Waterbury – Republican Tom Foley entered the race for governor Wednesday with an appeal to urban voters and public school teachers, a general-election strategy that ignores his GOP rivals and anticipates a November rematch with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Foley, 62, a Greenwich businessman who was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Ireland, chose a VFW post in Waterbury to formally begin his second campaign for governor, aware that Democrats hope to brand him as a wealthy, aloof Ivy Leaguer in the mold of Mitt Romney.
In brief remarks, Foley spoke directly to elements of the Democratic governor’s base, promising a partnership with cities and lavishing attention on teachers disaffected with Malloy’s idea of education reform, as well as the strong-willed governor’s style.
“We’re focused on beating the governor,” Foley said, pausing as he exited VFW Post 201 with his wife, Leslie. “I’m not taking anything for granted, but the best way to reach Republicans is to show we can beat the governor.”
More notable, perhaps, was Foley’s refusal to make overt appeals on issues to the Republican base. When pressed, he said he would not seek repeal or revisions of the post-Newtown gun-control law, nor would he change school-funding formulas that some Republicans say favor cities over smaller towns.
His urban strategy was forged in the disappointments of 2010, when Malloy rode an overwhelming urban turnout to beat Foley by a scant 6,404 votes, the smallest plurality in a Connecticut gubernatorial election in 56 years.
Candidates often skate around specifics at campaign kickoffs, setting broad themes to be developed as the campaign develops. But Foley offered an especially rich array of broad promises Wednesday that he now will be pressed to flesh out, especially to urban voters he hopes to pry loose from Malloy.
“I will immediately implement an urban policy agenda focusing on schools, crime, jobs, housing and poverty to address the problems of our cities and the most vulnerable people in them. I will fix our cities’ schools with real education reform,” Foley said.
Foley telegraphed an urban focus in September, when he chose Bridgeport to announce the creation of an exploratory campaign committee.
Democrats were ready Wednesday, stationing Neil M. O’Leary, the Democratic mayor of Waterbury, on the sidewalk outside VFW Post 201, a small hall on a noisy street. He said Foley will need to offer more than vague promises to draw serious attention from urban voters.
“It’s nice to pander to anybody and everybody when you’re trying to get enough votes to win,” O’Leary said. “If you want to get urban support, in my opinion, you’ve got to provide specific details as to what you are going to do that’s going to enhance urban quality of life, whether it’s infrastructure, education issues, economic development issues, brownfield remediation issues.”
O’Leary was one of the urban mayors who successfully pressed Malloy last year to back away from a plan that would have limited local discretion over aid to municipalities. Overall, he said, Malloy has protected cities by maintaining aid levels.
“What are the specific details?” O’Leary asked of Foley. “This is what Gov. Malloy has laid out for the last three years, and we have the results to prove the success story.”
Waterbury, one of the Naugatuck Valley cities that sometimes support Republicans in statewide races, was carried by Malloy, 11,335 to 9,607. In the GOP primary, Foley lost here to Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, 692 to 586.
On taxes, Foley said nothing that would mobilize public-sector employees with fears of broad cuts, making only general promises to control spending and shrink taxes. He seemed intent on producing no sound bites capable of helping Malloy with labor.
He did not promise to roll back the $1.5 billion tax increase Malloy imposed in 2011 to help erase a $3.6 billion deficit, even though Foley claimed during the 2010 campaign that the deficit could be addressed without taxes.
Instead, he set out a general approach.
“When I’m your governor, here’s what I will do: I will immediately stop unaffordable increases in spending and set a course for lowering burdensome taxes,” Foley said.
If elected in 2014, Foley said, he promised to freeze “discretionary spending” for two years, then lower the sales tax by half a percentage point. He promised to work with the legislature on tax reform, but declined to describe how he would change the income tax.
“I will work with cities and towns to reduce property taxes, particularly for seniors, many of whom are forced out of their homes, because they can no longer afford them,” he said. “I will make Connecticut a place where business want to stay and invest.”
Foley largely self-funded his 2010 campaign, but he surprised some in September by saying he would qualify for the state’s voluntary public financing system, a gesture aimed at negating suggestions in 2010 that he tried to buy the nomination.
Democrats are eager to model the 2014 race for governor as the 2012 presidential campaign writ small.
As did President Obama last year, Malloy is struggling with an anemic economy and mediocre poll numbers. Democrats hope to match Obama’s vaunted ground game, and they also would be happy to cast Foley in the role of Romney.
On Wednesday, Foley did not say if he had decided to accept public financing, which would limit him to $6 million in the fall campaign and negate one of his perceived advantages: the ability to write checks for television time. Until he opts out, however, Foley will be limited to maximum individual contributions of $100.
As he did in 2010, Foley stressed his background as a successful businessman, casting himself as someone who understands what business craves from the state in tax and regulatory policy. But he also was playing off Malloy’s vulnerabilities, sometimes with subtlety.
“As a leader, it’s important to be a good listener,” Foley said.
It was a gibe at a governor who angered state employees with concession demands in 2011 and teachers with education reforms in 2012 that focused on failing schools, but also imposed a new broad-based teacher evaluation system.
Malloy acted late Tuesday to suspend the evaluation system, which teachers say was burdensome and relied on a balky computer system that required them to report too much data to the state. Leaders of the two teachers’ unions have been working to quell teacher anger.
On Wednesday, Malloy, who has yet to formally announce his candidacy, was content to wish the GOP a good, long fight for the nomination.
Foley’s competition for the nomination includes Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who was his running mate in 2010; Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield; Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti; and Joseph Visconti of West Hartford. Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton has an exploratory committee.
“The Republicans are going to have a grand old fight on their hands for months and month to come,” Malloy said. “And I wish them a great deal of luck against one another.”