House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s labor allies are standing by his wounded congressional campaign, leaving the once undisputed Democratic front-runner competitive in the August primary, but with uncertain prospects in November.
This week’s indictment of Donovan’s former campaign finance director was the worst of all worlds for Democrats: It neither pushed him from the race, nor did it offer assurances his campaign won’t be further tainted.
The consensus is that Donovan’s significant grass-roots support makes him viable, or even formidable, in the Aug. 14 primary, despite having no fundraising apparatus for one-third of the three-month fundraising period that ended June 30.
Donovan’s campaign was averaging only $234,000 a quarter, about $100,000 less than a rival, former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty, raised in the second quarter. Donovan must file his report no later than Sunday.
Esty has begun a TV ad campaign that will continue through the primary, something Donovan is unlikely to match.
“In a primary, it’s more about shoe leather and putting people out on the streets,” said John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “I believe he has the different constituencies around him that can win a primary on a Spartan budget.”
But Olsen said Donovan, whose campaign hired a new finance director last month, would need greater resources for the general-election campaign, which could be problematic if the U.S. attorney’s office does not quickly conclude its investigation.
“The question becomes if the cloud doesn’t lift, do you have problems with fundraising?” Olsen said.
The state labor federation formally endorsed Donovan two weeks ago, reaffirming the backing of member unions. Union political action committees have donated about $200,000 of the $1 million raised by Donovan since becoming a candidate May 2011.
“We’re all in,” said Paul Filson, the political director for SEIU, which he says has about 3,500 members eligible to vote in the 5th District primary. “We’re keeping them informed about what’s going on.”
SEIU’s national political action committee has given Donovan, a former SEIU organizer who marched with striking nursing home workers Thursday, the maximum allowable donation of $15,000, as have two teacher unions and a major public employees’ union, AFSCME.
Sharon Palmer, the state president of the American Federation of Teachers, whose national PAC has given Donovan $15,000, said unionized teachers remain firm in their support.
“It’s as strong as it ever was,” Palmer said. “They know Chris up-front and personal. They know what a strong guy he is on working family issues.”
Olsen said, if anything, union activists are rallying around Donovan.
As a result, Democrats face the possibility that Donovan will be their nominee for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat, vulnerable to GOP attacks about federal allegations that his campaign illegally raised $27,500 from businessmen trying to influence tobacco legislation.
His two Democratic rivals, Esty and newcomer Dan Roberti, are making the case — one subtlety, the other explicitly — that primary voters need to consider who gives Democrats the best chance of winning in state’s most competitive district.
“We will lose the seat if Chris Donovan is the nominee, so he must remove himself from the primary race,” Roberti said.
Esty has not called for Donovan’s withdrawal, nor has she issued any public statement on the indictment. But Julie Sweet, her manager, said that Esty is best positioned to talk to voters about economic issues of concern to middle-class families.
“She is the only candidate who can continue that message without distraction,” Sweet said.
There is no sign that Donovan has been asked to quit the race by any major backer or Democratic leader in Connecticut or Washington since the scandal broke May 31 with news of the arrest of Robert Braddock Jr., the finance director.
A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the DCCC is playing no role in the primary, and operatives for unions and political figures say they are aware of no one telling Donovan he should quit.
“We have not had a single one of those calls,” said Tom Swan, who joined the Donovan campaign as manager on May 31, the day that Donovan fired Braddock and two other top campaign aides, including manager Joshua Nassi.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday describes Braddock as soliciting and accepting illegal contributions, whose sources were hidden by using straw donors, from smoke shop owners who wanted Donovan to kill legislation imposing taxes or fees on their roll-your-own cigarette business.
There is no claim in the indictment that Donovan was aware that Braddock was trading on Donovan’s position as speaker, but it describes him meeting with smoke shop owners and Ray Soucy, a union official accused of delivering some of the straw-donor checks to the campaign.
The legislation was a Senate bill that never reached the House during the regular session, so Donovan never was in a position to decide whether to call the bill for a vote. It subsequently passed in special session.
Roberti has criticized Donovan for refusing to talk about the federal investigation.
“What is the explanation for how this happened at the level it happened in this campaign?” Roberti said. “I certainly can understand if it’s one rogue actor from out-of-state,” he said, referring to Braddock. “That’s not what happened here.”
Swan said Donovan has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, and he remains the candidate with the strongest record of accomplishment, facing a former one-term lawmaker and a newcomer whose father is a Washington lobbyist.
“There will be supporters of different candidates that will try to play politics with this serious situation,” Swan said. “I challenge those supporters to put their candidate’s record up against Chris on fighting corruption with campaign finance reforms, ethics law and clean contracting standards.”
Donovan has attended campaign events since the indictment was unsealed late Wednesday afternoon, but his campaign has not provided reporters with an advance schedule. On Thursday, Swan said, Donovan attended a Democratic picnic in Newtown and marched on an SEIU picket line in Newington, outside the district.