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The political style of ‘Gov. Ned Lasso’ defining CT race for governor

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MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
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The power of incumbency: Gov. Ned Lamont welcoming Breeze Airways to Bradley International in February, an opportunity for Lamont to promote what he says is an improving business climate in Connecticut. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Connecticut voters are spooked.

Going into the summer, nearly 60% believe they are worse off financially than a year ago. That’s a challenge for any governor seeking reelection, even one who models himself, only half-jokingly, after the preternaturally positive TV character Ted Lasso.

Gov. Ned Lamont played the Lasso comparison for laughs at a holiday business breakfast in December. But the goofy, infectious optimism of the fictional soccer coach resonates with the governor who still marvels at being in a game where some people root for failure.

“I just started running with [it]. Let’s face it, this was a state that was so down on itself,” said Lamont, a Democrat from Greenwich. He dropped his voice an octave and mockingly said, “You know, ‘Last one out, turn out the lights. Chronic fiscal crisis.’”

The whole “Ned Lasso” thing, of course, is double-edged.

Ted Lasso is an American football coach hired by a British soccer team with the expectation of failure. The premise is that it’s possible to succeed by inspiring others, by finding the right people and letting them grow, and being open to suggestions — even if the coach is pretty much clueless about the game.

“I found people really wanted to believe in the state,” Lamont said. “We had to give people something to believe in. You start with getting your fiscal house in order. You start with young people moving back in the state. You work with some new jobs and hopefully that compounds on each other.”

The state’s strong balance sheet will allow the Lamont administration later this summer to send out nearly $170 million in tax rebates and other payments, the largest election-year outpouring of one-time relief since tax rebates were issued under the name of Republican Gov. John G. Rowland in 1998.

Lamont spoke during an interview in his office late last week, when he had his typical full public schedule. His voice was slightly hoarse. He is a daily presence before the press, preferring official events promoting policy initiatives or new laws to overt campaigning.

His Republican challenger, Bob Stefanowski, was in COVID-19 isolation after testing positive on May 23, exactly a week before Memorial Day.

“I wish Bob the very best,” Lamont said after the news broke during a visit to Sikorsky, a Lasso-like gesture. “I’ve been through this. I think probably the majority of Connecticut people have been through it whether they know it or not. Take it easy for a few days. You’ll be back on the trail.”

Challengers, by necessity, are in the business of finding fault with the status quo. The trick is to tap into voter discontent without being relentlessly negative. In a press conference the week before his COVID diagnosis, Stefanowski showed signs of trying to find the right way to come at Lamont and his optimism.

“I do think we should be very, very optimistic about the future of Connecticut,” Stefanowski said. “We’ve got incredible people, we’ve got a great location, we’ve got a history and culture that most states, quite honestly, would die to have. We’ve got amazing, amazing opportunities.”

The Lasso-like pitch took a quick pivot.

“But I also think you’ve got to be realistic. And optimism without facts behind it is dangerous,” Stefanowski said. “And as a leader, I think you start to lose some credibility if you don’t level with people and face the facts.”

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YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Bob Stefanowski, Republican gubernatorial candidate, answers a reporter’s question after his speech at the state capitol on May 18, 2022.

Stefanowski paints Ned Lamont, the founder and former owner of a small cable television company, in the same light as the patronizing competitors see Ted Lasso: A nice guy hopelessly out of his depth.

“And in fairness, he’s tried his best. I get it,” Stefanowski said, standing outside the state Capitol. “He’s not here today. But I assume he comes in every day and tries his best. But you simply can’t go from running a 100-person cable company. That’s what he ran, a cable company with 100 people and a several million dollar budget. You simply cannot go from that to a 50,000-employee operation with a $45 billion biennial budget. You can’t do it. It wasn’t fair to ask him to do it. He doesn’t have the skill set.”

Stefanowski’s press conference, the first since winning the GOP endorsement, came on a day when Lamont was in New London greeting Vice President Kamala Harris, the commencement speaker at the Coast Guard Academy. Stefanowski is expected to increase his interactions with the press.

Stefanowski is the former chief executive officer of DFC Global, a payday loan company with about 5,000 employees.

Lamont has taken an unconventional approach to hiring. He hired a tech entrepreneur and former IBM executive to overhaul hiring and purchasing at the Department of Administrative Services and an information-technology executive from Aetna to put more Department of Motor Vehicles functions online.

His commissioner of public health is a former Yale doctor who had criticized his refusal to close restaurants for a second time when COVID spiked. Mark Boughton, a former Republican mayor and gubernatorial candidate whom Lamont befriended during the 2018 campaign, is his commissioner of revenue services.

“I don’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of yes men,” he said.

Lamont’s approach to Stefanowski rarely involves a lunge for the jugular. He prefers jabs — some gentle, some not.

“We’re two very different cats. Obviously he’s ready to attack and loves to attack, and that goes back to his very first primary,” Lamont said.

Endorsed by the NRA four years ago, Stefanowski issued a statement last week saying he would not do anything to weaken Connecticut’s strong gun laws, including the one passed in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting. Lamont was asked to say if Stefanowski had flip-flopped, an invitation he politely declined.

“I’m glad that he’s had a change of heart, I hope he doesn’t have another change of heart,” Lamont said. “Because you got to be consistent. You got to be clear. And I think you know where I stand when it comes to gun safety, in particular, keeping our kids safe in those schools.”

His tone was sharper when asked about Stefanowski’s criticism of the state’s contract with Sema4, a company in which first lady Annie Lamont’s venture capital firm, Oak HC/FT, is a minority investor. Only four of the 10 companies that responded to the state’s request for testing proposals in the pandemic’s early months were certified to do COVID-19 testing, Sema4 among them. The state contracted with all four.

“You wouldn’t have done that deal? We were desperate, right? You were sending this [testing] shit out to California,” Lamont said, his voice insistent and louder. “It was coming back a week later. There’d be eight more nursing homes that are on fire. Or you send it down to CDC. And they didn’t have a clue.”

Sema4 allowed the state to get test results within 48 hours, he said.

“Would you not have done that? Would you have let people wait?” Lamont said. “I think we saved a lot of lives by getting the best testing in the country in real time.”

Stefanowski has said he wouldn’t have done testing by Sema4 unless it “was the only one on Earth that could provide it.”

Connecticut’s 2022 gubernatorial race has certain echoes of 2014. Both involve Democratic incumbents engaged in a rematch with the Republican businessmen they defeated to win an open seat.

Lamont and Stefanowski faced each other in 2018 after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declined to seek a third term. Malloy defeated Tom Foley, a Republican businessman, in 2010 and again in 2014.

Last week, a Quinnipiac poll showed differences and similarities in the rematches of 2014 and 2022.

Lamont is better positioned. While Malloy and Foley were tied in May 2014, Lamont leads Stefanowski, 51%-43%. Lamont has a favorable/unfavorable split of 50%-36%, compared 46%-45% for Malloy. Lamont’s job approval is 52%-38%, compared to 48%-46% for Malloy. (Malloy never reached 50% in either.)

Only 44% of Connecticut voters said Malloy deserved reelection in May 2014. The same question was not asked about Lamont in last week’s poll.

Stefanowski’s numbers are eerily similar to Foley’s. He is viewed favorably by 37%, unfavorably by 22%, and 38% had no opinion. Foley’s numbers were nearly identical: 36% favorable, 23% unfavorable and 39% with no opinion.

A major difference in the political climate are two countervailing trends. To the plus side for Lamont, the state is in its third year of revenue growth, surpluses, and a fat rainy day fund. On the downside is the worst inflation in four decades that Stefanowski is branding as the “Lamont-Biden inflation.”

Lamont smiled when asked how much credit and blame should go to a governor on fiscal and economic issues.

He said as much as 80% of the credit for the state’s finances can be pegged to the growth in the national economy, but it must be matched by insisting on discipline in spending and following the volatility rules that direct excess surpluses to paying down the state’s unfunded pension debt.

“I think 20% is related to the fact that we really held the line on a lot of new spending initiatives. We kept the legislature within the guardrails that they had set for themselves.”

Lamont noted that inflation is raging in Europe and the other 49 states.

“So it’s a little cheeky to blame a governor,” he said.

Lamont was surprised by those who think his decision to run again ever was in doubt, not even in 2019, when his approval rating plummeted amid a push for highway tolls on all motor vehicles that went against a campaign promise to consider only truck tolls.

Lamont’s favorite talking point for 2019 is the delivery of a budget on time and without drama or higher tax rates on income or sales, despite starting the year with a projected deficit.

“There was no turning point or turnaround for me, at least for me,” Lamont said. “You could say, ‘God, everything went sideways.’ Because it was all about tolls. But for me, it was — as I said, you know, a thousand times — let’s actually get a balanced budget done on time. Let’s make sure it’s not with funny dollars, but real dollars. Let’s see if it’s built to last.”

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