The Mayor’s Leadership Is Praised Following New Haven Candidate Forum

This article originally appeared in the New Haven Independent.


Susan Bysiewicz could have worded the pivotal question of a gubernatorial debate in New Haven Sunday this way: “What makes you think you should be the hero of progressive Democrats when you’re pouring your own millions into the race instead of running clean?”

Bysiewicz did not word her question quite that way. But that was the upshot of the question Bysiewicz posed to Ned Lamont at Sunday’s debate, which brought together the six leading Democratic candidates for governor to the stage of New Haven’s Career High School before an audience of some 70 local politicos. It was a can’t-miss event for the candidates: New Haven turns out the most Democratic voters on election day. Its 100 delegates (including three “super-delegates”) will comprise the largest municipal contingent at next month’s party nominating convention. (“A victory,” noted Democratic Town Chair Vincent Mauro Jr., “runs through New Haven.”)


Bysiewicz pointed out that unlike her and several other candidates, Lamont is not participating in the state’s public financing system, aka the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP).

“Ned,” she asked, “will you agree to spend $1.2 million, which is what all of us will qualify for, from the convention through the primary?”

The ensuing exchange raised and addressed some of the central questions the Democratic Party faces in trying to decide who can break out from the pack of the six leading gubernatorial hopefuls.

Those questions include:

• Who can both fire up the base and beat a Republican in a year when anti-Trump grassroots Democrats seek to steer the campaign left, but when the legislature has turned from blue to purple and a significant majority of the state is livid at retiring Gov. Dannel P. Malloy over Connecticut’s continued fiscal woes?

• What exactly does it mean to be a “progressive”? Lamont, a 64-year-old Greenwich millionaire who started and sold a company that built telecommunications and video systems for universities; his highest elected office has been as a Greenwich selectman. Can a wealthy businessman who finances his own campaign meet the progressive test?

The Bysiewicz-Lamont exchange was one of several moments that revealed differences among the candidates. During most of the two-hour event, the six candidates agreed. They competed for who most supports labor unions and immigrants, who most opposes Trumps, who most supports gun control and legalized recreational use of marijuana, who most fights for affordable housing and government aid to the poor, who most intelligently supports adding electronic tolls to interstate highways and supporting transit infrastructure.

When they disagreed, it stood out and sparked interesting discussion: On urban bailouts, on casino gambling, and on the Bysiewicz-Lamong public-financing question.

Bysiewicz raised the issue during the last portion of the debate, when each candidate got to chose one opponent to question.

It made sense for her to target Lamont. She entered the race as a presumed frontrunner. She had arguably the most statewide name recognition. She had won three statewide races before (for secretary of the state). She has extensive ties to local politicos across Connecticut. She’s known as an energetic campaigner and relentless fundraiser.

She has particularly courted the “Resistance” wing of the Democratic Party itching to use the 2018 elections to respond to the rise of Donald Trump. She had some early success. But in truest-blue New Haven, Lamont has so far gained far more traction than Bysiewicz. And on April 6, Lamont creamed Bysiewicz, and the other Democrats, in a statewide AFL-CIO straw poll.

So Bysiewicz Sunday focused on Lamont’s progressive achilles heel: Self-funding. Party progressives swooned over Lamont when he took on U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006 (winning a primary but losing the general election). That changed when Lamont ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination four years later. Some of his most ardent supporters from 2006 sat out the 2010 gubernatorial primary instead of supporting him. Some — including the man who recruited him to run in 2006 and served as his campaign manager — said they were sitting out the 2010 primary in part because Lamont decided to self-fund his quest rather than participate in the CEP. (Read about that in this story.) Labor ditched him, too. Lamont outspent Dan Malloy 3-1. Malloy won the election — demonstrating, at least then, that public financing gives a candidate enough money to beat a wealthy opponent who pours far more money into the race.

In response to Bysiewicz’s question Sunday, Lamont took a shot back at her: “Well when you ran for attorney general [unsuccessfully in 2010], I noticed you decided not to go with the Citizens Election Program.”

Then Lamont declined to agree to limiting his spending in this year’s primary. Instead, he made a case for why Democrats are going to need all the money they can get in the general election. He boasted of how he raised more individual donations than his Democratic competitors have so far in this race, which he said demonstrates his grassroots support.

He described himself as a “champion” of the CEP. He spoke of how it enables more people of color and young people to run for elected office.

“What CEP does not do, it does not keep out the other money. There are a bunch of Republicans running without CEP. There’s outside money coming through the Republican Governors Association,” Lamont continued. “This is an extraordinarily important election. This is alights off election. So I’m going to go in there. I’m going to earn every vote. … We plan to win.”

“So I’m going to take that as a no,” Bysiewicz shot back, reclaiming the mic. “I guess that you want to fight the Republicans. But I think you need $10 million to fight Democrats.”

“We’re not fighting Democrats,” Lamont responded. “We’re fighting to win this race in November.”

A Gambling Divide?

The six candidates all said they support Bridgeport’s bid for a new MGM casino when asked by New Haven Democratic Town Committee Assistant Secretary Janis Underwood.

Underwood asked a follow-up question: Do they consider state-supported casino gamble a “regressive tax on the poor?”

This time the panel split. Three candidates — Ganim, the proposal’s top cheerleader as Bridgeport’s mayor; Lamont; and Guy Smith — said no. (“Emphatically” no, in Smith’s case.) Three candidates — Bysiewicz, Jonathan Harris, Sean Connolly — answered yes.

The issue theoretically pits Democratic constituencies against each other, or at least Democratic-affiliated philosophies. The state’s most politically influential union, UNITE HERE, is pushing for state approval of the MGM deal; the union has a close working relationship with MGM at Nevada casino, and the Bridgeport deal is expected to include automatic union representation. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Ganim have embraced the deal, which includes a promise of placing a job-training site in New Haven. On the other hand, opponents of state-sponsored gambling have argued that it promotes gambling addiction, which disproportionately hurts poor people. And approving the MGM casino would force the state to renege on previous casino deals with native American tribes, with whom the country has a long history of abrogating treaties.

The three “yes” responders were asked after the debate why they support the MGM proposal if they also consider casino gambling a regressive tax on the poor. They all responded that their positions are nuanced, but they didn’t get to explain that onstage because it was posed a straight-up “yes or no” question.

They argued that they support the idea of exploring the possibility of a new casino in Bridgeport because casino gambling is already here, and the casinos are bound to be located somewhere. They said they don’t necessarily support the MGM proposal. Lamont spoke of how most of the revenue and jobs from casinos come from attendant lodging and entertainment facilities, anyway. “Stop calling it a ‘casino,’” Lamont suggested. “Call it a ‘resort.’” Bysiewicz said she would be concerned about the loss of $270 million in slot revenues from Native American-run casinos if a Bridgeport deal took effect.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Harris said of casino gambling. “It’s here now. The question is where it should be and where it shouldn’t be.”

Harris, a former state senator and state consumer protection chief, said he knows firsthand about the cost of gambling addiction: His grandfather suffered from it, and lost his gasoline-station business as a result. “We need to have a thoughtful discussion” that transcends yes-no answers, he argued.

Non-Pander Moment

Most of the debate featured candidates playing to the New Haven crowd, especially Mayor Harp.

At one moment, toward the end, Lamont gave an answer that didn’t fit neatly into what New Haven has been saying these days.

Lamont was answering a question posed by Ganim. Ganim spoke of how the state legislature has agreed to pay off $550 million in bonded debt onbehalf of bankruptcy-teetering Hartford. Ganim and Mayor Harp originally blasted the state for doing that while leaving Bridgeport and New Haven to struggle with difficult budgets amid cutbacks in state aid. Last week Ganim altered his position after Hartford’s mayor dropped out of the race for governor; seeking support from Hartford-‘s newly freed delegates, he declared himself a convert to the idea of bailing out that city. But he continued to press for similar bailouts for Bridgeport and New Haven.

On the state Sunday, Ganim asked his opponents if they join him in seeking those similar bailouts.

“We need a comprehensive urban strategy in Connecticut that would support New Haven and would support Bridgeport and other situated cities with the same type of equity and support.” He challenged anyone who doesn’t “agree with that” to “take the microphone.”

Lamont took the microphone.

“I am going to be a champion for the cities,” he said. “But I would do it a different way than what I saw in Hartford. The bailout in Hartford in Hartford ended up bailing out a bunch of Wall Street bondholders. I want to make darned sure the money goes to the people in Bridgeport and New Haven Hartford.”

Looking at Mayor Harp seated in the audience — as candidates did often during the debate — Lamont said he would instead push for fulling funding the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program and increasing the amount of school aid cities get under the Educational Cost-Sharing System (ECS).

Leadership Moment

Ganim, meanwhile, had the debate’s stand-out “how to lead” moment.

Like the other candidates, he called for more gun control. Unlike them, he promised to deliver it whether or not the legislature goes along.

“Ghost guns, bump stocks need need to be banned,” he said. “I would do it by executive order. If the legislature is going to be browbeaten by the NRA, let’s do it ourselves. Let them comeback and sue us. We need to continue be a leader.”

Quip Of The Day

Bysiewicz, the only woman seeking the Democratic nomination, shot off the debate’s best quip when, spurred on by Guy Smith, Harris and Ganim began showing off who had the most unconventional (i.e. patterned or colorful) socks. Unimpressed, Bysiewicz remarked, “It must be a guy thing.”