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Bob Stefanowski spices a corporate resume with a dash of populism

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MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Bob Stefanowski with Phil Segneri, the chef and owner of Fire Engine Pizza in Shelton, talking about the impact of inflation.

At his first press conference as the endorsed Republican candidate for governor, Bob Stefanowski’s derision of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s leadership was tempered by pitying chuckles and one patronizing compliment: “I assume he comes in every day and tries his best.”

Behind the sarcasm is a consistent theme driving Stefanowski and his second campaign for governor of Connecticut: A disdain for the business acumen and management style of the amiable businessman who bested him in 2018, and an insistence the General Electric-trained Stefanowski could do better.

“He wants to be people’s friend,” Stefanowski said in an interview, sitting at a folding black conference table at his campaign headquarters off I-95 in Branford. “The state of Connecticut does not need a friend as their governor right now. Ned Lamont’s biggest desire is to be friends with everybody.”

Implicit is that Lamont, an entrepreneur who founded a niche cable television company, could not have made the cut at G.E., the corporate behemoth where Stefanowski rose during the perform-or-die reign of the Jack Welch, the late CEO whose legacy has dimmed with G.E.’s fortunes.

“I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions in my career,” said Stefanowski, who left G.E. in 2007 after a 13-year stint capped by the board of directors electing him as a company officer. “I’ve had to fire a lot of people.”

At G.E. under Welch, building a “performance culture” meant weeding out the bottom 10% of performers every year. Stefanowski does not say what a performance culture would be in state government, where agencies are organized by statute and employees are unionized.

Stefanowski says he wants to make Connecticut more affordable by cutting taxes and rooting out waste and fraud — not necessarily by firing anyone or otherwise shrinking a state workforce.

He objected to $3,500 bonuses in the contract the Lamont administration recently awarded to unionized state employees, calling it a naked effort to buy their votes. But, to the surprise of some GOP lawmakers, he deemed the contract’s 2.5% general wage increase “reasonable.”

Stefanowski, too, is trying to make friends.

Forty-four thousand votes and three percentage points separated Stefanowski and Lamont in 2018, when they competed for an open seat. The same two men are running for governor, but one of them now is an incumbent with a record.

The fundamentals have changed. And so has Stefanowski’s campaign.

Four years ago, Stefanowski ran on one big idea from which he rarely and reluctantly departed: A supply-sider insistence that all of Connecticut’s economic and fiscal ills were byproducts of the state adopting a broad-based income tax in 1991.

His pitch then to voters: Elect him in 2018 (and reelect him in 2022 and 2026), and he would do his best to eliminate the income tax by 2028.

This version of his campaign is about drawing contrasts between what Lamont has done as governor and what Stefanowski says he would do if in charge. Many are things aimed at buttressing Stefanowski’s argument that of the two independently wealthy men in the race, he is the one most attuned to concerns of voters unsettled by the worst inflation in 40 years.

He faults Lamont for not calling a special session to use $1 billion in surplus funds for tax relief beyond the $600 million in tax cuts in the current budget, including a child tax rebate of $250 per child and suspension of the 25-cent-a-gallon excise tax on gasoline.

Among other things, Stefanowski would cut the sales tax from 6.35% to 5.99% and suspend a diesel fuel tax that will increase by 9.1 cents to 49.2 cents on July 1. 

He blames the governor for things as disparate as the price of gasoline and prescription drugs and the difficulty of recruiting police, even if those things are being experienced nationally — and internationally, in the case of inflation.

“I hate that excuse,” Stefanowski said. “If you’re running a corporation and your competitor is down 30 percent and you’re only down 20 percent, do you think your board is gonna say, ‘Well, ok, you’re down less than the competitor?’ They’re gonna say, ‘Get your shit together. Otherwise, we’re gonna get a new CEO in here.’ And that’s the standard he should be held to.”

Stefanowski said he believes leadership is about setting a tone and demanding accountability.

He said he sees as a lack of accountability in cost overruns at the state pier in New London, the FBI investigation of a former state official who oversaw the project and school construction grants, and a scandal in West Haven involving the misuse of federal pandemic relief money.

Lamont has suggested, but not demanded, that West Haven’s mayor step down. Stefanowski called that a failure to set a tone and standard.

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CTMIRROR.ORG
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Signs in Stefanowski’s headquarters.

At G.E., he said, accountability was everything.

“This gets back to G.E. If you were CEO, if you look at him as a CEO right now, you’d say what the hell is going on up there?” Stefanowski said. “And I think he’s distant. I think he views this job as, well, I don’t want to say it –”

He declined to finish the sentence, at least on the record.

“You got to show some leadership. There is no leadership,” Stefanowski said. “It’s like going away for the weekend and leaving your kids home.”

“The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” a book offering a dark and critical take on Jack Welch and the G.E. way of managing people and business, is on Stefanowski’s nightstand. He started to read the book, then set it aside. He agrees with the critique that Welch was obsessed with managing for short-term goals that kept shareholders happy, but overall deemed him “a terrific leader.”

Not every criticism is from the G.E. management book. Stefanowski is using strains of populism and class-consciousness to portray the governor as incapable of feeling and acting on the financial and social concerns of Connecticut families, a characterization the governor’s campaign calls off-base.

“Governor Lamont has delivered for middle class families – he’s lowered costs, raised the minimum wage, and invested in training the workforce of tomorrow,” said Jake Lewis, a campaign spokesman. “His $600 million tax cuts put money into the pockets of consumers, allowing working families to save for their futures.”

Stefanowski said he doesn’t claim that Lamont is indifferent to the needs of a struggling working classs, but that deep down he doesn’t understand.

“I think the biggest difference you’re going to see is — I want to be careful what I say, because I don’t know that Ned doesn’t care — I don’t think he has the context in his background to understand what people are going through,” Stefanowski said.

Stefanowski is 60, married and the father of three daughters, the youngest still in college. He and his wife, Amy, live in a 5,000 square-foot home in Madison they purchased in 2014 for $2.975 million. It features a pool, carriage house and hilltop views of Long Island Sound.

But Stefanowski is enjoying first-generation wealth.

Lamont is old money, the great-grandson of Thomas W. Lamont Jr., who amassed great wealth in finance, becoming a partner and eventually chief executive at J.P. Morgan & Co. A library at Harvard bears his name. The governor’s wife, Annie, is a successful venture capitalist. They own a home in Greenwich and a summer house off the coast of Maine.

Stefanowski’s family lived on one floor of a three-family in New Haven when he was a boy. His grandparents were on another floor. The third was rented to students from Southern Connecticut State University. Stefanowski’s parents bought a house in North Haven when he was in second grade.

“And I’m not going to give you a sob story about my upbringing, but you know, we didn’t have a ton of money,” Stefanowski said. “I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to be in a school that’s suboptimal. And I think unless you’ve experienced that, you don’t have the empathy.”

Stefanowski has the money to drive that point in campaign ads.

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Scene from an ad: Bob Stefanowski talks to voters in a diner in one of his first TV ads, stressing a middle-class background .

He spent $3 million of his own money on his $6 million 2018 campaign and already has committed $10 million to the 2022 effort. (Lamont spent $15 million, but independent expenditure groups supporting Stefanowski made the spending roughly even.)

Stefanowski’s last full-time job was as the chief executive of DFC Global, a payday loan company whose high-interest loans are barred by Connecticut’s usury laws. His tenure there, from 2014 to 2017, was a well-explored issue in 2018.

His compensation in the last two years he worked at DFC averaged about $8 million, according to joint tax returns he released for 2016 and 2017 during his last campaign. The Lamont campaign says that is not new money that suggests an emotional connection with the working poor.

“Bob made $16 million in two years by trapping working people in shady, high-interest payday loans,” Lewis said.

Stefanowski has had a consulting business since then, working for clients “all over the world.” He has promised to release his tax returns that will show income from his consulting company, but not necessarily clients who required non-disclosure agreements.

While wealthy, Stefanowski mocks the trapping of wealth and perks of office enjoyed by Lamont, including a painting from the governor’s personal collection, a Norman Rockwell original that hangs behind his desk.

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MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
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On the wall behind Gov. Ned Lamont is a Norman Rockwell original, “Right to Know.” His charitable contributions included money to the Rockwell museum in Sturbridge, Mass.

“You probably think it’s petty that I make fun of the million and a half dollar painting behind him. You know, it sets a tone,” Stefanowski said. “Sitting there in a $2,300 leather chair with his name embossed on it, that sets a tone.”

The Lamont administration would argue that the governor forgoing his $150,000 annual salary for four years also sets a tone.

Every governor and top legislative leader gets the same chair, whose actual price could not be determined Monday, as a keepsake when they leave office. If elected, Stefanowski said, he somehow would keep the governor’s chair, putting masking tape over the name.

“Why should he get that?” he said.

There also is a populism in the appeals Stefanowski makes to the cohort of voters who came to resent the reach of government during the COVID-19 pandemic and the parents who broadly say they want a greater voice in how schools are run and what their children are taught.

Vague references to “parental involvement” reliably generate applause at campaign events, he said, as they did during his acceptance speech at the Republican endorsement convention. Voters can hear anything in those references.

“I don’t know whether it’s intentional or not, but I think COVID has allowed government to infiltrate every nook and cranny of people’s lives,” Stefanowski said. “And they’ve now gotten between a mother and her child, they’re telling the mom the kids has to be vaccinated with COVID. They’re telling the mom the kid needs to wear masks. They’re telling the mom when and where that kid can go to school. They’re telling the mom here’s what we’re going to teach your kid.”

The governor has long abandoned a state requirement for masks in schools, and curriculums always have been set by local districts, not parents. And, as Stefanowski acknowledged, Connecticut never has mandated COVID vaccinations to attend school.

“No, but you never know where it’s going to end,” Stefanowski said. “And I think, understandably, people or parents are nervous. And I think it’s time to give the power to raising kids back to the parents. I think that government has inserted itself. I think they need to get out. And that’s why I think when I say that a lot of people agree with me, and you get a round of applause.”

Stefanowski said he disagreed with the repeal of the religious exemption for school vaccinations against childhood disease, a bill signed into law by Lamont in 2021. It was spurred by concerns that a drop in vaccinated children is some districts was imperiling their immunity.

Beginning this fall, children in pre-kindergarten, day care or those new to the school system no longer would be able to claim the exemption. Children who are in kindergarten through 12thgrade would still qualify for the remainder of their academic careers.

Stefanowski also expressed solidarity with parents who have objected to sex education classes.

A digital ad by conservative super PAC, Parents Against Stupid Stuff, faults Lamont for not protecting children in Enfield against an assignment on sex and consent mistakenly used in an 8th-grade family health and human sexuality class. It encouraged students to discuss sexual desires using pizza toppings as a metaphor.

“I’ve got no tolerance for that,” Stefanowski said of the lesson.

But what would he do, bar Enfield from teaching about human sexuality? What should Lamont have done?

Stefanowski said he was not proposing a state prohibition.

“But I think there’s a tone that the governor can set, which I will, which is let’s get our schools back to teaching reading, writing, arithmetic stem, getting kids prepared for college,” Stefanowski said. “And it should be up to the local school boards. But I do think as a governor, you can send that message without mandating it.”