Former Congressman Rob Simmons is becoming chairman of the free-market Yankee Institute for Public Policy just as it is about to raise its profile by suing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy over a policy expanding collective bargaining.
Yankee intends to file suit next week, challenging the legality of two executive orders that provide a path for child-care workers and home-care attendants who work in state-funded programs to organize and gain collective bargaining rights.
“We think the way they’ve done this is wrong,” said Fergus Cullen, a former Republican state chairman who has energized Yankee since becoming executive director three years ago.
Simmons, 69, who represented the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2001 to 2007, joined the board of the increasingly activist institute after losing the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to Linda McMahon in 2010. His election as chairman was announced Tuesday.
“When all of the levers of political power in the state are held by one party, any one ideology, I think it’s increasingly critical that alternative viewpoints are offered and promoted,” Simmons said.
In the past three years, Yankee has posted searchable state budget and salary data on its website, prompting the state to add a similar tool to its site. It also hired a reporter to produce stories focusing on state spending and intervened in a lawsuit on publicly financed campaigns.
“I am very much a believer in what they do,” Simmons said. “They promote good public policy through free-market entrepreneurship and opportunity, which is a very different message from what we get from a lot of public figures these days.”
As a board member, Simmons authorized suing Malloy, a significant financial commitment for Yankee, which is organized as a nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation under IRS rules. One of Simmons’ duties will be fundraising.
Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said he views the lawsuit as a political act.
“This organization is pursuing a right-wing agenda, and this is just a way for them to gain some attention,” Occhiogrosso said. “They use this to raise money, to drum up support from potential followers. That’s all this is, purely.”
Cullen said the institute viewed the executive orders as a boon to organized labor, giving them another source of union dues that could contribute to its political influence. The Malloy administration is acting to help a political ally, he said.
“They are in the political business of trying to win votes and trying to carry a lot of water for the unions in that process,” Cullen said. “We’re choosing this fight because we think they have gone beyond what they can do legally.”
Cullen said the legislature had the power to grant unions the right to organize the child-care and personal-care workers, but such a bill failed to win passage last year. Malloy then issued the two orders, which Cullen called an overreach.
Yankee has written to the day-care operators and personal-care attendants, using a list obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the state Department of Social Services.
Occhiogrosso said Yankee is a political combatant, not a policy institute.
“This is a political institute. It is a right-wing, political institute that tries to cast itself as an objective policy institute. That is a farce,” Occhiogrosso said. “Anybody who knows anything they stand for knows that.”
Yankee networks with major conservative and free-market think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute.
Simmons is one of two Republican politicians added to the Yankee board after the 2010 elections: the other is Sam Caligiuiri, a former state senator who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.
“I think it reflects the activism that Yankee has now,” Cullen said.
As chairman, Simmons succeeds Andrew J. Cowin of Greenwich, a private investor who is the former director of the Manhattan Institute. Cowin was chairman for nearly nine years.
Think tanks and policy institutes often have been way stations for politicians after unsuccessful races, place to regroup and develop new issues.
Democrat Ned Lamont spent time working with a Connecticut group on budget issues between his 2006 race for Senate and 2010 contest for governor. Republican Tom Foley organized a policy institute soon after losing a close race for governor in 2010.
“This shouldn’t be viewed as a platform for Rob, but Rob lending his stature and credibility to Yankee,” Cullen said. He distinguished the involvement of Simmons and Caligiuiri with Yankee from Foley’s founding of a policy group.
“They aren’t likely to be seeking public office in the near term,” Cullen said. “We don’t want it be Yankee serving that kind of purpose for anybody.”