The Democrats’ debate will go on–but so will the negative ads

The debate over whether to have a debate is over: Ned Lamont promises to show up at the Rocky Hill studios of WFSB next Tuesday to debate Dan Malloy in the Democratic race for governor.

But if Democrats now expect their contenders for an elusive political prize to dial back the negative ads, disappointment awaits. Neither camp is standing down.

“It’s not changing anything,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the media adviser to Malloy. “All it means is [Lamont’s] pretty much waved the white flag of surrender.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Justine Sessions, communication director for Lamont.

Now the debate over why Lamont changed his mind has begun, with each camp mindful that the debate will have a relatively small television audience.

Shaping the buzz about the debate ultimately may be more important than the actual event.

Occhiogrosso, who advised Malloy on his previous run for governor in 2006, when he narrowly lost a primary to John DeStefano, said Lamont’s refusal to debate in the closing weeks before their Aug. 10 primary had become untenable.

“The reason he changed his mind is because he had to,” Occhiogrosso said. “Ducking debates had become part of the narrative about this campaign, not just for the insider world, but because of the average voter.”

Since the Democratic field narrowed to two, Lamont and Malloy have debated once, meeting in June at the studios of NBC30 in West Hartford for a 60-minute debate. Lamont refused two other televised debates, including the forum at WFSB.

Lamont announced Thursday morning that he had reconsidered.

“Ned thought this out very carefully and made a decision based on Dan’s decision to take this campaign down a road toward negative attacks, false attacks and character attacks,” Sessions said.

Sessions said Lamont is looking forward to confronting Malloy about his advertising. He is hardly being backed into the debate, she said.

“If anything, Ned is leading the charge forward,” she said.

In other words, Nancy DiNardo should not put away her bottle of Tums.

The Democratic state chairwoman has been watching with some alarm the sudden serve-and-volley nature of Malloy and Lamont’s moves and counter moves on television.

For a generation, the office of governor has been the only significant prize beyond the reach of Connecticut Democrats. The party’s most recent victory was by William A. O’Neill in 1986.

“What my goal really is is after the primary we will have everybody united behind one candidate,” DiNardo said. “Everybody seems to be in agreement. I have heard both Dan and Ned say that come Aug. 11 we are one party.”

That was not the case in 2006, when Lamont won a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, defeating a three-term incumbent, Joseph I. Lieberman.

At the unity press conference after the primary, no Democrat other than DiNardo publicly called on Lieberman to abide by the primary results. Lieberman stayed in the race as an independent and won.

The dynamic is different this year. Neither Democrat is the incumbent, and the Republicans are having their own difficulties, with Michael Fedele and Tom Foley pummeling each other with advertising.

Still, the Democratic campaign turned harsh quickly. Malloy attacked first, Lamont responded, and Malloy hit back harder. Judging by the commercials, one might think Lamont a racist and Malloy a crook. Both employed innuendo.

Malloy highlighted a racial discrimination lawsuit brought against Lamont as chief executive of Lamont Digital, his cable-television company. It was brought by a single employee and was settled.

Lamont ran a commercial that referred to a “climate of corruption” in Stamford when Malloy was mayor. Malloy was investigated for his relationship with city contractors and exonerated of wrongdoing.

On Thursday, Lamont lamented the ugly tenor of the campaign.

“The notion he is saddened by the turn of events that he helped to bring about is a fantasy. It’s a fairy tale,” Occhiogrosso said. “Spare me the ‘I’m saddened by what has happened.’ “

“Roy is a seasoned political operator, as is Dan Malloy, and maybe for them this is politics as usual. And maybe they are OK with it. But I work for a guy who has not run for office a lot,” Sessions said. “For him, he is saddened to see this is the point we have gotten to.”

In a familiar echo of every playground fight, each camp says the other started it — or at least threatened it.

Occhiogrosso said Malloy had been bracing for an attack since Lamont sent a crew to film the exterior of Malloy’s fashionable home in Stamford.

Ditto, says Sessions.

“He pulled some offensive, negative tactics in 2006, so we knew what we were getting into and we wanted to be prepared,” she said.

Malloy ran one memorable ad accusing DeStefano of being insensitive to woman’s issues. It show DeStefano in a series of poses as a woman in different stages of life.

“Maybe if John DeStefano were a woman, he’d think a little differently,” the announcer says. “Because he sure won’t as a governor.”

So, each camp says they loaded up on negative ads, because the other guy might go first.

“We wanted to be prepared,” Sessions said.

“I know what this sounds like,” Occhiogrosso said. “It sounds like a back and forth that turns voters off.”