ballot,” admitted Stefanowski in a Jan. 18 CT News Junkie article.
In his campaign, Stefanowski has cast himself as a political outsider — a businessman with budgetary experience who claims he will come in, eliminate unnecessary expenses and turn Connecticut’s government into a well-oiled machine. Like many businesspeople-turned-politicians before him — including Trump, who endorsed Stefanowski in a tweet after the primary election — throughout his campaign, Stefanowski has portrayed his political inexperience as an asset, claiming that he will be less beholden to party pressures.
“Does anybody really think I can’t cut 5 percent of waste, fraud and abuse from the [Connecticut] government?” Stefanowski said at numerous debates.
Stefanowski is part of a long tradition of Republican business people running for elected office in Connecticut. He follows in the footsteps of Tom Foley, the 2010 and 2014 Republican nominee for governor, and Linda McMahon, the 2012 Republican nominee for U.S. senator who lost to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. in the general election — despite pouring nearly $50 million into her campaign.
“The Republican party in the state of Connecticut is enamored with businesspeople,” Rose said.
For this election, Lamont has adopted a similar ethos, claiming that his experience in the private sector will allow him to foster public-private partnerships that can keep companies in Connecticut and train people for jobs at these major companies. In a way, Lamont presents himself as the superposition of two contrasting political archetypes — simultaneously the longtime insider, who has been in the mix of Connecticut politics for the better part of the last 12 years, as well as the business outsider, who can come in and fix all the inefficiencies in state government.
“Ned has a positive vision to grow jobs, get our economy moving, and move our state into the future,” said a spokesperson for Lamont’s campaign in an email to the News. “This race is a question of whether we believe in Connecticut values or Trump ones, and we need every person who believes in progress to show up and vote Tuesday.”
In essence, both candidates are betting on their upbringing and career to bring Connecticut out of its economic slump. Stefanowski, the self-made scorekeeper’s son, and Lamont, the Greenwich fortune heir, both believe their business acumen and economic ideas can turn around the flagging Nutmeg state. Only time will tell whether the winner’s efforts to aid Connecticut will have tangible effects.
The Trot Begins
Until around May 2018, the Connecticut gubernatorial race could better be described as a slow trot. More than 25 candidates had declared their intention to run, but few experienced political leaders on either side of the aisle seemed willing to run for an office with so much political risk.
Thus, few candidates on either side of the aisle had previously held state political office, with the only exception being former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83. A number of mayors entered the race on the Democratic side, including Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin ’01 LAW ’06 and former West Hartford Mayor Jonathan Harris. Not to be outdone, the initial pool of candidates on the Republican side included Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.
Although most candidates declared their intentions to run in late 2017 or the early months of 2018, the news cycle moved slowly until a few weeks before the gubernatorial May conventions.
On the Democratic side, the party coalesced around Lamont just before the primary. After securing endorsements from prominent state Democrats — including Attorney General George Jepsen and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp — and garnering the support of Connecticut’s AFL-CIO labor union, a number of other candidates, including Bronin and Harris, dropped out of the race and endorsed Lamont for Governor.
The only serious contender left in Lamont’s way was Bysiewicz, the former Connecticut Secretary of State. A week before the convention, however, Lamont and Bysiewicz decided to form a joint ticket to avoid a competitive primary, with Lamont as the gubernatorial candidate and Bysiewicz as the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate.
Powell thinks that Lamont’s nomination was largely a product of a large, but weak, Democratic field.
“Nobody of any standing in the party wanted the nomination, so it defaulted to the rich guy who could pay for his own campaign,” Powell said.
Lamont easily won the nomination with 87 percent of the convention vote. He defeated Bridgeport Mayor and convicted felon Joe Ganim in the Aug. 14 primary with 81 percent of the vote.
Republican candidates faced a much more competitive primary. Their convention process resulted in Danbury Mayor Boughton securing the party’s nomination, but four other candidates — Stefanowski, hedge fund manager David Stemerman, former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst and businessman Steve Obsitnik — either received 15 percent of the convention vote or petitioned to be on the ballot.
Stefanowski elected to forgo the traditional nomination process and instead petitioned his way onto the ballot.
The five-way race set up a competitive battle over the summer, including some heated debates, but Stefanowski ultimately prevailed in the Aug. 14 primary with only 29 percent of the vote. Boughton came in second with 21 percent of the vote, and no candidate received fewer than 13 percent.
In both cases, each major party nominee’s substantial self-donations helped to clear their path to victory — illustrating the failure of Connecticut’s public financing system to adequately support non-millionaire candidates.
The Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public financing to candidates running for elected office in Connecticut, was signed into state law almost 13 years ago as an attempt to level the playing field for candidates who could not finance their own campaigns. The program, which provides public financing to candidates, provided that they meet certain requirements, is one of the most generous election funds in the country.
In order to qualify for the program, a gubernatorial candidate must raise $250,000 worth of $5 to $100 small donations and contribute no more than $20,000 of their own private funds to the campaign. If they qualify, candidates will receive $1.35 million for a gubernatorial primary and $6 million for a competitive general election.
The past few election cycles in Connecticut have seen thorough use of this program. Although his Republican opponent self-funded his campaign, Governor Malloy used public financing for both of his successful campaigns, and a number of lower-ticket candidates for Connecticut Attorney General and Secretary of State have also elected to participate in the Citizen’s Election Fund.
This election cycle, however, marks the first time neither Connecticut gubernatorial major-party candidate has participated in the program since its inception, and those who did participate were unhappy with the program’s structure.
In an Aug. 27 appearance on NBC-Connecticut, Boughton expressed his dislike for both the timing and the amount given from the public financing program, noting that independently wealthy candidates can easily outfund the $1.35 million grant.
“The Citizens Election Campaign hurt us a little bit in the sense that we couldn’t get the money as quick as we wanted to. Bob was on the air early in January. People locked into him and it was tough to get them to move,” said Boughton in the televised appearance.
Boughton cited a figure of $3 million as an adequate amount of funding for publicly financed primary candidates.
Marr said that funding campaign expenses should be the responsibility of the candidates and not the constituents.
At a Yale University talk on Sept. 20, Bysiewicz also called for campaign finance reform.
During the talk, when asked by a student why she deferred to Lamont for the gubernatorial nomination on their joint ticket, Bysiewicz indicated concern regarding Lamont’s ability to outspend her in the primary.
“Here’s what I’ll say. As it turned out in the Republican race for governor, none of the three people who did public financing won — it was the millionaire candidate that ended up winning,” she said. “I think we need to reform our campaign finance system so that there’s a level playing field.”
And political pundits agree that Lamont and Stefanowski’s money seriously boosted their candidacies, particularly in Stefanowski’s campaign.
Both Rose and Powell share Boughton’s assessment that Stefanowski’s early television advertising played a large role in his victory.
Stefanowski was able to finance these hard-hitting early advertisements through his large campaign budget, which he contributed over $2 million of his own money towards.
Since then, Stefanowski has put roughly another $1 million into his war chest, bringing the total amount of self-funding to $3.22 million as of Oct. 28. He was also helped by a late fundraising push among wealthy donors. He has received a little under $3 million from outside donations.
Additionally, Stefanowski has been boosted by a $1.7 million television push by the Republican Governors’ Association, which earmarked the money in April for the then-unknown Republican nominee to advertise during the final six weeks of the election. In August, a spokesperson from the RGA specified Connecticut as the party’s best chance of winning a governorship in the country currently held by a Democrat.
Despite Stefanowski’s considerable wealth, his self-funding has paled in comparison to what Lamont has been able to contribute to his own campaign. As of Oct. 28, Lamont has put more than $12.1 million of his own money into the campaign and received less than $800,000 from outside contributions. His campaign has spent over $12 million, nearly twice as much as Stefanowski’s has, while only around $2.5 million of the Lamont campaign’s total spending occurred before the primary election.
Stefanowski may have won the primary with his self-funded advertising, but Lamont has used Stefanowski’s own primary strategy against him in the general election.
By Nov. 6, time will tell if Lamont’s money and efforts to win will prove successful.
Conor Johnson | email@example.com .