Over the previous decade, it’s unlikely that anyone at the Connecticut Democratic Party had the top echelon of Northeast Utilities on speed dial. On average, the party squeezed a paltry $307.50 a year out of the entire NU workforce.
The company’s political action committee would write checks, but individual contributions never exceeded $1,000 in any year from 2003 to 2012. In 2010, the year Dannel P. Malloy was elected as Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in two decades, the total was zero.
Things have changed dramatically in the 18 months since Hartford-based NU completed its merger with the Boston-based NStar. Executives of the expanded utility have been writing checks as though inspired by the ghost of campaigns past. Political contributions, it seems, are now anything but a humbug.
In the first 10 months of 2013, as Democrats lay the groundwork for Malloy’s re-election campaign, two dozen senior NU executives donated $51,500, making the regulated utility the party’s best source of individual contributions. An executive with an NU subsidiary, Connecticut Light & Power, gave an additional $3,500.
What was the inspiration?
“We encourage our employees to be active in their communities, and supporting the political process is a natural extension of that,” Al Lara, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
How exactly that support was encouraged is unclear, but the message apparently was received among executives who live in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland, as well as in Connecticut. More than half the money came from out of state, mostly from NStar officials who remained with the new company, including NU’s chief executive, Thomas J. May of Westwood, Mass.
NU executives made only two $500 contributions to the Democratic Party from Oct. 18, 2010, through April 10, 2012, the period during which the proposed merger with NStar was pending. Some political operatives see the outpouring of donations as an effort to cement relationships after the merger, not as a way to influence its final approval.
“I think after the merger they are probably trying to ramp up their presence,” said Richard Foley, a political consultant and former Republican state chairman.
If so, that effort has been to the lopsided benefit of Democrats.
Only one senior NU executive, Gregory B. Butler, a senior vice president and general counsel, gave to the state Republican Party this year. Butler, a longtime contributor to the GOP, gave $2,500. He was not among the two dozen who contributed to the Democrats.
NU declined to provide access to executives for an interview, nor would it answer specific questions about the timing of the Democratic contributions or how they were solicited. James Hallinan, a spokesman for the Democrats, also declined comment, saying the party generally does not discuss fundraising strategy.
The dramatic turnaround comes as the Democratic Party is showing a new aggressiveness in fundraising, and NU is fending off criticism over the outsourcing of half its information technology jobs to India. The executives donated $46,500 since Sept. 27, after the possibility of outsourcing became public.
“Certainly, they have every right, and they should ask whomever they want to ask,” said Chris Healy, a former GOP chairman, of the Democrats. He said the only news in NU’s new vigor in political giving is a confirmation of an old political axiom: When the party in power asks for contributions, at the very least its calls get returned.
Politicians and others who have closely watched the Democrats’ fundraising success attribute NU’s new political involvement to a combination of factors: The company has new leadership after its merger with NStar; and the Democrats are taking full advantage of the influence that comes with having a Democrat as governor.
“They’re being more aggressive,” George Gallo, a former GOP state chairman, said of the Democrats. “I’m seeing a lot more $10,000 contributions to the party among contractors. I get that. I understand what that’s about.”
Malloy, who has not officially announced his candidacy, is expected to seek public financing in 2014 under a voluntary system that will limit him to maximum contributions of $100 and an overall campaign budget of little more than $6 million. But his campaign will be supplemented by the state party and the Democratic Governors Association, which can make unlimited independent expenditures.
The DGA spent $1.78 million on the Connecticut gubernatorial race in 2010, when Malloy narrowly defeated Republican Tom Foley, one of the GOP’s potential nominees next year. The Republican Governors Association spent $1.6 million.
Malloy is hosting a DGA policy conference in Hartford on Wednesday, which doubles as a fundraising event. The DGA’s national fundraising for the first six months of 2013 was $13.4 million, more than 20 percent ahead of its pace four years ago.
NU gave $65,000 to the DGA last year and $5,000 in the first six months of 2013. The sum places the company in the middle of the pack for contributions from major Connecticut-based corporations, most of which give to both the DGA and RGA.
The company’s contributions to the state party began at the top. May, the CEO, contributed $1,000 in February and another $10,000 on Sept. 27, according to Federal Election Commission filings. (May actually was overly generous: The limit to the party’s federal account is $10,000, and when The Mirror flagged the $11,000 total, Hallinan said the party would refund $1,000.)
The Malloy administration has not been overly friendly to NU. Daniel C. Esty, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, pushed to intervene in NU’s merger with NStar. And regulators within Esty’s department are conducting an inquiry into the outsourcing.
The company, which owns Yankee Gas, may be happier about the administration’s push to increase the market for relatively inexpensive natural gas in Connecticut to lower heating costs, a campaign that’s drawn the ire of oil dealers. But executives of United Illuminating, whose two gas subsidiaries, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas Co., also stand to benefit, have made no contributions.
Compared with four years ago, the state Democratic Party has better than tripled its fundraising, enabling the party to expand staff and lay the foundation for a gubernatorial campaign. One new hire, Jon Blair, was the campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and is seen by some operatives as a potential campaign manager for Malloy.
Jerry Labriola Jr., the Republican state chairman, was the first GOP leader elected since 1994 without the benefit of a Republican governor. He conceded that Democrats have two advantages: a sitting governor and no uncertainty over who will be the party’s nominee.
“We are planning to do our best to counter the aggressive efforts by the Democrats to raise funds from special interests, ranging from those who do business with the state to those in regulated industries,” Labriola said.