SHELTON – A motorcycle loudly idled at a stop light Tuesday as Linda McMahon, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, stood by her waiting SUV and answered questions from two reporters about a dead wrestler.
McMahon, a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, was trying to steer the impromptu press conference away from the recent death of 29-year-old Lance McNaught to the more comfortable subjects of jobs and the economy.
Then a man across the street interrupted by yelling, “You’ve got my vote, Linda!”
“Thank you,” McMahon yelled back. “Thank you, very much.”
Not every candidate for U.S. Senate faces questions about dead wrestlers. And not every candidate gets honks from motorists and spontaneous screamed pledges of votes from passing pedestrians.
As Connecticut has learned in recent months, the 61-year-old McMahon is not any candidate. The winner of last week’s three-way GOP primary brings celebrity and money — $24 million and counting – to the race.
On Tuesday afternoon, McMahon made a tour of businesses along Howe Avenue in Shelton, one of the Naugatuck Valley mill towns where Ronald Reagan got a lot of Democratic votes.
She popped into Downtown Danny O’s Bar & Grille to shake a few hands, but that just wasn’t going to do it for a heavily tattooed fan, Al Giarratano.
Giarratano and his buddy, John Ozelski, soon had their arms wrapped around McMahon, squeezing her between them like she was just another Greenwich millionaire who’d wandered in at happy hour.
Ozelski puffed out his chest, got on a game face and struck a thumbs up pose. Giarratano just smiled. An obliging bar maid snapped a photo on Giarratano’s cell-phone camera.
“I’m, like, giddy now,” Giarratano said, staring the photo.
Add this to McMahon’s political assets: She can make a heavily tattooed man confess to being giddy. She also did what no politician had managed to do – get 29-year-old Al Giarratano to register to vote.
Giarratano said he registered to vote this year for the first time, solely so he could cast a vote for McMahon in the Republican primary for U. S. Senate.
“I guess it took someone like her to pique my interest,” said Giarratano, who assembles helicopter blades at Sikorsky Aircraft in nearby Stratford. “It’s a little bit easy to follow a celebrity, I guess.”
Her celebrity is double-edged. The WWE connection brings curiosity, fans – and significant baggage. Questions always loom about the WWE’s racy programming and its ties to steroid abuse, as investigated by Congress.
She has yet to conduct a wide-ranging press conference, but McMahon takes questions from the press on her daily campaign swings, which typically involve a pass through a business district.
On this day, some of of the questions were about the death of McNaught, a former WWE wrestler who performed under the name, Lance Cade.
Democrats are trying – though their nominee, Richard Blumenthal, has yet to directly raise the subject – to link McMahon to the mortality rate of WWE wrestlers. Journalists who follow the company say five have died under contract to WWE, and several others shortly after leaving.
McMahon said the WWE is not responsible.
“No more than a studio could have prevented Heath Ledger’s death,” she said of the late actor. “What a tragic thing that was. A young man, bright future. Just doing everything right. Who knows what caused people to have addictions and to do what they do.”
McMahon said she was proud of the steps her company took to provide drug counseling.
“If you ever have been under contract to WWE, you can call this hotline,” she said. “And if you’ve got an issue, WWE will help you.”
McMahon said no voters ask her about steroids, drug abuse or dead wrestlers.
“If I’m out on the street, talking to folks, they’re concerned about their jobs…”
She stopped to thank a fan for his promise to vote.
“…and it is the issues that have people out of work and the debt and the economy that people in our country are focused on.”
She was asked if the questions were relevant.
“I think it is fair game. It is fair game as to how you treated the men and women there. Certainly, how did you run the company?” McMahon said. “We ran it very conservatively. There was very little debt on the books. We made sure we had good cash balances.”
Her press aide, Jodi Latina, interrupted to introduce an older gentleman.
“This gentleman is a voter,” Latina said. “He wanted to say hi. He’s been patient.”
“How are you?” McMahon said, turning away from the two reporters.
“I’m the original Ron East.”
“My son worked for you.”
“I’m voting for you because he worked for you.”
McMahon smiled. Aside from questions about a dead wrestler, it was a good visit.