In Democratic primary race, money is a means and a message

Money talks in politics, and it spoke loudly over the weekend at Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, where Republicans endorsed two rich neophytes for governor and U.S. Senate.

But the Republican losers didn’t complain as much about the prospect of being outspent as did a Democratic winner, Dan Malloy, who was endorsed for governor across town at his convention.

Malloy fired the first salvo in the Democratic primary by denouncing his wealthy challenger, Ned Lamont, for refusing to participate in the state’s voluntary program of public financing and spending limits.

“How dare – how dare – somebody blow up the clean elections program?” said Malloy, the first statewide candidate to qualify for funding under the Citizens’ Election Program. To qualify, Malloy raised $250,000 in donations of no more than $100.

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Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Malloy criticizes Ned Lamont’s refusal to participate in public financing (Robert A. Frahm)

The public financing of campaigns long has been a goal among liberal Democratic activists, many of whom supported Lamont’s anti-war candidacy in 2006 against U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

“It is a delicious irony for Republicans, who don’t believe in this nonsense,” said Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman. “You see Ned Lamont, he was the answer to the liberals’ dreams four years ago, because he had the money to go after Joe Lieberman.”

How many of them will be bothered that Lamont is willing to open his own checkbook again, this time for a gubernatorial campaign, when they applauded him for spending $17 million of his own money in 2006?

Lamont, a Greenwich businessman, is betting that the answer is not too many.

“You know how anxious people are. They feel very strongly the state’s at a crossroads right now,” Lamont said. “And they want somebody who is on their side, fighting for jobs, fighting to keep faith with education, keep faith with our kids, maintain a decent standard with health care.”

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, two of the legislature’s most important backers of public financing, are supporting Lamont.

But U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, the sponsor of a federal public-financing bill, said Malloy’s reliance on public financing was one of the reasons he endorsed the former Stamford mayor a week before the nominating convention.

“It’s nice to point to somebody who’s led by example,” Larson said.

Larson grew up in public housing in East Hartford, one of eight children. Malloy also is one of eight children.

“God bless people that have a lot of money and can use it for whatever they like,” Larson said. “I have nothing but respect for Ned Lamont. But being one of eight kids, if it comes down to the fact you can only be a self-funder to run for the United States Senate or governor… you have to take a step back and think long and hard about that.”

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Ned Lamont talks to reporters at the Democratic convention (Mark Pazniokas)

Lamont endorsed passage of the public financing law and says he would fight to preserve the program, which is endangered by a court challenge and unease by some politicians about using public funds in the midst of a fiscal crisis.

But Lamont said relying on public financing would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament for Democrats, since the endorsed Republican is millionaire businessman Tom Foley of Greenwich, who already is airing television commercials.

For U.S. Senate, the Republicans endorsed Linda McMahon of Greenwich, the former WWE chief executive who plans to spend $50 million of her own money, over former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington and Peter Schiff of Weston.

Federal candidates are not eligible for the state’s public financing program. Qualifying candidates for governor are eligible for $1.25 million in a primary and $3 million in a general election. The grants will be increased to match spending by a non-participating opponent, up to double the original grants.

If everyone participated in the program, which sets voluntary spending limits in exchange for accepting the public grants, then he would have, too, Lamont said. No candidate, participating or non-participating, can accept contributions from lobbyists, state contractors or their families.

“Are you going to fight this battle with one arm tied behind your back, or are you going to get in it to win?” Lamont said. “If everybody plays by the same set of rules, and we urged everyone to do that, that’s great. But they’re not all playing by the same set of rules.”

Malloy has made Lamont a counter-offer: Limit his spending in the primary to $2.5 million, and then spend whatever is necessary to compete in November – if he is the nominee.

“He can make his argument about not fighting this battle with his arm tied behind. I gave him a way out,” Malloy said. “I said simply, ‘Live with it through the primary.’ What’s he afraid of? What was he afraid of that he had to do what he’s done, that he had to blow up a system that he has said he supported?”

Lamont and his supporters say that argument is disingenuous. Name-recognition and support established now through television advertising is a benefit that will help a candidate beyond the primary, they said.

Foley already has begun his general-election campaign, even though he faces a primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele of Stamford and business leader Oz Griebel of Simsbury. Fedele is seeking public financing. Foley and Griebel are not.

“They’re already on TV, already framing the debate, already taking the Democrats on,” Lamont said. “You just can’t afford to wait an extra four months and give them four months of free air time to compete. It just is a losing proposition. And the stakes are too big.”

Fedele, who was a classmate of Malloy’s at Westhill High School in Stamford, is more subdued when discussing facing a wealthier opponent in Foley. Anyone has the right to use their own money in a campaign, he said.

“I think this election is going to be about the people and about grass roots and about taking the message to folks. And I think the CEP again, if you have a self-funder, gives us some competitiveness,” he said.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who counts the Citizens’ Election Program as an important element of her legacy as governor, has endorsed no one to succeed her, but she expressed admiration for those living within its limits.

“Those people who are living and working by the public financing law, more power to them,” Rell said.

The governor then offered what could be seen as a dig at Lamont, Foley and McMahon.

“I remember one candidate once said to me, ‘If you have to use your own money, you shouldn’t be running,’ ” Rell said. “I thought that was good advice, since I didn’t have any, anyway.”