Kevin Lembo has been labeled a nerd his whole life, and he’s OK with that. He’s even been campaigning to become the next chief fiscal watchdog on his nerd-like ways.
“I take it as a compliment,” Lembo said, the endorsed Democrat candidate for state comptroller. “I enjoy being a nerd and diving into these policies and budgets.”
As if to solidify his ownership of the label, he recently tweeted, “Lunchtime activity: reviewing old voting records — an interesting and enlightening exercise.”
And in case there was any doubt, a recent campaign placard has him fully embracing his inner nerd.
“Game. Set. Nerd. Make your own nerd glasses,” it reads, with cutouts of thick black-framed glasses similar to his.
So, why exactly is this self-proclaimed nerd stepping up to become the state’s next keeper of the checkbook at a time the state is facing years of massive projected budget deficits?
“I already know where the parking spot is,” he said laughing, referring to his familiarity with the office. He worked nearly sevens years there under current comptroller Nancy S. Wyman, including four as assistant comptroller.
“He is unbelievable. Is he a nerd? He is well educated on so many issues. If that’s a nerd, then I don’t know,” Wyman said, who is leaving the comptroller’s office after 16 years to become gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy’s running mate.
Wyman and 55 percent of the delegates at last month’s Democratic convention endorsed Lembo to replace her. Two other candidates — Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard and Waterbury mayor Michael Jarjura — received enough votes to force a primary election for the nomination. Reynolds has since dropped out; Jarjura has yet to say whether he will contest Lembo’s endorsement.
On the Republican ticket is Jack Orchulli, a former New York City fashion executive who has never held public office before but did unsuccessfully run against U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd in 2004, capturing 33 percent of the vote.
“This isn’t a ‘I gotta be somebody’ situation,” Lembo said. “I jumped into this race because I think I could really help. The next comptroller has 37 days to help come up with a plan. That time could be better used than getting someone up to speed.”
“This could be the easiest turnover this agency has ever seen,” Wyman said. “He has always been a sounding board for me throughout the years, even after he left.”
The next comptroller, in addition to reporting monthly how large the deficit is, will also monitor and oversee all state expenditures. Essentially, the office is the state’s accountant.
“I fully expect the next governor to be looking under every rock to save money,” Lembo said.
Lembo became the state’s first health care advocate a decade ago, supporting consumers in their dealings with health insurance companies. Last year, his nine-person office challenged 2,600 denials of coverage that saved health insurance policyholders $6.7 million. Lembo said the key to his office’s effectiveness is its independence.
“I don’t need to seek permission to go after them,” he said.
But no one in state government has a blank check. Last year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed eliminating the budget for Lembo’s office as a cost-cutting move–although the office was funded through an assessment on insurance companies, not from taxpayer dollars. Her action came several months after Lembo strongly criticized the Rell-backed Charter Oak Health Plan for low-income adults, a public coverage program, as not meeting the benefit levels required for private health care coverage.
At the time, Rell’s office denied any suggestion of payback. ”Kevin is a dedicated public servant and has done a fine job,” Rell spokesman Rich Harris told The Day. “This is a budget matter, and that is all.”
The legislature rejected Rell’s proposal to kill the office.
Lembo is also the first ever openly gay candidate nominated for one of the state’s top six elected offices. But that doesn’t matter he said.
“Yes, it’s part of who I am. But I’ve never been the gay guy fixing public policy. I am the guy fixing public policy who happens to be gay,” he said. “I am gay just as much as I am a health care advocate, just as much as I am a dad.”
Lembo has three sons with his spouse Charles – ages 10, 22 and 25. Lembo has been with Charles for 24 years, but can now call himself a newlywed because he was just recently allowed to legally marry in Connecticut.
Lembo was drawn to politics and Connecticut in a unique way.
“I was banging my head on the door. I kept trying to open a locked door,” he said, remembering the frustration he felt every time the Community Health Center in Albany, New York he was working for lost or was rejected funding for HIV/Aids prevention programs.
Instead of claiming defeat, Lembo decided to get on the other side of the locked door. He was hired in the New York lieutenant governor’s office for a policy job. That draw to politics eventually brought him to Connecticut to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Barbara Kennelly, where he met Wyman.
“I liked what I saw here, so we stayed,” he said, on accepting a job in Wyman’s office and moving out of his cramped apartment in New York City in 1998 to buy a house in Guilford.
“I finally could stop banging my head on that door,” he said. “I decided to get on the other side of the door and pull.”