Peter Wolfgang: In prayerful search of Connecticut’s Great Right Hope

Peter Wolfgang’s hope for 2014 is that when Republicans finally awaken, they see what he sees: an untapped vein of social conservatism deep within the hostile, liberal political landscape that is Connecticut.

The Grand Old Party disappointed him in 2010 and 2012, and Wolfgang has every expectation of being disappointed again next year in the gubernatorial election. He sees no GOP candidate willing to talk about cultural issues.

Wolfgang, 43, is the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a small nonprofit dedicated to chipping away at abortion rights and gay marriage, issues largely placed beyond the reach of legislators by the highest courts of the United States and Connecticut.

It is a secular organization, but Wolfgang is moved by a reawakened Catholic faith and a missionary zeal, even as a solid majority of American Catholics in a recent Quinnipiac poll supported same-sex marriage and agreed with Pope Francis' remarks that the church has been too focused on homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

Wolfgang speaks of the FIC as a shining light in dark times.

All five of his daughters are named for U.S. Catholic saints. His son is named for St. Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary killed in 1646 in upstate New York trying to convert hostile Mohegans, Hurons and Iroquois. Wolfgang’s challenge is converting indifferent Republicans.

“They rely entirely on fiscal conservatism,” Wolfgang said, sitting in his office on Buckingham Street, two blocks east of the State Capitol. “They avoid anything having to do with cultural issues, and it costs them.”

Wolfgang points to Republican Tom Foley’s 6,404-vote loss to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in 2010, the state’s tightest gubernatorial race in 56 years.

Foley described himself as pro-choice, but might he be supportive of a law requiring minors to notify their parents before seeking an abortion? If so, Wolfgang said, social conservatives could have made Foley governor.

He said Foley never returned the Family Institute’s questionnaire.

Jack Fowler, the publisher of the conservative journal, National Review, said the political establishment treats Wolfgang as a leper. Not only don't they want to deal with him, they don't want to be reminded that he and his issues exist.

"Peter is facing 25 years of the middle finger being flipped at social conservatives," said Fowler, a former Republican chairman in Milford.

His name was a punch line at the same-sex wedding of Michael P. Lawlor, who frequently sparred with Wolfgang as the co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The setting was the grounds of the governor's Executive Residence. The officiant was Andrew McDonald, who joined the state Supreme Court in January as its first openly gay justice. He asked if anyone objected to the union, "aside from Peter Wolfgang."

After six years leading the Family Institute, Wolfgang said he is comfortable as the most visible social conservative in Connecticut, where one party is hostile to his cause and the other is wary.

“It’s a joy. It’s a pleasure. I’ve lived in Connecticut my whole life,” said Wolfgang, who grew up in Manchester and now lives in Waterbury, where his wife home-schools their children, ages 2 to 13. “If I lived in a state where everyone agreed with me, I wouldn’t know what do with myself.”

Wolfgang said the movement is resigned to incremental change. Given a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that same-sex couples have a right to marriage, Wolfgang concedes there is no obvious path to repealing gay marriage, so the FIC's focus will be side issues, such as a law allowing parents to remove children from classes where gay marriage is discussed.

The FIC is nonpartisan, but Wolfgang said it leans GOP by default, since the Democratic Party is the home of his opposition.

“We know we’re in a deep blue state," said Wolfgang, who leaned Democratic as recently as the Clinton administration. "Politics is the art of the possible. We want to accomplish whatever it is reasonable to expect.”

In a statement that raises eyebrows among friends and foes, Wolfgang insists the Family Institute has no litmus test.

“Ours is not a litmus test. It is a throw-me-a-bone test,” Wolfgang said. “It’s Connecticut. We have no illusions.”

Sam Calgiuri, who once was Wolfgang's great hope, said that was not his experience with FIC voters.

In 2010, the same year Foley kept his distance from the institute, Calgiuri was a conservative Republican state senator from Waterbury seeking the support of the group’s membership in his challenge of the liberal U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.

Wolfgang thought Caligiuri a breakthrough candidate, a social conservative who could attract cross-over votes from Catholic Democrats in the Naugatuck Valley and carry Connecticut’s most competitive district, proving the movement’s influence. It didn’t happen.

Caligiuri lost 122,879 to 104,402 in year when the GOP gubernatorial nominee, Tom Foley, carried the district, 124,913 to 100,199. He said his polling showed an anti-abortion tilt to the district, but that the issue didn't move voters.

Caligiuri said he doesn’t doubt Wolfgang’s sincerity about the lack of a FIC litmus test, but the same cannot be said of the movement.

Where Wolfgang says it is the GOP that must change by engaging social conservatives, Caliguiri and others say change is needed on both sides. Cultural conservatives won’t be worth pursuing until they become more pragmatic and work for -- or at least vote for -- the candidate most sympathetic to their views.

Caligiuri describes himself as pro-life, but he was sharply challenged by FIC members over his vote in 2007 to require all hospitals, including Catholic ones, to offer emergency contraception for rape victims.

“In some quarters, I wasn’t pro-life enough. Or I voted for Plan B,” he said, referring to emergency contraception. “I said, ‘Good grief, do you remember where we are? I’m honest about my views. Good grief, where are you going to find anyone better?’ ”

He said the Democratic coalition is more pragmatic, more stable and more comfortable in the arena of electoral politics.

“They have reliable voters, reliable donors and reliable workers,” Caligiuri said. “They are willing to take incremental victories. They take the long view. They are willing to chip away. A small victory today can lead to a very big shift in politics down the road.”

Social conservatives wouldn’t do that in 2010, and Caligiuri questions if that has really changed.

“For them, it was all or nothing,” Caligiuri said. “If you weren’t enough of a purist, they would rather sit on the sidelines and gripe. If what Peter wants to do is get more social conservatives involved and change the dynamic, at least tell them they have to get in the game.”

Wolfgang concedes that some of his members are too quick to sit out an election if a candidate isn’t 100 percent on their issues. Like Caligiuri, and conservative GOP activists like Tom Scott, Wolfgang said there is much for the right to learn from the Democratic left in Connecticut.

But he said he believes the movement has grown more practical than it was in 2010.

“I think if Sam or somebody like Sam were to run again in 2014 or 2016, he would find a bigger and more agile movement than in 2010,” Wolfgang said.

Wolfgang said the movement must focus on candidates who will support them on incremental issues, such as a law requiring parental notice or consent for a minor to obtain an abortion.

But Caligiuri’s experience is one reason why Republicans question the FIC’s relevance and Wolfgang’s insistence that social conservatives could be pivotal, if mobilized. Another is Wolfgang’s inability to assure them that reaching out to conservatives won’t cost as many votes as it gains.

In an era of big money, the organization is financially modest. Its annual expenses last year were $315,971, including $115,143 for Wolfgang’s salary and $18,420 for his benefits.

Its political action committee reported having only $702 last summer, and election records show it hasn’t spent more than $2,500 in any year since 2009, when it waged a major campaign in support of adding a religious liberty exemption to a law that codified the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. It spent $172,900, mostly for newspaper ads and direct mail.

“That’s the single biggest thing we ever accomplished,” Wolfgang said of the exemption, which allows religious institutions to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for abortion rights and gay rights, said the Catholic Conference of Connecticut negotiated the religious exemption, not the FIC. She said the most influential conservative voice on cultural issues is the church, not the Family Institute.

“They don’t win. They opposed civil unions. They opposed [gay] marriage. They opposed transgender rights. Every single thing they have opposed has become law. They’ve never made any headway on diluting a woman’s right to choose,” Gallo said. “There isn’t a single thing they’ve actually won.”

Wolfgang claims a recent symbolic victory: Persuading every Republican legislator to vote against a transgender rights law, which passed with Malloy's support. He said he is not worried about his group's place in Connecticut politics.

The GOP, on the other hand, holds no statewide offices in Connecticut and just slightly more than one-third of the seats in the General Assembly. It last won a congressional seat in 2006. Wolfgang asks what do they have to lose by engaging his members?

He made a plea recently on his Facebook page for Republicans to support Mark Greenberg, a social conservative who lost the GOP primary in the 5th District last year to a moderate, Andrew Roraback. He referred to a stalemate between moderates and conservatives.

“Don’t undermine him. Don’t kneecap him. Don’t throw a liberal Republican into the race at the last minute,” Wolfgang wrote.

He suggested Republicans treat the race as an experiment.

“If he loses, you could at least say us to in 2016, ‘We backed your conservative and it didn’t work. But if you do to Mark what you do to other conservatives every two years, the stalemate will never end. The GOP will continue to throw away the one congressional seat in Connecticut that it can win.”

Wolfgang said he is patient, keenly aware of what is possible in Connecticut and what is not. The father who named his son for a martyr to a cause insists his goals are reasonable, and he has the patience to see them through.

"If we have moved the ball down the field a little bit in the correct direction," Wolfgang said, "I will have died a happy man."

 

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