Boughton’s exploratory candidacy is strategic

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton’s formation of an exploratory committee for governor Wednesday is less an indication of uncertainty, than a matter of strategy in the era of publicly financed campaigns in Connecticut.

Boughton is using a game plan followed four years ago by Dannel P. Malloy, who used an early exploratory committee to raise $526,000, money that helped him build a campaign organization before formally declaring.

Aside from early seed money, the interim step of an exploratory committee also conveys a unique benefit for Boughton, a mayor facing re-election this fall: It allows him to say, “I am officially running for one office right now, the office of mayor.”

Boughton, 49, a Republican, will be competing for GOP support with a declared candidate, Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, and Tom Foley of Greenwich, who has neither declared nor formed an exploratory committee.

But Foley, the 2010 nominee who lost to Malloy in Connecticut’s closest gubernatorial election in 56 years, has indicated to supporters that he will seek a rematch with Malloy, the first Democrat to win since 1986.

The experience of 2010, the first gubernatorial election year in which public financing was available, informed Boughton’s decision to use an exploratory committee to organize and begin raising money.

Boughton was a candidate for governor for three months in 2010, declaring his candidacy on Feb. 1 and ending it in May as he accepted an invitation to run for lieutenant governor as Michael C. Fedele’s running mate.

“I’ve learned that it takes you a very long time to raise money to be competitive,” Boughton said.

Under the Citizens Election Program, the voluntary system of public financing, participants must raise $250,000 in qualifying funds, with individual contributions capped at $100. The maximum donation to an exploratory is $375.

The initial public grant of about $1.25 million is not payable until next May, the earliest that candidates can qualify for a primary. A second grant of $6 million for the general election is payable after the primary in August.

Malloy is the state’s first publicly financed governor. He defeated two independently wealthy self-funders, Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary and Foley in the general election.

McKinney said he will seek public financing, as will Boughton — should he formally become a candidate. Foley is expected to self-fund. Joseph B. Visconti, a former West Hartford council member, also is seeking the GOP nomination.

“We still have a lot of work to do, to see whether my candidacy would be viable to go forward, to test the waters, if you will, to talk to people statewide to see if they would support us for fundraising,” Boughton said in an interview. “Having an exploratory allows us to do all those things.”

Boughton is a former state representative, elected to the House in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. He resigned after his election in 2001 as mayor of Danbury, a city that has fared better economically than much of Connecticut.

The winner of six terms, he is the city’s longest-serving mayor.

He would be the only one of the three major GOP contenders who identifies himself as a pro-life candidate, but he generally refers to access to abortion as settled law in Connecticut. He gave no indication of building his campaign as a crusader on social issues.

In 2010, Boughton flirted with class politics, drawing a distinction between his upbringing and education with that of the two Ivy League-educated Greenwich multimillionaires in the race, Lamont and Foley.

“I didn’t go to Harvard and I didn’t go to Yale,” Boughton said at his announcement three years ago, smiling broadly. “I went to Central Connecticut State University and Western Connecticut State University, and I am proud of it!”

The line still would work this year. Foley has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard. McKinney has a bachelor’s degree from Yale, as well as a law degree from the University of Connecticut.

Boughton, a former public school teacher, met with reporters outside Danbury High School, where he taught social studies for 14 years.

In prepared remarks Wednesday, Boughton said he would make his decision to go ahead with a run for governor “based on my assessment of the Republican Party’s ability to field a conservative candidate best equipped to defeat Dan Malloy by relating to and appealing to a broad spectrum of Connecticut voters.”

What early statewide profile Boughton developed as a mayor grew from controversy over Danbury’s tense relationship with undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

Boughton and the city made national news in 2006, when an undercover police officer posed as a contractor looking for day laborers. The operation caught 11 undocumented workers, who were turned over to immigration authorities.

He was an early adopter of social media to campaign, offer commentary and communicate with constituents, often displaying a sharp, if edgy, sense of humor.

Only half-joking, a Democratic operative says he has been archiving Boughton’s tweets for years.

Boughton, who has no strong opposition for re-election as mayor, said the focus of his exploratory campaign would be building infrastructure, not campaigning on issues.

“You probably won’t see a lot of opining on the issues of the moment,” Boughton said.

That may be a hard promise to keep. His Twitter account will remain active, and Boughton said he still will answer his own phone calls from reporters.

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