Tom Foley is OK with the minimum wage. Just don’t ask him to endorse paid sick days, health mandates, tax increases or other policies that he says hobble the Connecticut economy.
In a far-ranging interview, Foley discussed gay marriage, abortion, gun control and the death penalty, but the early front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination said every issue pales next to the state’s weak finances and a high-cost business environment he blames on the Democratic legislature.
The two Republicans who have held the governor’s office since 1995 get a pass from Foley for the state’s dismal record on job creation: The state is one of two in the nation with a net job loss since 1989.
“I think that what makes Connecticut business-unfriendly — the mandates, the other costs and inconveniences that businesses are put through, and taxes – really resulted from the Democratic legislatures and not the Republican governors,” Foley said.
Foley said he would campaign for Republican legislative candidates and try to whittle the Democrats’ two-thirds majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
But coattails seem to have gone out of fashion in Connecticut. With the popular Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell leading the ticket in 2006, the GOP lost seats.
Over a 40-minute interview at a coffee shop, Foley broadly sketched his case for a leaner state government – he thinks he can wring $1 billion in spending from the $18.6 billion budget – and a freer hand for business.
The legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says the next governor probably will need to close a budget gap of $3 billion, not $1 billion.
“I don’t know that you have to squeeze $3 billion out. My goal is to squeeze a billion out. I think we can get 6 percent of the budget out in a year,” Foley said. “If we need to do more after that, we’ll do that.”
Taxes are not an option, he said. The state’s combined state and local tax burden is among the highest in the nation, he said.
“That tells me taxes aren’t the problem, spending’s the problem. So, we’re going to hit spending,” he said.
Foley is an independently wealthy businessman from Greenwich who made a fortune by acquiring and overhauling companies, then became a major fundraiser for the Republican Party. His reward: George W. Bush named him ambassador to Ireland.
The broader public came to know him – or at least 37 percent of residents, as measured by a Quinnipiac poll last month — through television ads aired when he was a candidate for U.S. Senate.
He switched to the race for governor in December after Rell announced she would not seek re-election in 2010.
In field without a single household name, Foley is the best known.
Only 62 percent did not know enough about him to offer an opinion of him two weeks ago, compared to 78 percent for Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, 89 percent for former U.S. Rep. Lawrence DeNardis and 96 percent for Oz Griebel, a business leader.
Mark Boughton, the Danbury mayor who announced his candidacy Monday with several gibes at Foley’s wealth, was unknown by 90 percent.
Foley’s first gubernatorial commercials started to get wide play Monday on broadcast channels in the Hartford-New Haven market and on cable in Fairfield County.
Last fall, his debut piece was an attack on U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, paired with a promise get the “economy moving again.”
His new spots are folksier.
Wearing bluejeans and a canvas field jacket, Foley is seen meeting voters and standing outside the State Capitol, promising a new way. They take a shot at no one in particular and the political culture in general.
“Hartford is broken – and broke,” he says.
At the coffee shop, he skipped coffee. His approach was relaxed, conversational, decaffeinated. He came across as a man unaccustomed to raising his voice.
Would he veto the death-penalty abolition bill, as Rell did last year?
“I’m in favor of the death penalty, where the circumstances warrant it.”
Does he see it a deterrent or a matter of justice?
“I think it’s part of the origin of the sense of justice and fairness in our own history. I know it’s not in some other cultures. I think it still is here.”
But is it a deterrent?
“A deterrent? I don’t now the statistics, but I think the reason most people are in favor of it is not because it is a deterrent, but because it appeals to their sense of justice.”
Would he support efforts to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage law, which was a reaction to a court decision?
“I personally think marriage is a between a man and woman, but I know that gay marriage is permitted in the state of Connecticut. As governor, I’d support the law.”
“I’m pro-choice. But I also think I respect everybody’s views on that topic. I think choice comes with responsibility. Everybody agrees we should have fewer abortions and fewer unwanted pregnancies.”
He would have signed a gun-control measure passed in 2007 requiring gun owners to report stolen firearms.
“I support the 2nd Amendment. I’m a gun owner myself, but I think with gun ownership comes responsibility.”
Requiring that private employers offer paid sick days has been passed by the House and Senate, though never in the same year. It is likely to come up again.
What does he think?
“Easy answer. I’m against it.”
Connecticut has far too many mandates on businesses, including requirements on coverage that must be provided by group health insurers, he said.
“Wigs for cancer patients, fertility treatments for senior citizens, all kinds of things. Every one of these seems like a nice thing that people who have these various medical problems and other problems need,” he said. “But it raises the cost of insurance to employers. It means we end up with fewer jobs here in Connecticut.”
(For the record, the state does mandate coverage for infertility, but not for senior citizens, according to Kevin Lembo, the healthcare advocate. The mandate for wigs was signed by Republican Gov. John G. Rowland.)
Foley was a union member once. Call it a youthful indiscretion. At 17, he took off from the Kent School and struck out for Denver, where he had family.
“I finished my junior year. I really wanted to travel and see the world. So I talked to my parents about taking a year off from school,” he said. “At first they weren’t too enthusiastic.”
In Colorado, he got a construction job building a bridge, then worked in an aluminum can factory.
“I had to join the union to get that job,” he said.
What did he think of the experience?
He shrugged and called it “painless” to join.
Did he think his pay was better under a union contract?
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “They did take dues out of my check. I did notice that.”
He saw a bit more of the world in 2003, going to Iraq to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He called his time in Iraq overseeing private-sector development from the subject for a later, longer conversation.
But he offered a quick review of two best-selling books about the invasion and occupation of Iraq: “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” and “Fiasco.”
Foley shook his head when asked about “Imperial Life.”
“I haven’t read that one,” he said. “That was fiction. He was doing the normal Bush-bashing the media took on at the end.”
But he called “Fiasco,” which criticized the Bush administration for failing to anticipate the counter-insurgency, “an honest effort to reflect accurately what went on in Iraq.”