John H. Frey, outside the Owl cigar bar near the Yale campus in New Haven. (Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)

Leadership Connecticut PAC, the Republican political action committee that drew fire from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week and attracted street-theater protests Thursday night outside a cigar bar in New Haven, is an obscure player that pumped a modest $10,500 into the state’s multi-million-dollar political economy during the 2012 election cycle.

It was founded as a federal political action committee in 2011 and remains controlled by John H. Frey and Patricia Longo, two Connecticut members of the Republican National Committee. One of its purposes is personal: It covers the duo’s travel to RNC meetings, which accounted for the bulk of its reported spending last year.

But the committee became a useful foil this week for Malloy and the Democrats, who this year have tapped deeply for campaign cash into the well of lobbyists, state contractors and others with a financial interest in state government.

Noting that those same types of donors were invited to the cigar bar and that the host committee was populated with the GOP’s gubernatorial contenders, a smiling Malloy was able to tell reporters that both parties are playing by the same rules.

“To put this on a par with what Gov. Malloy has been doing is really silly,” said Frey, who also is a state representative from Ridgefield.

His committee’s first cigar-themed fundraiser a year ago raised about $14,000, while it appears the take this year will be between $18,000 and $20,000. With Malloy as rainmaker, the state Democratic Party has raised more than $2 million.

Frey and Longo doled out $5,000 each to Andrew Roraback and Stephen Obsitnik, the GOP nominees for Congress in the 5th and 4th Districts last year. They also gave $250 to long-shot candidates in the 1st and 3rd Districts.

Last year, the committee contributed $1,250 to the Connecticut Republican Party in May, according to campaign finance reports covering the first six months of 2013. Frey said they made another contribution last month of about $1,500 to the party.

The other expenditures were $6,600 to cover travel by Frey and Longo.

In 2012, the cigar-loving Frey organized their first fundraiser at the Owl Shop, a cigar lounge on College Street in New Haven. He invited Reince Prievus, who had been elected the previous year as the GOP national chairman.

No one cared or noticed.

“It wasn’t a lightning rod,” Frey said. “It’s a nontraditional event. There are no dinner speeches. It’s kind of a poke in the eye to the ‘smoke-filled room.’ ”

Two factors raised the event’s profile this year.

One was the attention to fundraising generated by the Democrats’ recent successes. The other is the perception by Tea Party activists that the GOP is trying to edge away from a movement that clearly injected energy into the party, while nudging it rightward.

Palin Smith helped organize a Tea Party protest that denounced some of the attendees as RINOs, the Republicans-in-name-only who have supported measures in Connecticut such as gun control. Connecticut Senate Minority John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, a candidate for governor, is their favorite target.

“I went over there and shook every one of their hands. They were very respectful,” Frey said. “They were very nice. They all have the right to do what they did.”

Read the New Haven Independent’s account of the street theater.

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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