Middletown – One of Connecticut’s largest and fastest-growing gun groups welcomed Martha Dean home with a standing ovation after she stunned many friends in the gun rights’ movement by jumping into the race for governor.
Dean, 54, of Avon, a lawyer, lifetime NRA member and favorite of gun owners, opened her campaign on familiar and friendly ground, the Crystal Ballroom in the Elks’ lodge where the Connecticut Citizens Defense League meets monthly to socialize and strategize about fighting post-Newtown gun controls.
Even as she promised that her campaign for the Republican nomination will be about more than guns, Dean told the CCDL Tuesday night that her candidacy was an opportunity for besieged gun owners to strike at a Democratic governor and General Assembly hostile to their rights — and to candidates who only pay lip service to their interests.
Dean, a two-time candidate for attorney general, said her inaugural press conference next week needs to be like no other, packed with thousands of supporters, producing a quick infusion of campaign cash for her and a visual shock to a political and media establishment that marginalizes gun rights and gun owners.
“Think about a rocket lifting off. They need to see that kind of message, that visual message of when a candidate that this group can get behind runs, there is a liftoff that you have never seen before, where the money just goes ka-boom!” Dean said, her voice rising. “When they see that, mark my words, they will never, ever, ever in the state be anti-Second Amendment.”
Her audience of several hundred cheered and applauded from their seats. Dozens more stood in the back of the brightly lit ballroom.
“She’s a true conservative,” said Cheryl Lemos of Stratford, who handed Dean $100 checks from her and her husband. Smiling, Lemos added, “Oh, she definitely stirs the pot.”
Dean outlined goals that are audacious, if not improbable: Despite never raising more than $120,000 in either of two previous campaigns for attorney general, she intends to raise $250,000 in small-dollar donations in less than two months to qualify for public financing.
And she will not be satisfied to simply win 15 percent of the vote in May at the GOP nominating convention, the threshold to qualify for a primary. Dean said her plan is to push past the Republican frontrunner, Tom Foley, and four others to win the endorsement outright.
If not endorsed in May, she will not run in the primary in August.
“If I don’t win it convincingly, I am not going forward,” Dean told her audience. “I’m not into fool’s errands. I don’t want to waste my time trying to do these hopeless missions.”
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed that 36 percent of Republicans support Foley, the 2010 nominee who narrowly lost to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy, and 35 percent have no preference. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton was supported by 11 percent. No other candidate registered in double digits, including Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield.
None call for the repeal of the Newtown gun controls other than Joe Visconti, who has shown no ability to raise the funds necessary to wage a competitive campaign. Gun owners now have a viable champion, though Dean acknowledged that some question how a campaign announced on March 11 can win a convention endorsement on May 17.
“I want to just address the questions that are obviously on your mind. Is it too late? Is this late at all? And I’ve had to answer a lot of emails today, questions about that,” Dean said. “No, this is not late. Trust my judgment. This is just in time. It’s perfect timing.”
Dean compared herself to an eagle, taking flight when the wind currents were just right. She declined to say how her timing is perfect or what conditions suddenly presented themselves on a Tuesday in March, when the first word of her candidacy was a notice posted on the CCDL website.
With a smile, Dean said all questions about her campaign will be answered next week at a press conference at a time and place to be announced. She said she was contemplating a night-time event at a venue that could accommodate thousands.
“We’re going to pack the press conference out like they’ve never seen a press conference,” Dean said. “We’re going to send a message that this is not your normal campaign or your normal year or your normal issues.”
The monthly CCDL meetings in the Elks Lodge are a magnet for candidates, mostly Republicans trying to tap into a group that is attracting new members every month and can generate crowds at rallies. With more than 900 new members last month, its membership now exceeds 12,600.
To qualify for public financing, which would give Dean more than $1 million for a primary and $6 million for the general election, a candidate needs to raise $250,000 in donations of no more than $100, like the checks she accept from Lemos and others Tuesday.
“If everyone wrote a $50 check, it would take 5,000 people to get to that $250,000 threshold,” Dean said.
But the group has yet to demonstrate political clout at the ballot box. Its membership list does not record whether members are registered voters, nor is the list provided to candidates looking for an instant donor base.
It is a movement that seems to be finding its way, searching for the means to translate anger and suspicion of government into political action.
With others, it has sued to overturn the post-Newtown gun law, which bans the retail sale of large capacity magazines and weapons like the AR-15, which were used in the attack that took the lives of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary.
A U.S. District judge has dismissed the suit. Dean, one of the lawyers representing gun owners in the case, has promised to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
Jim Smith, a member who lives in the state’s northeast rural Quiet Corner, told the group about an effort to recruit state Senate candidates supportive of Second Amendment rights. The loss of five seats in the 36-member Senate could turn a 22-14 Democratic majority into a 19-17 GOP advantage.
But Smith said Republicans are not automatic allies, pointing to the GOP challenger in one district who had a D-minus rating from the NRA, the same as the Democratic incumbent.
“This is the kind of thing we have to fix,” Smith said.
Five Republican candidates preceded Dean to the microphone, two running for Congress, two for the General Assembly and one for lieutenant governor, Heather Bond Somers.
Somers never mentioned she is teamed with Boughton, whose membership in Mayors Against Illegal Guns makes him unpopular at CCDL meetings.
An audience member called her on the oversight.
Somers said Boughton is against illegal guns, not guns. She urged the crowd to evaluate her independent of Boughton, noting that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately in primaries.
“I could end up running with Martha Dean,” she said.
Suspicion of government and the media were palpable among some CCDL members.
Dean played to the sentiment. She said she already was unfairly portrayed in some media outlets as sympathetic to Newtown conspiracy theorists, because she posted a video on her Facebook page that raised questions about the official account of the attack.
“The media are going to try to kill me, kill me. And the bloggers. Do not believe what they say,” Dean said.
One man asked Evan Evans, an Army National Guard major running for Congress in the 2nd District, what percentage of soldiers would disobey an order to seize guns from citizens under martial law.
Evans said as a Guard member sworn to follow the orders of the governor and president it would be inappropriate for him to answer. But he added that if he did, “I think you’d probably be pleased with the answer.”
He was applauded.