Cafero, taking center stage for GOP, looks for a message that sticks

One son is an actor in New York. Another sings in a collegiate choral group in Virginia. To understand their father, know that House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, sees himself as a performer, too.

Cafero loves public speaking. And on Jan. 5., once the clock runs out on the terms of Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, the highest profile and loudest voice in Connecticut’s Republican Party will belong to the voluble Cafero.

He and his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, will be the two highest-ranking Republican officials in Connecticut. Each leads caucuses that are outnumbered nearly 2-1 by Democrats.

Cafero, 52, a lawyer who was elected to the House in 1992, has studied and taught public speaking. A favorite book is “Made to Stick,” a business best seller about how to make ideas memorable, or “sticky.”


Comfortable before the camera: Lawrence F. Cafero Jr.

“You know, I used to do stand up. I haven’t for a while. And there’s a lot of things you learn doing stand up comedy,” said Cafero, who mainly performed as an amateur. “They come in very helpful. Let’s face it, politics is about communicating.”

“Made to Stick” was published in 2007, the same year Cafero became leader of the House Republican minority. It was written by Chip and Dan Heath, brothers who are business professors at Stanford and Duke.

The unexpected is what can get a laugh. It also is an element of what can make an idea memorable. So are proverbs, stories and visuals. Cafero is big on messaging, finding themes every Republican in the House can endorse, celebrate and use, whether they represent the wealth of the Gold Coast or the old mill towns of the Naugatuck Valley.

That means no wedge issues, no guns, gays and God for Cafero.  The House GOP has no caucus positions on gun control, gay marriage or abortion. Instead, Cafero has been pushing the Republicans as the party of “common sense.”

If that sounds less than memorable, Cafero disagrees. He thinks the idea can be made sticky, especially in a political environment defined by the perception that the state is hostile to business and is in need of fiscal reforms to erase a deficit equal to one-fifth of state spending.

“The irony of it is common sense in politics and government is unexpected,” Cafero said. “We’re so used to not having any, that when you say you are committed to it, people are going to listen.”

Cafero is a minority in his own caucus, an urban Republican from Norwalk, a city of about 83,000 linked to New York by MetroNorth and I-95. He commutes the other way, driving to Hartford for legislative and legal business. He is a non-equity partner at Brown Rudnick, a law firm that has a major lobbying business in several states, including Connecticut.

His personal politics are a mix of social moderation, business boosterism and fiscal conservatism. Cafero voted to legalize same-sex civil union and, later, to codify in state law a court decision that legalized gay marriage.

With a few exceptions, Cafero has opposed mandates on business, including paid sick days and bills requiring expanded health insurance coverage. He also voted against a bill that provided wage and job-security protections for employees of private contractors that clean state buildings.

Last fall, Cafero successfully pushed every Republican running for the House to sign a common-sense pledge. McKinney’s caucus also signed on. Conventional wisdom is that state legislative races usually are won and lost on local factors, beginning with the simplest and most important – the strength of the candidate.

But Cafero was insistent on a unified message, a brand for a party that comes in third in voter registration Connecticut behind unaffiliated and Democrats, a party that won no statewide races or seats in Congress last year. Cafero says too many voters here don’t know what it means to be a Republican.

“Mostly it’s what they saw on ‘Face the Nation’ or ‘Meet the Press.’ Tom Delay, is that representative of Republicans in Connecticut? I don’t think so. Newt Gingrich? Haley Barbour? Now, they’re all fine men. But they ain’t Connecticut,” Cafero said. “The way you start to get people interested or even knowledgeable about what’s a Connecticut Republican is by having an example of one on your backyard.”

Cafero seems untroubled and unsurprised that the top of the Republican ticket, Linda McMahon and Tom Foley, who were two multi-millionaire, first-time candidates for public office, failed to win a U.S. Senate seat or retain the governor’s office for the GOP.

Trying to win with rich, self-funded candidates is comparable to a baseball team that relies on signing expensive free agents, but fails to develop and nurture young talent, he said.

“We have no bench,” Cafero said. “It’s got to be a farm team, a farm system.”

Cafero was the GOP’s biggest winner on an otherwise disappointing election day for Republicans in Connecticut, a state where two congressional seats were thought to be in play, along with open races for governor and U.S. Senate.

His 37-member caucus picked up 14 seats, the first double-digit gain by any party since 1986, when Connecticut still used voting machines with a party lever.

But Dan Malloy was elected governor, the first Democrat to win the office since 1986. And McMahon, despite spending $50 million, couldn’t beat Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for the seat vacated by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd after 30 years. All five U.S. House Democrats won re-election.

Cafero had endorsed two up from the ranks candidates for governor and U.S. Senate: Fedele, a former state representative, and Rob Simmons, a former state representative and congressman.

He finds the prospect of losing the governor’s office liberating, not crushing. For 16 years, under Gov. John G. Rowland and then Rell, the Republican minority in the legislature seemed to struggle for purpose and identity.

Cafero often clashed with Rell as he tried to give his caucus an identity and purpose. He said he warned her after she succeeded Rowland in 2006 that she could work with the caucus or ignore it

“You do the latter, you do so at your peril because we are not just going to sit there in the corner and be quiet,” he said. “I think it took a lot of people by surprise, including the governor, including the majority party. Quite frankly, including the press.”

In 2007, Cafero’s caucus embarrassed the governor by fighting a tax increase she proposed to greatly increase state aid for municipal education. Rell eventually abandoned the idea. At the GOP’s annual fundraising dinner that year, the applause was louder for Cafero than Rell.

Cafero tells his members they are players, not token opponents whose only role is to object to the Democratic majority’s budget.

“I always bristle at the thing, ‘the loyal opposition.’ I don’t get that,” Cafero said. “I always say to my guys, ‘Each one of you are winners. You won. The majority of people in your district voted for you to go up to Hartford and represent them.’ “

Cafero is intrigued by Malloy, a Democrat who has pledged to changed the state’s accounting system, making it harder to hide unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health obligations. He wonders if his caucus may be more in tune with the new governor on some fiscal issues.

At the very least, the awkwardness of opposing budgets that were the product of negotiations between a Republican governor and Democratic majority will be no more.

With a Democratic governor, the GOP will be freer to make its case, and Cafero hopes the language will be blunt, clear — and memorable.

“That old state senator at the county fair, ‘and so, my fellow citizens,’ that doesn’t cut it any more,” Cafero said he tells his troops. “Talk like a regular person. Talk in clear, simple language. Talk with common sense.”

And know the audience. During debates in the House, that means the cameras of CT-N, the government-affairs network that broadcasts legislative sessions and many committee meetings and hearings.

“I always tell my guys your audience is that camera. You’re not going to convince the other guys. You’re not going to convince the paid lobbyists or the special interest people in the audience,” he said. “And let’s face it, that’s who’s there.”

House debates are an opportunity for the minority party to establish and reinforce an image and a brand.

“You talk to that camera,” he said. ” ‘Cause when the guy at home or the gal at home turns to their spouse and says, ‘That guy makes sense,’ you’ve won.”

If they start doing that, Cafero may have everyone in his caucus read the sequel to “Made to Stick.” It is entitled, “Switch: How to change things when change is hard.”