As a civil rights lawyer, he sued the U.S. Navy over a bombing range in Puerto Rico. As a foundation president, he influenced the passage of a health-care reform law last year. Juan A. Figueroa is a singular candidate for governor in several respects, including being the only Latino in a crowded field.
But the early buzz comes from the path he is taking: Figueroa is trying to win the Democratic nomination through a direct primary, skipping a mainstay of Connecticut politics, the nominating convention.
“I understand that it has not been done before. That’s fine,” Figueroa said. “It just feels completely natural to who I am and what I’m about.”
If he succeeds, Figueroa would be the first statewide candidate to force a direct primary since that option was enacted in 2003.
Instead of trying to win the support of 15 percent of convention delegates, Figueroa would qualify for a primary by gathering signatures from 2 percent of more than 750,000 registered Democrats.
That means gathering 15,000 valid signatures – far more, to be safe – instead of winning commitments from fewer than 300 delegates.
Figueroa is betting that building an organization capable of a major petition drive would give him an advantage in waging a primary this summer. He should get odds.
Four other Democrats and nine Republicans are betting on a nominating process that is just window dressing nationally, but still is serious business in Connecticut.
Delegates are typically drawn from the ranks of town committee members, elected officials and other political insiders who have been courted for months by candidates exploring a run.
Even Ned Lamont, who challenged three-term U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in 2006, competed at the Democratic convention. In fact, by winning 33 percent of the vote, Lamont demonstrated he had significant support from party regulars.
Lamont is scheduled to formally declare his candidacy for governor Tuesday at the Old State House in Hartford. The other Democrats, including Figueroa, still have exploratory committees.
Figueroa’s intention to bypass the convention is puzzling to some Democrats.
“The first response from political people is to just scratch their heads,” said Jonathan Pelto, a former legislator and Democratic strategist.
Pelto said that delegates would take Figueroa seriously.
“He is articulate. He is bright. He’s got a lot of experience,” Pelto said. “Why wouldn’t he choose to use his time to convince 300 delegates to support him?”
Figueroa is a former state representative from Hartford who left the legislature 17 years ago to become the president and general counsel of the Puerto Rico Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
Under his leadership, the fund brought cases in Puerto Rico, joining Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to sue to close the naval bombing range on the environmentally sensitive island of Vieques.
Figueroa was an unlikely point man for the bitter dispute. In the General Assembly, he was known for an affable, lawyerly approach to issues. A laudatory New York Times column during the Vieques fight described him as “a sweetheart.”
He left the organization in debt during an economic downturn in 2003, when he moved back to Connecticut. In a less flattering article, The Times said some employees blamed Figueroa for the financial shortfall.
“I was there for almost 10 years. At the time, there hadn’t been a president and general counsel who had lasted for more than 4 years. I feel very good about the work that we did,” Figueroa said. “I was able to double the budget. I was able to expand it so we did new cases, including cases in Puerto Rico, which we had never done.”
Figueroa was born Ciales, P.R., a mountainous region known for its coffee. He said his exploratory candidacy is a source of pride on the island, where Figueroa is visiting in March for a campaign fundraiser.
“People there really pay attention to mainland politics,” he said.
Figueroa is planning to seek public financing under the Citizens’ Election Program, which has been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge for its treatment of minor parties. Legislators are attempting save the program through legislation.
And if it goes away?
“We’ll have to raise $5 million. It’s as simple as that,” Figueroa said, laughing. “The question is can I raise $5 million? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Figueroa’s campaign is advised by Tom D’Amore, the former Republican state chairman who became a political independent along with his boss, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. Its lawyer is Howard Rifkin, a deputy state treasurer who was legal counsel to Democratic Gov. William A. O’Neill.
“Tom is the ringmaster. I know Tom since the days when he was chief of staff to Lowell Weicker,” Figueroa said. “Needless to say, that was a year when we all got to know each other really well. I’ll never forget that summer.”
It was during the summer of 1991, when Figueroa was still in the General Assembly, that Weicker vetoed three budgets, holding out for a new tax structure that included a broad-based tax on wages.
D’Amore, who could not be reached for comment, also advised Lamont in 2006.
Figueroa said he quickly opted for a direct primary.
“We weighed what it would take to do one versus the other,” he said. “It wasn’t like we had a really huge internal debate. It wasn’t like I had to agonize over it or do a lot of mathematical comparisons.”
To campaign, Figueroa is now on leave as president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.
Figueroa and the foundation played a role in the passage in 2009 of the SustiNet law, which established a panel that must deliver to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2011 a plan cover the uninsured in Connecticut.
“I think I can show that I succeeded at least in the health care debate and the health care movement here in the state in getting SustiNet through the legislature, that that was a process that was very deliberate in engaging everyone from chambers of commerce to small businesses to organized labor, clergy, consumers, doctors, nurses, the medical society,” Figueroa said.
With the state facing a projected deficit of at least $3 billion in 2012, Figueroa said, a similar collaborative approach will be needed to remake state government and revive the economy.
Figueroa said it is too early for him or any other candidate to release a detailed plan for balancing the budget, but any solution will require dramatic actions.
“Let’s take it as an opportunity,” he said. “These are difficult decisions And not everyone is going to be happy. But for crying out loud this is also an opportunity for our state government and our administration to be a whole lot sharper in the way that it plans things, the way that it uses its resources.”
Figueroa said spending cuts and new taxes are likely to be necessary, he said.
“Everything is going to be on the table,” he said. “And there is no question to me that in dealing with a structural deficit of that magnitude you are going to have to look both at expenditures and the revenue side.”
Figueroa said the next governor must tend to the state’s business environment. As measured from the start of a recession in 1989 through December 2009, Connecticut is dead last in the nation in job growth, according to the state Department of Labor.
“We’ve had a structural problem. That’s what the facts tell us,” he said.
“It isn’t about just about the ups and the downs of our economy,” he said. “It is about the manner in which we as a state are going about supporting business, supporting innovation and bringing the folks around the table that need to be brought around the table.”