The I-95 campaign: An election turns on Greenwich and Stamford

Grumbling in lower Fairfield County about how Hartford sets or neglects economic, transportation and tax policies is a staple of Connecticut politics.

So it will be striking to see three Republican and two Democratic gubernatorial candidates appear Tuesday at a forum in Stamford: all but one live in Stamford or neighboring Greenwich. It is hard for the Gold Coast say it is misunderstood this year.

But what does it mean, besides the fact that only Oz Griebel, a Republican candidate from suburban Hartford, can open at the Stamford Chamber of Commerce with a joke about how long it took him to negotiate I-95?

Of Connecticut’s 87 governors, only one has been from Greenwich and one from Stamford, two communities better linked to New York by rail than to Hartford by highway.

This year, the early front runners are wealthy businessmen from Greenwich: Republican Tom Foley and Democrat Ned Lamont, each of whom has contributed $2 million to his own campaign.

Their opponents from Stamford, Republican Michael C. Fedele and Democrat Dan Malloy, are classmates from Westhill High School, class of ’73. Both are participating in the public-financing program, though only Malloy has qualified.

Fedele and Malloy are the only candidates with significant elective experience: Fedele is the lieutenant governor and a former state legislator; Malloy was mayor of Stamford for 14 years, leaving office last year.

All four acknowledge that any governor elected from lower Fairfield County will come to office with a sensitivity to the need for better mass transit.

And the fifth, Griebel, who lives in Simsbury, has long been a proponent of improving economic development in the Hartford region with high-speed rail line from Springfield through Hartford and New Haven to New York.

“I do think there is an expectation that the next governor will do something about transportation,” Malloy said.

“Coming from Fairfield County does give you a different perspective on transportation and economic development,” Fedele said.

Joseph McGee, whose jobs in government and business have given him a close view of the Fairfield-Hartford political divide, said the regions have more in common than ever, though each end of the state caricatures the other at times.

“The great divide? I don’t know, that doesn’t turn me on like it use to,” said McGee, the vice president for public policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County.

McGee, a former state commissioner of economic development and one-time congressional aide, said the issues bedeviling Fairfield, such as expensive housing and traffic congestion that is choking economic development, are creeping north.

“Yeah, we’re going to be big on mass transit,” McGee said. “But you’ve got the New Haven-to-Springfield [high-speed rail] line being pushed by people in the middle of the state. There’s one that used to divide us.”

McGee also said even the Gold Coast communities share many of the same concerns of other municipalities, including the struggle to pay for retiree health costs. And there are many misconceptions about Fairfield.

“Most don’t commute” into New York, he said. “Most live and work in Fairfield. We have more people commute into Fairfield County than commute out.”

Still, McGee and the candidates say the sudden emergence of Greenwich and Stamford as the cradle of Connecticut politics has significance, if only that it may prompt downstate residents to shift their focus from New York to Hartford, at least for 2010.

And if a Connecticut governor’s race doesn’t engage them, there always is the a U.S. Senate campaign that features two Greenwich residents with Stamford ties, Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon. Blumenthal once represented Stamford in the state Senate; McMahon’s company, World Wrestling Entertainment, is in Stamford.

“All the media in Fairfield County comes out of New York, so people in Fairfield County are not quite as tuned in to what is going on in the state of Connecticut and what is going on in Hartford,” Foley said.

“They don’t think about Hartford,” Lamont said of his neighbors. “They don’t quite know what Hartford does, except to not fix transportation and to tax them.”

The concerns about taxes tend to to focus on the income tax and inheritance tax in Fairfield County, while the property tax is the bigger concern in other parts of the state, he said.

“It is a little different conversation,” Lamont said. “But every part of the state is a little different conversation. Every part of the state feels like it is the Quiet Corner, that they are overlooked.”

The New York focus long has been the bane of Connecticut politicians, especially Republicans who view Fairfield County as an important base.

In 1982, when Lewis Rome was the Republican nominee for governor against Democrat William A. O’Neill, he found himself confused in Greenwich with Lewis Lehrman, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in New York.

With two-thirds of Connecticut voters living in the Hartford-New Haven television market, Fairfield historically has been a poor springboard for statewide office.

It was a factor in 2006, when Malloy narrowly lost a Democratic primary to John DeStefano Jr., the mayor of New Haven. This year, the field has been leveled, as least as it applies to geography.

None of the five major-party candidates are well-known.

Earlier this month, the Quinnipiac University poll found most residents said they knew too little about the candidates to say if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion.

Even after his high-profile run for U.S. Senate in 2006 against Joseph I. Lieberman, 46 percent had no opinion of Lamont. And he is the best-known.

The percentages of voters with no opinion on the others: Foley, 52 percent; Malloy, 68 percent; Fedele, 78 percent; and Griebel, 89 percent.

Malloy recently began heavy television advertising, hoping to close the gap in name recognition with Foley and Lamont, who went on the air early.

Neither of the previous governors from Greenwich or Stamford had to worry about how to overcome living outside the dominant Hartford-New Haven television market.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Greenwich, a former U.S. Senator with a high-profile role in the Watergate hearings, was a household name when he ran in 1990. As for Gov. William T. Minor of Stamford, he was elected in the century before the invention of television.

Other parts of Fairfield County have done better electing governors. The incumbent, M. Jodi Rell, is from the Danbury suburb of Brookfield, on the northern end of the county.

But the most of the county’s population stretches along the coast and the I-95 corridor, from Greenwich through Stamford, Darien, Norwalk, Westport, Fairfield and Bridgeport.

Republican John Lodge of Westport was elected governor in 1950, but he served only one term.

His downstate Republican base abandoned him over disruption caused by the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike. Even then, I-95 was a political killer.