Jonathan Pelto during his appearance May 20 on WNPR's "Where We Live." Chion Wolf / WNPR
Jonathan Pelto during his appearance May 20 on WNPR's "Where We Live."
Jonathan Pelto during an appearance May 20 on WNPR. Chion Wolf / WNPR

Jonathan Pelto, the one-time Democratic legislator and strategist who has recast himself as a critic of Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in a generation, says he is all-in as a third-party candidate for governor.

“Since creating an exploratory committee for Governor a few weeks ago, I have been overwhelmed and incredibly humbled by the positive response I have received,” Pelto said in a statement Thursday. “With the help of volunteers across Connecticut, we are creating a grassroots campaign that can have a profound impact on the 2014 election.”

With the 2010 race settled by just 6,404 votes, the presence of Pelto on the ballot running as a critic of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on education and tax equity indeed could have a profound impact on the first-term Democratic governor. Two recent polls had Malloy in a dead heat with the front runner for the Republican nomination, Tom Foley, who was Malloy’s opponent in 2010.

Earlier: A profile of Pelto

Pelto’s decision means that the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor likely will have to contend with candidates on their left and right flanks. Republican Joe Visconti, a Tea Party activist and Second Amendment advocate, also is petitioning to run as an independent.

In forming an exploratory committee, Pelto had said he would run only if he believed he could win, an unprecedented task for someone with no broad base of support or ready access to campaign funds. On Thursday, in his statement and during an interview, he said that the task was feasible, if a long shot.

“I said I would only run for governor if I could be a credible candidate,” Pelto said in his prepared statement. In an interview, he acknowledged that his definition of credible has broadened to encompass being a strong voice on a range of issues.

“The word credible as I originally defined it was too narrow,” Pelto said. He acknowledged that critics would view his new definition as tailored to his personal ambitions and political reality.

Another factor in declaring his candidacy was an inability to seek the endorsement of the Working Families Party and other groups without being a declared candidate, he said.

Pelto said he has little hope of winning those endorsements, but it was especially important for him to be able to address the Working Families Party convention June 21. An off-shoot of organized labor, the WFP endorsed Malloy in 2010 and is expected to do so again.

In announcing, Pelto broadened the scope of his campaign beyond what’s been his major issue: education.

An agenda Pelto outlined is based on criticism of Malloy on tax policy, economic-development assistance to corporations, education and transparency in government.

“Having spent the last several weeks talking with voters across the political spectrum and with people willing to volunteer to help with our campaign, I am confident that we can utilize this opportunity to focus the electorate’s attention on a number of important issues such as a fair and equitable state tax system, adequate funding and support for our teachers, students, parents and public schools, and an economic development strategy that is focused on supporting small businesses and creating real jobs rather than on giving out millions of dollars in corporate welfare,” he said.

General-election ballot access is relatively easy: He must gather 7,500 signatures of registered voters, less than required to qualify for a Democratic or Republican primary. But qualifying for public financing requires raising $250,000 and gathering 111,000 signatures, and the payoff is smaller: one-third of the $6.5 million available to major-party nominees.

“As a third-party candidate for Governor, I recognize that the campaign system is rigged to make being elected as difficult as possible, but I see a clear path forward and I am indeed running to win,” Pelto said.

He announced a running mate recently, a signal he was leaning toward converting his exploratory committee to a full-blown candidate committee. She is Ebony Murphy, a teacher who, like Pelto, has been a critic of charter schools.

Pelto, 53, of Mansfield was elected to the state House in 1984 as a 23-year-old UConn senior. The same year, he ran Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in Connecticut, helping Hart win the state’s primary, embarrassing a party establishment allied with Walter Mondale.

He was hired as the political director of the state party, which made him a strategist for the successful re-election campaign of Gov. William A. O’Neill, a fiscal conservative and staunch opponent of the income-based tax reforms sought by Pelto and other liberals.

Progressives of a certain age still don’t trust him for aligning with O’Neill and against Toby Moffet, the liberal former congressman, in the 1986 race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Pelto said he refused to back Moffett because he wouldn’t commit to backing the income tax.

Connecticut finally adopted a broad-based income tax in 1991 after the election of former U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. as the state’s first third-party governor in modern times. Weicker was only two years removed from the U.S. Senate and was nearly universally known.

A graphic on Pelto's Facebook page.
A graphic on Pelto’s Facebook page.
A graphic on Pelto’s Facebook page.

Pelto intends to return to tax equity as an issue, packaging it as “middle-income tax reform.” He called middle-income taxpayers overburdened and promised to seek higher taxes on incomes of more than $1 million, but he is not promising middle-income tax relief.

Pelto was a state representative 20 years ago, well-known only to political insiders.

He jumps into the race without the prospect of significant grass roots support, meaning he will have to build an organization as he gathers signatures and raises money. But he is an organizer and strategist who has tapped into a vein of discontent with the Common Core standards for education.

Pelto said he would seek repeal of Common Core, a standard adopted during the administration of Malloy’s predecessor, Republican M. Jodi Rell.

In a series of bullet points he released Thursday, Pelto said, “Rather than placing further burdens on school systems, teachers and students brought on by the significant financial and time demands created by the implementation of the Common Core Standards and its Common Core standardized testing scheme, it is a time to devote greater time and energy to actual school work and instruction rather than teaching to the test.”

Pelto, who had failed to land a job in the Malloy administration, quickly became one of its most persistent critics through a blog. Education has been a persistent thread, with much of his criticism focused on Malloy’s choice of Stefan Pryor as commissioner of education.

“Malloy’s decision to hand Connecticut’s public education system over to Charter School advocate, now Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, has ushered in an unprecedented attack on teachers, local school districts and the professionalism of the State Department of Education,” Pelto said in his announcement.

Malloy’s relationship with teachers was damaged when he dismissed tenure as too easily earned. An education reform package that eventually passed was a compromise, but Malloy’s comment about tenure has not been forgotten by teachers.

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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