A tax cutter in 2018, Bob Stefanowski shows a populist bent in 2022
The hyperbole comes in bursts: A suggestion that the state affordable housing law is forcing an 80-story building on Fairfield, or maybe just a 30-story one. Crime is rampant. Cops can’t shoot unless a crook shoots first. Corruption costs more than taxes.
And perhaps worst of all, as Republican Bob Stefanowski tells it, the Democratic governor of Connecticut is coldly hoarding billions in surplus funds as residents battered by inflation choose between food, heating oil and prescriptions.
“It’s unconscionable that he gets up in the morning every day, looks himself in the mirror, knows he’s sitting on $6 billion, knows there are people out there that can’t afford food, smiles in the mirror and says ‘I’m off for the day,’” Stefanowski said.
Trailing in every public poll, Stefanowski is employing populist rhetoric to engage voters in the dwindling days of his rematch with Gov. Ned Lamont, railing at a government he variously paints as inept, indifferent or intrusive.
Stefanowski has courted vaccine skeptics, as well as social conservatives unhappy about transgender athletes competing in girls sports and about how schools teach children about sex and gender.
He draws vivid pictures of middle-class suffering, crime creeping into suburban driveways after nightfall and a police accountability law that has contributed to a dangerous disrespect of cops.
“I’m sorry to be agitated about it,” Stefanowski told an audience at social club in Fairfield last week, the same day he attended wakes of two murdered Bristol police officers. “How did we end up in a culture in Connecticut, in a world where it’s viewed anywhere near to be acceptable to shoot at cops?”
It is a departure for Stefanowski. He is an accountant, a former GE executive and ardent supply-sider who campaigned four years ago on the Laffer Curve and the lure of eliminating the income tax, at least some day.
At a campaign stop Tuesday morning in Rocky Hill, Stefanowski acknowledged trying to make an emotional connection with voters that was missing four years ago, but he was unsure if populist was the right label for him or his campaign.
“I don’t really know what that word means,” Stefanowski said. “I would say I’m a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. And I’m going to do everything I can to make Connecticut more affordable.”
Lamont shows every sign of being on a glide path to Election Day. His public schedule is dominated by official events, each designed to unapologetically highlight the role governors play in everything from subsidizing day care wages to renovations of downtown business districts.
On a recent walking tour of Madison, the shoreline town where Stefanowski lives, the governor was asked what the difference is between a campaign event and an official gubernatorial tour.
“No idea,” Lamont replied. “Aren’t I doing the same thing I always do? It’s just three weeks before the election, so maybe it takes on a different flavor.”
If Lamont has the advantage of incumbency, Stefanowski has the advantage of being a challenger able to ask voters if they are better off than four years ago without asking, or answering, a corollary question: How would Stefanowski do better?
“It’s a fair question,” Stefanowski said. “This is a job interview. And if you were the owner of the state of Connecticut, and Ned Lamont were the CEO, and you evaluated his performance, would you be rehiring right now? Or would you be considering other candidates?”
Job interview was a better analogy in 2018, when no incumbent was seeking reelection. Most job seekers are not tasked with the added burden carried by Stefanowski: Convincing the prospective boss to fire the guy who holds the job they want. And that guy seems to be reasonably popular.
On Monday and Tuesday, Quinnipiac University and Emerson College released their second polls of likely voters in the space of a month. Both found a static race with Lamont holding double-digit leads and high approval ratings.
With less than two weeks until the election, Stefanowski has to convince more voters that approval is unwarranted.
“I tell you when we’re out there, the feedback we’re getting, I feel something right now that I didn’t feel in 2018. People are ready for a change,” Stefanowski said.
In Fairfield, at the last in a series of what he billed as open-ended town hall meetings, Stefanowski promised to repeal and replace 8-30g, a 30-year-old law that gives developers leverage in communities where less than 10% of the housing stock is affordable.
In projects where 30% of the units would be affordable, a developer could challenge a town’s denial of plans, even if they did not comply with local zoning. Stefanowski said zoning should be respected in towns like Fairfield, which he says is making a good-faith effort to produce affordable housing.
“Fairfield is making an honest effort to do it, and is doing their absolute best,” he said. “We shouldn’t be throwing up an 80-story building right in front of the community theater. So I’m sorry to be passionate about this.”
There is no 80-story building proposed for Fairfield. But his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, said 8-30g projects can be too dense or not in keeping with the character of the neighborhoods where they are proposed.
Stefanowski said the state needs to find a new collaborative approach to developing affordable housing, because he sees 8-30g as producing community angst, not housing.
“It’s not fair to the people who need affordable housing,” Stefanowski said. “And it’s not fair to people in Fairfield that their single biggest investment, that they’ve saved their whole life to pay off the mortgage, and maybe they’re ready to retire, suddenly, five feet away from the dining room is a 30-story building. That’s not common sense. So we’re going to repeal and replace 8-30g.”