It’s spring, when the fancy of nearly every Democratic gubernatorial candidate turns to organized labor.

Over the weekend, five Democrats romanced 400 activists from the bargaining coalition that represents 51,000 state employees.

sebac governor meeting, 3-21-10

State employee union lawyer Dan Livingston, left, introduces Democrat Ned Lamont at a union gubernatorial forum

Today, about 200 members of the Connecticut AFL-CIO will hear from much the same group at the Hilton, a unionized hotel in Hartford.

How important a voting bloc is labor, particularly state employees?

Winning the Democratic primary could take fewer than 135,000 votes – and unions can reach nearly 100,000 active and retired state employees.

With the economy in tatters and most Republicans gubernatorial candidates promising to shrink the state workforce, labor is starting early to focus attention on the race for governor.

The rank and file are showing signs of responding.

On Saturday, the first day of spring, union members stood outside the Webster Hill School in West Hartford, directing cars to park on nearby streets. A half-hour before the arrival of the first candidate, the lot was full.

“We’re pleased with the energy,” said Matt O’Connor, a union spokesman, as he watched active and retired union members fill the school’s 400-seat auditorium. “This is exciting.”

The two declared Democratic candidates, Ned Lamont and Dannel P. Malloy, were joined by three Democrats with exploratory committees, Mary Glassman, Juan A. Figueroa and Rudy Marconi.

All five pledged to oppose changes in binding arbitration and collective-bargaining rules. They promised to work closely with unions, without ruling out seeking concessions.

One Republican accepted the union coalition’s invitation, Tom Marsh, the first selectman of Chester. He was the only candidate to take the stage without a union button on his lapel, but he regretted being the only member of the GOP.

“I must say I’m a little disappointed with my fellow Republicans,” he said.

Today, the same five Democrats will be joined at the Hilton by Republican Mark Boughton, the mayor of Danbury.

With the next governor expected to have to cope with a $3.8 billion deficit – about 20 percent of the entire state budget – the unions are desperate for a friendly face in the governor’s office.

“This is probably the most important election we’re ever going to have for governor,” Glassman told the union members Saturday, the day after a televised Democratic debate. “If you saw the debate last night, you know that any of the Democratic candidates for governor are better than any of those Republican candidates.”

Her audience applauded.

All the candidates tried to quickly demonstrate their affinity for labor as they addressed the crowd, then met with smaller groups.

“I’m Juan Figueroa, and I’m proud to say I was a state employee for 10½ years,” said Figueroa, a former assistant attorney general and legislator.

Marconi, the first selectman of Ridgefield, talked about how well he worked with municipal unions, even during a tough budget year.

Malloy, who sometimes had conflicts with unions when he was mayor of Stamford, was warmly applauded after relating how his mother, a school nurse, responded to a boss who had denied benefits to women, reasoning that they could depend on their husbands.

“Know what my mother did about that? She formed a union,” Malloy said. “That local is now headed by my cousin.”

Lamont, the owner of a cable television company, mentioned that he now teaches political science at Central Connecticut State University, where the faculty is unionized.

“I may be one of your lowest paid guys there,” Lamont said, smiling.

His audience laughed, well aware that the part-time state employee standing before them is a multi-millionaire who spent $17 million on a Senate campaign in 2006

Lamont’s millions are the reason why winning over the unions could be most crucial for Malloy, one of two Democrats to open some distance from the rest of the pack in early polling.

For Malloy, who expects to be dramatically outspent by Lamont, union support could be an equalizer.

In last week’s Quinnipiac University poll, Lamont led Malloy, 28 percent to 18 percent. No other Democrat topped 4 percent, but the undecided vote was 44 percent.

While the poll showed progress for Malloy, who trailed by 16 points in January, only the self-financing Lamont can afford to begin television advertising.

Malloy is participating in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public financing to qualified candidates. The first check will not be available until late May – if the program survives a legal challenge and the state’s budget crisis.

In a not-so-subtle reference to the relative resources of the Democrats, Lamont said, “If we’re going to elect a Democrat, I’ve got the best chance to win. I’ve got the best chance to take on those Republicans.

The Republican front-runner is Tom Foley, like Lamont a wealthy Greenwich businessman who has rejected public financing. Foley is the only gubernatorial candidate on the air with television commercials.

Lamont warned the union members what another Republican governor would mean to them, pointing to the budget proposed recently by New Jersey’s new Republican governor.

“It is a proposal that has massive layoffs of state employees,” Lamont said. “I’m going to be fighting for each and every one of your jobs.”

Lamont and Malloy each were on the ballot four years ago in the last Democratic statewide primary. Lamont narrowly won the nomination for U.S. Senate. Malloy lost a tight contest for governor.

Malloy had a similar message.

“You better elect a Democrat,” Malloy said. “Not because a Democrat is going to give you everything you want, but I can tell you a Republican is going to give you everything you don’t want.”

While Lamont pressed for an advantage over Malloy with a reference to his resources, Malloy distanced himself from Lamont over legislation mandating paid sick days for private employers.

Lamont has said the requirement, which no other state has adopted, sends a hostile message to business as the state tries to improve its business environment.

The state has the worst job-creation record of any state over the past 20 years, and Lamont said during Friday’s debate that the lack of jobs is a bigger problem for working families than a lack of sick time.

Without mentioning Lamont by name, Malloy said anyone opposed to paid sick leave does not deserve labor’s support.

“Are you actually prepared to trust your future to that person?” Malloy asked.

Someone shouted, “Hell, no!”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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