Uneasy unity around choice of GOP chair

With his predecessor’s conclusion that a challenge would be futile, Jerry Labriola Jr. appears poised to win re-election Tuesday as state chairman of a Republican Party that has not won a statewide election since 2006.

Chris Healy said Monday he concluded over the weekend that he could not unseat Labriola, despite encouragement by some factions on the 72-member GOP state central committee.

“There was significant support,” Healy said. “I was very flattered by it. I understand it’s a great responsibility. I wasn’t at the point where I thought I needed to be. I didn’t want to engage in a very divisive fight.”

Now, the GOP can return to a chronic, if more difficult question: What is the role of a state party and its chair in an era when most key nominations are settled by primaries and the strength of individual campaign organizations?

“It all depends on what the committee is looking for, what they expect of themselves and the person they elect to lead them,” Healy said.

Does the party, which holds no congressional seats or statewide offices, want a public voice, someone to take on Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy through old and new media in the run up to the 2014 race for governor?

Or does it need someone who can and will focus exclusively on building an apparatus that can raise money, leaving to candidates the task of defining what it means to be a New England Republican?

“Given the evolving nature of parties in general, I think they serve a critical function, different than years ago when they literally controlled the entire nomination process and allocation of resources in campaigns,” Healy said.

The parties need to be a platform for communication with its own members and voters, using the tools of social networking, he said. Traditional forms of communication are becoming less and less important, he said.

“I think Jerry knows that. I think people around Jerry know that. I hope they do,” Healy said.

Labriola, a lawyer and former state party treasurer, said he sees the chairman’s role as “primarily to work behind the scenes and provide stability to the party, to raise the necessary resources so we can take the fight to the Democrats.”

He declined to talk about whether the chairman should be the voice of the party, though he has stepped up public criticism of the governor in recent weeks.

Healy’s potential challenge is evidence of dissatisfaction with the Republican Party leadership, but Labriola said the whiff of unrest would not distract the party from the 2014 race for governor.

“No, competition is healthy,” Labriola said. “We will come out of [Tuesday] night united. Chris is a friend and someone who offers me advice on a regular basis.”

Tom Foley, the 2010 nominee for governor who expects to run again in 2014, said he has played no role in the behind-the-scenes politicking over chairman.

“I learned my lesson last time,” said Foley, who promoted his campaign manager for chairman in 2011. “I only learned maybe Friday that Chris Healy was thinking about getting in the race.”

The two leaders of the Republican minorities in the General Assembly, Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield and Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk downplayed the brief flurry of attention about a challenge to Labriola.

They said the party will unite behind a gubernatorial nominee next year and a campaign to increase Republicans in the General Assembly, where Democrats have majorities of 98-53 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate.

McKinney, who has been acting and sounding like a gubernatorial candidate in recent weeks, said he will announce this summer if he is running for governor in 2014. Cafero will make his plans for 2014 known next week.

“I think all of us as Republicans understand just how critical the 2014 elections are,” McKinney said. “Another four years of Gov. Malloy and another four yeas of five Democrat congresspeople spells bad news for Connecticut.”

With no statewide GOP officeholders, the two legislative leaders have been trying to be the voice of the Republican Party, largely by opposing Malloy on fiscal and economic issues.

They held a joint press conference Monday afternoon to call on Malloy and the legislature’s Democratic majority in the General Assembly to roll back an increase in the gross receipts tax on motor fuels set to take effect July 1.

The tax will jump from 7 percent to 8.1 percent, which is expected to raise the price of a gallon of gas by 4 cents at the pump.

Each voted for the increase in 2005, but they said the economy was stronger then and the money was to be reserved for the special transportation fund under a deal struck by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and James Amann, a Democrat who was then the speaker of the House.

The gas tax increase is projected to yield $60 million in the next fiscal year, but the state budget relies on diverting $91 million from the special transportation fund to the general fund.

Foley said the legislative leaders are not the voices of the party.

“Their role is the voice of the opposition on legislative affairs, but not the overall politics of the state,” Foley said. “That’s the chairman of the party’s role and statewide candidates’ role.”

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