On kickoff tour, Donovan displays his strengths

Over four days and in five cities, Chris Donovan eagerly showed off the advantages a former organizer and current speaker of the Connecticut House enjoys in the crowded race for an open congressional seat.

Donovan was endorsed at every stop of a campaign kickoff tour last week by legislators and others, many with organizations and contacts that can fuel a campaign for the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.

On Friday evening in his hometown of Meriden, the 58-year-old Donovan talked about a career that has made him contacts throughout the district in a speech at the opening of a storefront headquarters packed with activists and VIPs.


Chris Donovan at his Meriden headquarters.

“I did neighborhood work. Listen to the towns — isn’t this kind of a coincidence, the towns I did neighborhood work in — Meriden, New Britain, Waterbury, Danbury,” Donovan said, grinning broadly. “Those are good towns.”

His audience laughed.The four old industrial cities, each in various phases of trying to find a post-industrial identity, are in the 5th, which has no one dominant city. All four were on the tour that ended Saturday; the fifth stop was Torrington.

His rivals for the nomination are Elizabeth Esty, 52, of Cheshire, a one-term former legislator, and two men with no electoral experience, Dan Roberti, 29, of Kent and Mike Williams, 31, of Southington.

Donovan’s allies say no one else has his ready network of supporters.

“It reaches deeper in the party than the state representatives,” said Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain. On Saturday, Donovan was joined in New Britain by John McNamara, the town chairman, and Rep. Tim O’Brien, who is running for mayor.

Before his election to the legislature in 1992 Donovan was an organizer with the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and the Service Employees International Union, where he said every accomplishment was a communal effort.

“This is what America is all about, working together,” he said.

Rebecca Doty, who helped launch a movement in the 1980s that successfully ran liberals against conservatives in Democratic primaries, giving the General Assembly a leftward tilt, was down front applauding.

So was Jon Green, a relative newcomer, who is the executive director of the Working Families Party, a Democratic offshoot backed by SEIU and other unions. Donovan was a keynote speaker recently at the Working Family’s annual meeting.

In some ways, the WFP is an heir to Doty’s old group, the Legislative Electoral Action Program, better known as LEAP. Instead of waging primaries, it rewards allies on its issues with a cross-endorsement.

But Working Families also can be helpful in obtaining a Democratic nomination. Many of the voters it mobilizes around issues like paid sick days are registered Democrats, eligible to vote in a Democratic primary.

Donovan’s speech was an organizer’s, stressing process as well as results.

“We worked with people. We activated people. I learned from that you can make things work that way,” Donovan said. “Many of the my colleagues are here. We didn’t do it by ourselves. We did it with each other.”

He read a list of legislative accomplishments during his 19 years in the General Assembly. Each was an obvious applause line for Connecticut Democrats; many could be fodder for a Republican opponent in a general election, should he be the nominee.

“Minimum wage, we raised it 12 times.”

The audience clapped and whooped.

“We passed, with the help of Working Families, paid sick leave.”

Another explosion of cheers, this time for the first state mandate on some employers to provide paid time off. Polls show the measure, at least in concept, is broadly popular, but to business it is a symbol of a hostile legislature.

Donovan went on, listing laws on domestic violence, autism, pollution, gay marriage, in-state tuition for residents without regard to immigration status, public financing of campaigns, and health care.

Donovan is closely identified with health-care reform at the state and federal levels, including the federal Affordable Care Act promoted by President Obama and vilified by every Republican contender for president. Donovan was an invited guest at the bill signing.

Juan A. Figueroa, the president of the Universal Health Care Foundation, whose office is in Meriden, attended the opening Friday.

Donovan also described organizing opposition to one of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s austerity budgets, convincing her to restore social-service cuts, then to pay for them by raising the income tax for wealthy residents.

“As Warren Buffet said, let’s tax those millionaires and make sure we don’t hurt working families in America,” Donovan said.

More applause and cheers.

With a Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, taking office in January, Donovan has been less confrontational, giving up when Malloy stood firm against calls for another sharp tax increase for the wealthy.

At the urging of Donovan and other legislative Democrats, Malloy did make his own concessions, partially restoring a popular property tax credit and giving up on a demand that he have the power to unilaterally cut municipal aid if necessary.

“My job has been to bring the people who feel outside in, and if there’s things that happen inside they need to know, we bring that outside to the people,” Donovan said. “And we’ve been very successful in that.”

In Connecticut Democratic circles, some of the young activists and outsiders once backed by LEAP now are the establishment, as is Donovan.

One of the legislators who crowded into the Meriden headquarters was Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, another CCAG alum. She is now the longest-serving member of the House.

Another was Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, whose activist roots go back to the nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s. With the actress, Meryl Streep, she also founded Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a group that focuses on removing environmental toxins from children’s food.

Others came to prominence and moved on.

With backing from LEAP and CCAG, Miles Rapoport of West Hartford defeated a conservative Democrat for a state House seat in the 1980s and then became the secretary of the state, a platform for him to promote the opening of Connecticut’s nomination system, which once was totally controlled by conventions.

But Rapoport failed to make the next step, losing a primary in 1998 to John Larson, a former state Senate leader, for the open seat in the 1st District of Greater Hartford.

Instead of having to clash with an established legislative leader in his primary, Donovan enjoys the backing of top legislators.

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader J.  Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, all were in Meriden on Friday.

They applauded when Donovan said, “There is a real need or someone who’ll be fighting for families in America. That’s what we need.”

“That’s the kind of speech Democratic candidates need to make,” Looney said.