Just as business leader Oz Griebel launched his campaign for governor Thursday, the man he is chasing for the Republican nomination hit the accelerator, an effort to get some distance on a growing field of candidates.
Tom Foley, a former ambassador and an independently wealthy businessman, unveiled two biographical commercials that will air throughout February, a media buy that should keep him first among Republicans in the early polls.
And Griebel also had to contend with the distracting buzz surrounding former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who has been thinking out loud for the past week about joining the growing pack of Republicans running for governor.
Griebel announced his candidacy on the north steps of the State Capitol, mid-way through a snowy day of campaigning that took him to Torrington, Mystic, Hartford and Stamford.
Griebel, 60, of Simsbury, the president and chief executive officer of the region’s largest business association, the Metro Hartford Alliance, said he would bring an entrepreneurial spirit to a state that has been bleeding jobs and losing the next generation of workers to other states.
“We’ll think big. We’ll speak candidly. And we’ll act decisively,” Griebel said.
Griebel said he will not seek public financing for his campaign. He said he would run without regard to polls or concerns about re-election.
As president of the Metro Hartford Alliance, Griebel has interacted with political and business leaders in the Greater Hartford region for 19 years, but he acknowledged he is largely unknown in Fairfield County, where Republican primaries are won and lost.
“One of my big challenges, certainly, is name recognition in the southern part of the state,” he said.
He joins a Republican field that includes Foley, who lives in Greenwich, and Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele of Stamford.
As expected, Foley is emerging as the pace-setter among Republicans. He boosted his name recognition last year with television commercials during his campaign for U.S. Senate, which he terminated last month to run for governor.
He said Thursday he also has hired a new media consultant: Dean Pagani, a public-relations consultant who was the spokesman and chief of staff for Gov. John G. Rowland.
Foley is willing to use his own fortune, but he also is a well-connected fundraiser who helped raise dollars for George W. Bush’s campaigns president. His reward: an ambassadorship to Ireland.
Republican State Chairman Chris Healy said potential candidates have to gauge their ability to compete.
“It’s certain an issue that any candidate should contemplate before they enter the race,” Healy said.
Griebel, who also was the chief executive officer of BankBoston’s Connecticut subsidiary, immediately tried to position himself between the two leading Republicans, characterizing himself as business leader with realistic ideas about changing government.
He shook off a question about whether he would run the state like a business.
“It’s not that simple,” he said.
Like the other candidates, Griebel said the state must do what it can to cut costs over the short and long term. He said the state must negotiate with state employees for a contract that will allow new hires to be given a defined-contribution retirement plan, not a pension.
The state must examine all aspects of spending, including whether or not the state can afford multiple institutions of higher education, he said.
But he also said he could not rule out seeking new taxes, given that the next governor will face a $3 billion shortfall in an annual budget of $18.6 billion.
“I would never rule anything off limits. I think that’s a foolish thing to do in any time,” he said.
Griebel said he would consider highway tolls, but only if the revenue was dedicated to rebuilding transportation infrastructure.
Ashley Maagero, Griebel’s campaign manager, said the first phase of his campaign would focus on “retail politics,” meeting potential delegates to the Republican nominating convention in May.
Griebel can be competitive at the convention without matching Foley on the air, she said.
Democrats also have a large field of politicians exploring a run. Like the GOP, the Democrats’ early front-runners have a downstate tilt: They are Ned Lamont of Greenwich and Dan Malloy of Stamford. Waterbury Mayor Michael J. Jarjura said this week he expects to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination next month.
“I think the Republicans know the race has begun,” Lamont said Thursday night of Griebel’s announcement and Foley’s media plans. Asked when he would make a decision about running, he replied, “Very soon.”
Other Republicans exploring a run include former U.S. Rep. Lawrence DeNardis of Hamden, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Newington Mayor Jeff Wright and Tom Marsh, the first selectman of Chester.
And maybe, just maybe, Shays.
After a charity roast Wednesday night in Greenwich, Shays sounded like he was ready to become a candidate: “I feel that I have a voice that can make a contribution, win or lose,” Shays told the Greenwich Time.
But it may be late for Shays. His favorable comments about Barack Obama in the late stages of his unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2008 alienated some Republicans.
Shays has given enough mixed signals in recent weeks that one of his roasters, Lamont, compared him to Brett Favre, the aging quarterback who can never quite bring himself to quit.
Others who have spoken with Shays say privately they doubt he will run.
Shays no longer lives in Connecticut. He sold his waterfront home in Bridgeport and moved to Maryland, within commuting distance of jobs he and his wife hold in the Washington D.C. area.
Healy said that whatever Shays decides, it has to happen soon.