Penny Bacchiochi: An unconventional pol’s unconventional campaign

Colchester – Penny Bacchiochi served up the vanilla version of her life story, condensed for the four-minute slot that an early-bird candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014 could reasonably expect from a Republican town committee in 2013.

“My name is Penny Bacchiochi, and I know it’s very hard to say and hard to spell, so if you just remember Penny, that works very well with me,” Bacchiochi said, standing before a dozen people in a meeting room in town hall.

She had no illusion that anyone would remember anything she said this night in August.

Bacchiochi, 52, of Stafford is a six-term state legislator who represents Somers and Stafford, two rural towns wedged between I-91 and I-84 on the Massachusetts line. As she cheerfully concedes, she has a statewide name recognition of zero.

She says little of her 11-year voting record as a member of House GOP minority on the stump, not a word about her shift from being a friend of labor to an ally of business, her crusade to legalize medical marijuana, her unwavering support of gun rights or her second thoughts about a vote against same-sex civil unions.

Those are longer conversations for another day, perhaps after the municipal elections, when activists in each party start to focus on state elections.

In four minutes, there is no time to go deep, just enough to try to make a connection, look them in the eye, smile a bit and hope they remember you next year when the rational world begins to think about the next statewide election.

“I call it the dance,” she said later. “It’s a long dance to get to where you want to be.”

She thinks Colchester's RTC is the 31st she’s visited since forming an exploratory committee for lieutenant governor in March. That leaves 138 to go before the GOP convention on a May weekend in 2014.

Her candidacy is the result of a steady political evolution: the shift from handpicked statewide tickets to a free-for-all, from a strong convention system to one in which nominations are settled by individual primaries.

Still, it’s an odd ambition, lieutenant governor. Most gubernatorial candidates want to pick their running mates, but in Connecticut they are nominated separately, meaning that convention delegates or primary voters sometimes get to play matchmaker.

“It’s totally unconventional,” Bacchiochi says of her exploratory run as a free agent, not someone chosen by a candidate for governor. “And that’s part of why I like it.”

It’s unconventional, but not unprecedented: Lisa Wilson-Foley, a business executive seeking office for the first time, ran for lieutenant governor in 2010, losing a primary to Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

Bacchiochi’s early exploration is an audition. She is trying to impress potential convention delegates, primary voters and, ultimately, those who would lead the GOP ticket in 2014. So she's raising money ($37,255 through June 30) and visiting RTCs.

If she can demonstrate an ability to excite the base, that could make her an enticing partner to one or all of the three men she expects to seriously contend for the GOP gubernatorial nomination: Boughton, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield and Tom Foley of Greenwich, the 2010 nominee.

McKinney is the only official candidate. He created a candidate committee last month, which allows him to begin fundraising. Boughton is likely to be next. Foley, who self-funded his 2010 campaign, can afford to wait.

“I think Penny did a very smart thing by getting out early and sort of staking out her interest,” Boughton said. “I think she is positioning to make herself viable.”

Presidents pick their running mates. Boughton’s experience in 2010 is a reminder that gubernatorial candidates in Connecticut don’t always have that luxury.

Boughton was a gubernatorial candidate who dropped out in 2010 to become Michael C. Fedele’s running mate. Fedele lost a gubernatorial primary to Tom Foely, while Boughton won his primary over Wilson-Foley.

Her voting record reflects a mix of core beliefs -- and evolving positions.

“I want to learn every day,” Bacchiochi said. “I am not going to feel the same today in my 11th year as I did in my first.”

The daughter of a one-time union carpenter, she was endorsed her first term by the AFL-CIO, though her lifetime rating by the labor federation has dropped to 40 percent, a failing grade. The National Federation of Independent Business has given her a 100 percent grade in recent years.

With every other Republican in the General Assembly, Bacchiochi voted against a minimum wage increase this year, but she was the only Republican to vote to successfully override Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s veto of an increase in 2008.

She waited until the last second to cast her vote. The override passed with one extra vote, giving the impression she voted only after calculating that hers was not the deciding vote. 

“It wasn’t really calculated. I was really on the fence -- really on the fence,” she said. “And coming from a town where – we’re not a wealthy town. I think an argument is made that nobody other than teenagers make minimum wage. I don’t see that, at least not in the town of Stafford.”

A rare vote to restrict guns came in 2008, when she joined the rest of the House in voting to prohibit minors from using machine guns after the death of a minor at a firing range. She voted against the gun controls drafted earlier this year in response to the massacre in Newtown.

Bacchiochi voted against same-sex civil unions in 2005, a vote she likely wouldn’t cast today. “I really think I’ve evolved on that issue,” she said.

A biracial marriage has played a role. Two years ago, Bacchiochi, who was divorced with two sons from previous relationships, married Emil Igwenagu, a Nigerian immigrant she met at a junior college reunion in Worcester, Mass.

“So much goes back to your own experiences, and they help you to grow,” she said. “I know when Emil and I got married and we talked about it, it wasn’t that long ago in our history that a black and a white person couldn’t marry, and how foreign that sounded to me. Then that makes you think.”

Her marriage prompted her to speak on the floor of the House in favor of a racial profiling bill that requires police to report racial data on traffic stops.

“I had very strong feelings about that because in our household we’re clear: Emil and Emil’s sons will be pulled over much more than me or my two sons. So I am personally aware of some of these issues.”

Her husband has four sons. One is his namesake, Emil, who plays in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted tight end and fullback out of UMass.

Her first marriage made her a central player in a longstanding controversy finally resolved last year with the passage of legislation legalizing marijuana for medical use. She was one of just 17 House Republicans in favor, with 34 opposed.

Bacchiochi told stories on the House floor about buying pot for her first husband, while he was dying from cancer, saying it brought him relief.

From 2005 to 2007, she was paid $113,000 by the Marijuana Policy Project to lobby legislators in other states. Bacchiochi said most of the money was to reimburse her for travel.

She said she is proud her of her advocacy.

Bacchiochi arrived in Hartford in January 2003, taking office on the same day that John G. Rowland began his ill-fated third term as governor.

Eighteen months later, Rowland would resign in the face of impeachment, and for the second time in Bacchiochi’s life, a lieutenant governor, M. Jodi Rell, would ascend to the top spot.

Rell was invited on the ticket by Rowland in 1994. Like Bacchiochi, Rell was a legislator who had reached the second tier of leadership in the House GOP caucus. Twenty years later, Bacchiochi is not waiting to be invited.

No one in Colchester asked her about the wisdom of running for lieutenant governor. Instead, she was asked how she might broaden the appeal of the party.

Bacchiochi smiled. She mentioned that her first fundraiser was in Hartford at an art gallery owned by an African American woman.

A former Republican town chair in Somers, Bacchiochi told the committee she knew they had local business to discuss. She thanked them for their time.

“I hope that you will see something in me that you will remember when the convention rolls around,” she said.

She had a hook, and she used it: Bacchiochi told them it was her second anniversary, and the man taking photos in the back with his smart phone was her husband.

“What you mostly would want to remember is that I came to Colchester to meet with you on my wedding anniversary,” she said.

They applauded.

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