A GOP gubernatorial hopeful and his ‘nonpartisan’ policy institute

A once and future Republican candidate for governor, Tom Foley greeted a lunchtime audience drawn by what promised to be a withering and irreverent take on Connecticut legislative politics: “Going Down the Toilet and Picking Up Speed.”

But Foley shared nothing of his own opinions or ambitions. His role was to introduce the speaker, Chris Powell, the acerbic Journal Inquirer columnist who sees the Democratic legislature as beholden to teachers and public-employee unions.

Foley, 61, a wealthy businessman and former U.S. ambassador, played host, acting in his role as founder of the event’s sponsor, the Connecticut Policy Institute, an organization he founded soon after his cliff-hanger loss to Dannel P. Malloy in November 2010.

In its first two years, the institute known as CPI has served as Foley’s alter ego, shadowboxing the Democrat who had bested him by just 6,404 votes of more than 1.1 million cast, Connecticut’s tightest gubernatorial race in 56 years.

Days before Malloy proposed an income-tax increase as part of his first budget proposal, the institute released an anticipatory paper, “Don’t Kill The Golden Goose! Raising The Income Tax May be Good Politics, But It Is Bad Policy.”

When Malloy negotiated a bipartisan jobs package in late 2011, the institute responded two months later with a critique of the state’s economic development policies: “Connecticut Job Creation: Separating Policy from Politics.”

Other papers have made a case for dramatic reforms of the state’s pension system and its public schools, implicit rebukes to Malloy’s highly touted reforms in those areas as inadequate.

Taken as a whole, the papers comprise the outline of a campaign to unseat Malloy.

Now, as Foley edges closer to an official candidacy — “I am not an official candidate – yet” — he says he has backed away from an active role with the institute, other than raising funds from benefactors who include Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire who paid for ads attacking Democratic legislators last fall.

The institute, after originally organizing as a 501 (c)(4) non-profit, is awaiting IRS approval as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit. Donations to the latter are tax-deductible, and Foley said the change was suggested by donors.

Foley has hired Ben Zimmer, a recent graduate of Yale Law School and, like Foley, a graduate of both Harvard and McKinsey & Co., to run the institute as its first full-time executive director. Zimmer works out of a one-room office near the New Haven Green.

Powell’s recent talk in Hartford about legislative politics was the first of three policy discussions CPI has scheduled for the summer:

  • Dean Esserman, the New Haven chief of police, is talking about strategies to fight urban crime in July. Esserman is the appointee of a Democratic mayor, John DeStefano.
  •  John Rathgeber, the chief executive of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, is addressing “what it will take to get Connecticut employers hiring again” in August.

“My goal is to establish it as separate from me, something that is producing credible, nonpartisan research focused on economic policy and education policy for Connecticut,” Foley said. “I think we’ve done an excellent job.”

Not surprisingly, the Malloy camp and some Republicans, including Foley’s running mate in 2010, have a different take.

“It’s not a think tank. It’s a political front for Tom Foley. That’s all it is. That’s all it has been. That’s all it ever will be,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic consultant close to Malloy. “It’s like pitching me on TV as an objective political analyst.”

“People need to understand when they agree to appear at a CPI event, they are for all intents and purposes supporting Tom Foley’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign,” Occhiogrosso said.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who won the 2010 Republican primary for lieutenant governor and may challenge Foley for the top spot in 2014, said it would be impossible to establish the institute as more than an extension of Foley so long as he has ambitions for elective office.

“I think it’s a vehicle for Tom to basically opine on the issue of the day, whatever it might be,” Boughton said. “I’m not sure how much policy it really has done.”

Boughton questioned why Foley, if not for personal visibility, would create a new right-of-center policy group, when the long-established Yankee Institute for Public Policy treads the same ground, producing research and sponsoring issues forums.

“If you want to see that kind of work, a better investment of your dollars would be in the Yankee Institute, rather than your own think tank,” Boughton said.

Fergus Cullen, the executive director of Yankee, offered a more diplomatic view.

“We welcome CPI’s existence,” said Cullen, a former GOP state chairman in New Hampshire and one-time aide to former Gov. John G. Rowland. “We generally think the more voices making arguments similar to the ones we make, the better it is. We don’t see them as competitors in any sense or rivals in any sense.”

Cullen said he recently met with Zimmer, an unaffiliated voter who says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, though not in 2012. Zimmer is from Chicago, where his father, Robert J. Zimmer, is the president of the University of Chicago, which employed Obama as a law professor.

“We had a chat about topics of mutual interest and that kind of thing,” Cullen said. “I guess the test will be if Tom runs next year, will CPI continue to exist after that? We’ll see.”

Foley said he sees a distinction between CPI and Yankee, calling the latter a “more ideological” group that reliably serves up “red meat” to a conservative base.

Before introducing Powell at the Lyceum in Hartford, Foley told the audience that CPI was needed, given “the dearth of state-based policy that’s research-based and is nonpartisan, non-ideological.” He deferred to Zimmer, as the institute’s voice — and evidence of its nonpartisan approach.

“He actually worked on the Obama transition team,” Foley said. “So I thought that really spoke to our nonpartisan, non-ideological balance. I think to be credible on the policy front, you do have to be nonpartisan, and the work has to be supported by quality research.”

Unmentioned was another effort at establishing a nonpartisan brand: the inclusion of former U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat re-elected in 2006 as an independent, and his former chief of staff, Clarine Nardi Riddle, as members of CPI’s “advisory committee.”

Lieberman said his total contribution so far to the Connecticut Policy Institute has been lending his name, an expression of gratitude for the backing he received from Republicans who supported him after losing the Democratic primary in 2006.

“He called me. So I’ve known him a little over the years. To be really direct, he was one of those people who got involved in my general election campaign in 2006,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said his membership on the advisory committee is not an endorsement of a Foley candidacy for governor or a rebuke to Malloy, a fellow Stamford native.

“I know Dan Malloy, I wouldn’t say since he was born, but since he was young. He grew up a few blocks from me in Stamford,” Lieberman said. “I consider him to be a close friend. So I didn’t mean this at all to be a political endorsement.”

The audience of several dozen at the Lyceum included two conservative GOP legislators, Sen. Joseph Markley and Rep. Rob Sampson, and John J. Woodcock III, a former Democratic state legislator who advocates for the creation of initiative referendums in Connecticut, a topic tackled in a CPI paper last year.

There also was a contingent of interns from Yankee, led by its policy director, Heath Fahle, who says he took no offense at Foley’s implicit suggestions about the shortcomings of Yankee.

Foley downplayed his involvement with CPI.

“I really have been not directly involved, other than having an occasional conversation with Ben for the last nine months or so,” Foley said.

Foley did co-author an article five months ago with Zimmer, a Feb. 8, 2013, opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Some State Incentives for Business Work – And Others Don’t.”

Connecticut did not fare well in the piece.

Without mentioning Malloy by name, it criticized the state for the $291 million subsidy of a new genetics institute for Jackson Laboratory at the University of Connectiut Health Center Farmington, saying the state is spending $1 million on each of the 300 jobs promised by Jackson. Malloy says the project will spin off 6,800 jobs and could be the cornerstone of a new industry.

Foley and Zimmer also question a job tax credit produced by the bipartisan special session on jobs, saying much of the credits will go to companies “for hires they would have made anyway.” And if they couldn’t be justified without the tax boost, they wrote, the new jobs probably will disappear once the tax credits expire in three years.

“If many job incentives are poor public policy, why do states get away with offering them?” Foley and Zimmer asked. “Because good policy and good politics often are at odds.”

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