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Monday, December 17 News

GOP candidates for governor spread their message

Eleven months before Connecticut voters get choose their next governor, Republicans have kicked off a monthly road show with the goal of bringing candidate debates to each of the state’s five congressional districts before the GOP convention in May.

Judging by the two-hour slugfest at Windsor High School last week, candidates are working on their red-meat lines for the base they will have to mobilize to grab the 15 percent support from delegates they will need for a primary, if not the outright party nomination.

There was plenty to chew on for GOP paleos at the debate.

Tim Herbst, Trumbull’s former first selectman and possibly the most aggressive of the seven hopefuls at the event, strode back and forth across the elevated stage, promising he would work to bring back the death penalty. He also vowed to reject state pension eligibility if elected, and said he would require his agency heads to do the same.

Revising union contracts

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Republicans running or exploring for governor

Sen. Toni Boucher, of Wilton

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton

Mike Handler, of New Canaan

Tim Herbst, former Trumbull first selectman

Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti

Peter Lumaj, of Fairfield

Steve Obsitnik, of Westport

Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, of Glastonbury

Bob Stefanowski, of Madison

David Stemerman, of Greenwich

Peter Thalheim, of Greenwich

Joe Visconti, of West Hartford

David Walker, of Bridgeport

“I’m the only person on this stage who is committed to not accepting donations from Hartford lobbyists, because if we’re going to change the culture, we have to lead by example,” Herbst, the party’s 2014 candidate for state treasurer, said to the crowd of about 500. “If we’re going to change the culture in Hartford, we have to lead by example, and if we’re going to lead by example and change the culture, we have to win, and we have to nominate candidates that have been battle-tested and battle-ready.”

Softer-spoken Mike Handler, a former hedge-fund executive from New Canaan who’s now Stamford’s chief financial officer, said revising state union contracts and converting current defined-benefit pension plans to lesser-value 401(k)-style programs would be one of his major goals.

Albanian-born Peter Lumaj, an immigration attorney from Fairfield, declared that even the regulation of so-called bump stocks that allow semi-automatic rifles to become machine guns — like the weapons a lone gunman used to kill 58 in the recent Las Vegas country-music massacre — infringe on the Second Amendment rights to own guns. Lumaj said he has recruited 50,000 people, many of whom are immigrants, to join the GOP over the last several years.

“That is the strategy for us to win in 2018,” he said.

David Walker, of Bridgeport, the former comptroller general of the United States under both Republican and Democratic presidents, said that he and his wife, Mary, eight-year residents of Connecticut, plan to retire here.

“We have decided to fight rather than flee,” Walker, who was John McKinney’s running mate in the 2014 GOP gubernatorial primary, told the debate audience.

“I’m the only candidate on this stage who, frankly ... has made government smaller, more economical, more efficient, more effective, and improved the financial condition of the entity I was responsible for when I was the leader,” Walker said.

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Message has to resonate

For state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, of Glastonbury, a physician who came to the U.S. from his native India in 1970, the debate was essentially a home game. He reminded the crowd that there’s more to Connecticut than the affluent southwest.

“The important thing you have got to remember is Connecticut is not only a ‘203’ state,” he said. “It has an area code — 860 is an area code where I come from — and that is critical in this election moving forward. I am not your stereotype Republican. Look at all of us here. You need a message; you need a messenger. The message has to resonate not with just Republicans. It did not get us far in the last two election cycles.”

“We all know what’s at stake,” said Handler, a former employee of S.A.C. Capital, the controversial hedge fund. “If we don’t make serious, substantive change, things are not going to be the way Connecticut deserves to be.

“We won’t get there with token givebacks,” Handler said. “We need to make substantive changes and make (them) now. We’re looking at real property devaluation if we are not careful. We do not have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.”

Steve Obsitnik, of Westport, a hi-tech executive who was crushed by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes in the 4th Congressional District race, charged that “career politicians” have been the main problem in the State Capitol over the last 30 years.

“So how’s it working?” he asked. “Falling wages, falling home prices, the exodus of 100 people, roughly, who move out of Connecticut each day to find other opportunities somewhere else? My path will be different.”

“We are a deep-blue state,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, of Wilton, who is exploratory mode for higher office, but highlighted her ability to get support from Democrats in her district, which also includes Redding and Ridgefield, as well as parts of Bethel, New Canaan, Weston and Westport. “We better have someone that’s exploring, or a candidate that resonates with the other side of the aisle.”

Big, bold moves

Danbury Mayor Boughton, who ran for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2014 and now also has an exploratory committee for higher office, missed the debate because he was holding a fundraising event. While not named, he was targeted by some debate participants for his call over the summer for a phase-out of the personal income tax.

“Connecticut’s number one problem is the death spiral, with business leaving, people leaving, retirees leaving, which makes the state expensive to manage,” Boughton said in a Friday interview. “The budget is out of control, in terms of spending. We’ve got to put our residents back to work and restructure state government. It’s going to take big bold moves and courageous choices by the next governor to do those things.”

Gary L. Rose, who is the chairman of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said that even though Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has a low approval rating, the 2018 gubernatorial victory is not assured for Republicans.

“First and foremost, there has to be an appealing and dynamic candidate with a compelling message for economic revitalization,” Rose said Friday. “It’s messaging. All these people potentially running have name-recognition problems, or people who know of them have trouble connecting them with a message. A candidate has to articulate a vision for Connecticut. We are a state that is really hurting, fiscally and in job growth.”

Rose discounted the importance of the debates, particularly this far out.

“The winner has to hold the base and reach into large block of independents, who make up 41 percent of the electorate,” Rose said, stressing that social media and TV ads will have a bigger role in the 2018 campaign.

“I think that the voters in this state would be very receptive to a Republican if, in fact, a person has a message of fiscal responsibility and job growth,” he said, predicting that Republicans will run against Malloy next year, although the governor announced seven months ago that he would not seek a third term.

“They’ll try to put Dannel Malloy at the top of the ticket and Democrats will put Trump at top of the ticket,” Rose said, sensing a chance for a GOP victory. “I think all of that can be overcome with a good candidate with a message that’s really inspiring. But that’s not happening now.”

Two words that were never uttered during the two-hour Windsor High School event: Donald Trump.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT

Ken Dixon|State Capitol reporter/columnist Hearst Connecticut Media

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