Lamont: A political ‘rock star’ tries to expand his base

With a campaign manager and media strategist in place, Ned Lamont is preparing to launch a run for governor by promising Democrats he has the drive, message and resources to compete with a wealthy Republican frontrunner, Tom Foley.

“We’re not going to be outhustled. We’re not going to be outsmarted,” said Lamont, who is expected to declare his candidacy this month. “And at the end of the day, I’m also not going to be outgunned by any other candidate.”

Lamont, Ned, 02-07-10

Ned Lamont

Lamont, a Greenwich businessman who spent $17 million of his own money in a $20 million campaign for Joseph I. Lieberman’s U.S. Senate seat in 2006, declined to say if he considered “outgunned” a synonym for “outspent.”

“That’s a synonym for we’re going to be able to compete head on,” Lamont said in an interview. After a pause, he added, “But I think your implication is probably on target.”

As an opponent of the war in Iraq, Lamont beat Lieberman in a nationally watched Democratic primary in 2006, helped by online, grass-roots activists who used the race as an outlet for their anger over the war and President Bush.

Lieberman stayed in the race as a petitioning candidate and beat Lamont in November by 10 percentage points. Lamont never figured out how to expand his base.

Lamont knows he must convince hungry Democrats, who have not won a race for governor in Connecticut since William A. O’Neill was re-elected in 1986, that he can do more than appeal to a Democratic primary electorate.

In a race one pollster recently called “wide open,” he is the early leader of a growing Democratic field, followed by former Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy, who narrowly lost an overlooked primary for governor four years ago.

Early polling by Rasmussen and Quinnipiac shows Lamont and Malloy with slight leads in matchups against the leading Republicans, Foley and Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele.

It is unclear if Lamont can re-mobilize and expand his 2006 base in different race, using different issues and a changed political environment.

Four years ago, Lieberman did much of the groundwork for Lamont, provoking and energizing the left with his support for President Bush and the war. This year, there is no hated incumbent, no issue as powerful as the war, no waiting movement.

Instead, there is a bad economy.

In his stump speech, Lamont stresses his business credentials as the founder of Lamont Digital, the parent of a cable-television company, Campus Televideo, that serves college campuses. His message revolves around job creation, fiscal responsibility and the shortcomings of Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election.

“Long-term, we’re not going to solve this budget crisis with more taxes. We solve it with more taxpayers,” he said. “We have a diminishing economic pie. It’s dead last in job creation, new business startups.”

It is important stuff, but it’s not likely to generate hits on YouTube or earn him a trip back to “The Colbert Report.” Four years ago, he was a rock star, riding a wave.

His challenge for the U.S. Senate was steered by local activists, led by Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. For the new race, Lamont looked to out-of-state consultants, some with a national profile.

“I’ve got a team we’re putting in place that’s run gubernatorial races, won gubernatorial races, got over the finish line,” he said.

His campaign manager will be Joe Abbey, who was the deputy manager for the victorious U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. in 2008, and then ran R. Creigh Deeds’ gubernatorial campaign in Virginia last year. (A video interview with Abbey at a bloggers’ dinner during the Deeds campaign is available here.)

For media strategy, Lamont is hiring Doc Schweitzer of The Campaign Group, who has long handled campaign advertising for Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Schweitzer also worked on Bill Richardson’s campaign for governor in New Mexico in 2002 and Bill Thompson’s closer-than-expected challenge of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year.

Abbey, whose hiring was first reported by in a blog by Kevin Rennie, was the subject of a glowing profile as Deeds’ marched to an upset primary victory over a better-financed Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman under Bill Clinton. But Deeds lost by 17 percentage points in November to Republican Bob McDonnell.

Democrats currently have a growing field of candidates exploring a run for governor, but only one declared candidate: James A. Amann of Milford, the former speaker of the state House of Representatives.

“My timetable is to make an announcement very soon,” Lamont said. “We’ve had complaints about an indecisive governor. We don’t want indecisive candidates for governor. I’ve been in this exploratory phase from early November until now.”

Amann said Lamont has told him he expects to spend $15 million; Lamont says he has said nothing of the kind. Money inevitably is part of the discussion about Lamont and Foley.

Like Lamont, Foley is a Greenwich businessman with deep pockets.

Foley is an early foil for Lamont – and a way to fend off criticism from Malloy over his refusal to participate in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public financing to qualified candidates who agree to spending limits.

“I look at this race for governor today, and I see that there is at least one Republican candidate who is up on TV, defining himself, defining the race and running a general election strategy in February,” he said. “We better be prepared to roll up our sleeves, not fight with one arm tied behind our back and be ready to match that, ready to get up on TV, ready to say this is who we are, this is what we are about and this is why we offer the best opportunity to get this state growing again.”

Lamont said he learned hard lessons in 2006.

Lieberman unsuccessfully tried to convince Democratic primary voters that Lamont was a closet Republican, then he pivoted in the general election and branded Lamont a radical and “a partisan polarizer.”

“You’ve got to define yourself, or else they are going to define you,” Lamont said. “And then it’s too late to turn around.”

This year, no one has accused him of being a radical. Lamont disagrees with the legislature’s Democratic majority over a labor and business issue that is likely to face the next governor: a bill to require that private businesses offer paid sick days. It has passed both chambers, but not in the same year.

“I think we deal with sick leave just fine at the small-business level where I live. I’m not sure I need the government stepping in and putting another mandate on businesses like mine,” he said. “I do believe it sort of sends the wrong signal out there at a time when we have a very high unemployment rate, and I’m doing everything as a candidate for governor to recruit, to expand job creation in our state.”

On social issues, Lamont is more in tune with legislative Democrats, who have voted to abolish the death penalty and ratify a court decision legalizing gay marriage. Lamont would sign the death-penalty bill, which Rell vetoed.

“If the legislature passed the bill, I would not veto it,” he said.

He endorsed gay marriage before the court decision.

“The state should not be intruding into voluntary relationships between people. So I’m supportive of what Connecticut has done,” Lamont said. “I believe it is settled law. I would hope there would be no changes to that.”

On the budget, Lamont pointed to his work with a non-partisan group at Central Connecticut State University that produced a fiscal blueprint for Connecticut early last year, before he first floated the possibility of his running for governor in March. It called for $700 million in spending cuts, plus $700 million in new taxes and the elimination of $700 million in tax exemptions and credits.

Lamont was one of the would-be governors in the Hall of the House last week, listening to Rell deliver her State of the State address. He said he heard a governor who proposed a $2,500 job-creation tax credit and ignored a destabilizing fiscal crisis.

“I’m afraid at the end of the day I heard the governor say, ‘I’m going to leave this to the next governor.’ And that to me was very disappointing, because Gov. Rell is popular. She’s not running for re-election. She’s got bipartisan support. She’s got [political] capital,” Lamont said. “I would have hoped that in this, her final year she would have used some of that capital to come up with an honest recommendation for an honest budget.”

So, for the next year, business will wait to see how the next governor will fix a structural deficit, he said.

“The number one thing that small business and big business don’t like is a lack of certitude, not knowing what it’s going to look like a year from now, not knowing what’s going to be in the mix of spending and taxes, not having the sense of direction of where the state is going, what our focus is going to be, what our priorities are going to be. When that’s unclear, people hold back and they wait,” Lamont said. “I’m afraid that speech is going to give businesses a reason to pause.”