OP-ED | Is Businessman Stefanowski Doomed To Repeat History?

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Two Connecticut gubernatorial candidates
Bob Stefanowski and Ned Lamont. Credit: CTNewsJunkie file photos / composite / CTNewsJunkie
TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

While much of the body politic is focused on the congressional midterms and whether President Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump will run for the White House again in 2024, true political junkies in Connecticut have turned their eyes to this year’s gubernatorial election between incumbent Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican challenger, the career businessman Bob Stefanowski.

If it’s true that Democrats tried to nationalize state elections during the reign of the unpopular Trump, it’s equally true that Stefanowski is trying to nationalize the gubernatorial race by tying Lamont to the unpopular Biden, whose dismal approval ratings are stick at just above 38% in the latest Real Clear Politics average.

It’s a strategy that makes sense for Stefanowski. The latest available polling shows Lamont comfortably ahead. In a Sacred Heart poll conducted between late March and early April, Lamont bested Stefanowski by 18 points, though as Hearst columnist Dan Haar reminds us, there is reason to be skeptical of the SHU poll, which Haar described as “not even close to believable.”

In a Quinnipiac poll released at the end of May, Lamont’s lead had fallen to a more reasonable eight points, which my colleague Hugh McQuaid notes, “is slightly wider than his margin of victory in the 2018 election, when he beat out Stefanowski 48% to 44%.”

So by all accounts, Stefanowski has ground to make up and the only way to do that is to go on the attack. He has adopted the kitchen-sink approach: throw out lots of problems and allegations and see what sticks. For a while, one of his favorites was alleged corruption. 

Case in point: Lamont’s wife’s investment in Sema4, the Branford company hired by the state to do COVID testing. The governor and first lady have said they had no part in awarding that state contract, promised not to profit from it and were told by the nonpartisan state ethics office that it did not pose a conflict of interest. The company later pulled out of COVID testing anyway.

Both Ned and Annie Lamont are independently wealthy. The idea that they would try to earn some extra cash by awarding state contracts to favored companies, as former Gov. John Rowland did, surely strikes most non-Republicans as absurd. There were other problems with corruption that had little to do with the Lamonts, such as the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the state’s Office of School Construction Grants & Review, which I wrote about earlier this year.

Predictably, there has been less and less talk about Lamont’s alleged corruption in the Stefanowski campaign, so he has turned his sights to more promising material: inflation, taxes and “affordability.”

It would be one thing if Connecticut were an economic outlier. That status would allow Stefanowski to lay the blame squarely where he wants it – at the feet of Lamont and the Democrats. But so many of our problems are tied to national and international circumstances beyond our control: the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russian exports, including oil; wheat shortages in both of those countries; and unacceptably high inflation that, as of June, was running nationally at 9.1% over the preceding 12 months.

Still, Stefanowski has taken a page out of Ronald Reagan’s campaign script. When running against incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan famously asked in their only televised debate, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” 

“I think this election is really going to come down to this: Are we better off now than we were the minute Gov. Lamont walked into office? That is what it is going to come down to,” Stefanowski asked at a strip mall parking lot in North Branford last week.

Clearly, most people are not better off. But I suspect they will not blame Lamont in large numbers. Lamont has touted his suspension, now extended until Nov. 30, of the state’s 25-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to alleviate pain at the pump. Conversely, he has been criticized for not having the fortitude to call the legislature into special session to cancel a scheduled 9-cent increase in the tax on diesel fuel – an inaction that Stefanowski has attacked him for.

The only effective solution to high inflation requires stiff medicine. The Federal Reserve Board must continue to raise interest rates to make borrowing less attractive in order to slow consumer spending and bring inflation under control. Ironically, tax cuts have the opposite effect. They put more money into consumers’ pockets but at the cost of increasing the demand for goods and services that drive inflation. So which is it, Bob? Do you want to rein in inflation or let people keep more of their own money?

Many of Stefanowski’s supporters retweeted the Connecticut Business & Industry Association‘s link to a CNBC story citing the network’s recent competitive rankings that found North Carolina the top state for business in 2022.

A Tweet about business
A Tweet from the CBIA, dated July 13, 2022. Credit: Screengrab / CBIA via Twitter

Trying to compare low-tax states to places like Connecticut is a fool’s errand. What the CNBC story failed to mention is that, since 1959, public sector workers in North Carolina have been forbidden from engaging in collective bargaining. That automatically keeps taxes down at all levels. 

But that would never fly here. Imagine Stefanowski promising Connecticut’s police officers, an important Republican constituency, that he would remove their unions’ ability to bargain for wages and benefits. To borrow a quip from the late Johnny Carson, that would go over like a pregnant pole vaulter.

Stefanowski also has a section on his campaign website entitled “Affordability.” As you might expect, his emphasis is on lowering taxes, blaming electric utilities such as Eversource for high rates, and controlling government spending by rooting out “waste, fraud and abuse.” Conservatives always say they’re going to do the latter, only to find out that it’s almost impossible.

What is notably missing from his “affordability” laundry list is the one that’s on almost everyone’s mind when the high cost of living in Connecticut is mentioned: the appalling lack of affordable housing. Why is Stefanowski silent on an issue of such critical importance?

The most likely reason is he’s afraid of offending voters in well-to-do suburbs who cringe at the very mention of “affordable housing” because they see it as an issue whose solutions invariably include the loss of local control over zoning regulations. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents who struggle to find a place to live probably won’t vote for Bob anyway.

Stefanowski has an uphill climb here. Twice in the last decade, Republicans ran a wealthy businessman with no experience as a candidate for public office against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and twice they lost. Twice they ran a wealthy businesswoman against each of our Democratic US senators and she lost both times. Why should we think Stefanowski’s rematch with Lamont will be any different? Einstein’s definition of insanity comes to mind.



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