Tom Dudchik, gatekeeper of the news for CT’s political class, is back on the air

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

Tom Dudchik, on set at WTNH during the taping of the inaugural episode of “Capitol Report” Friday. He is the owner and operator of ctcapitolreport.com.

Tom Dudchik is the political insider’s insider.

Neither journalist nor politician, Dudchik is the man both turn to for the latest political news in the state. He runs CT Capitol Report, a news aggregation site that mimics Drudge Report in its minimalist style, but not its conservative tone.

The site draws millions of page views each year, predominantly from the state’s political class. It already has more than 10 million hits this year. Dudchik says his audience has steadily grown since it launched in 2010.

Now, WTNH is reviving his Emmy-nominated television program, a fast-paced, discourse-driven roundtable on state politics in the mold of “The McLaughlin Group.” It aired on Fox 61 from 2011 until its abrupt cancellation days before Christmas in 2014. Dudchik promised then he would look for a new home for the program.

Fast forward two and half years, when the same man who gave his program the green light the first time around did so again. Rich Graziano, who oversaw both Fox 61 and The Hartford Courant when “Capitol Report” first aired in 2011, recently took the helm at WTNH and paved the way for the program’s return.

“Capitol Report” premieres today at 10 a.m.

Dudchik’s television comeback is the latest chapter in his winding, decades-long political career that went on hiatus in the mid-1990s, then resumed when he launched the CT Capitol Report website seven years ago.

He served in the state House of Representatives as a Republican in the mid-1980s, representing Ansonia for one term. Later, in the 1990s, he held posts in Gov. Lowell P. Weicker’s administration. He spent two years as deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, then became Weicker’s deputy chief of staff during the final two years of his term.

Dudchik exited politics after Weicker’s term ended. He and Weicker still remain close.

While Dudchik does not have a title or even an office – he runs CT Capitol Report from his home in East Haddam – he says he remains in frequent contact with many of the state’s top politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as some of the journalists whose stories he shares.

He has developed a reputation as a voracious news consumer with decades of background knowledge and experience.

“I read everything,” Dudchik said. “I read everything.”

The Mirror sat down with Dudchik after the taping of the first episode of “Capitol Report” to discuss challenges at the State Capitol, Republican politics in Connecticut and his role in the political process.

There is a level of dysfunction at the State Capitol right now not seen in decades. Can you diagnose that dysfunction? What’s going on?

No one talks to each other. No one dines with each other. No one goes out for a couple of beers with each other. That’s what I think is missing in politics today. The social aspects of politics.

You go to the officer’s club and spend a couple hours smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with your Republican friend or a Democratic friend – or even a bunch of staffers. You’ll have a better understanding of how the other side lives, and understand that everyone’s on pretty much the same team, and everyone wants to do what’s best, but there’s different ways of getting there.

I served in the legislature in 1984. That’s a long time ago. We used to go out constantly. Constantly in social events. All of us. Staffers, legislators, Republicans, Democrats, old, young, whatever. Everyone went out and socialized. And as a result I think that ability to break bread and to bond over beers or whatever, it’s easier to approach, easier to get along with someone. You’re less likely to say something nasty to someone on Twitter or Facebook who you actually know.

Although it doesn’t relate necessarily to this, but people I don’t know on my site, I try to go out and meet. So if I haven’t met Matt Ritter before, I reached out to Matt Ritter and said, “Before I skewer you on Capitol Report with a nasty picture of you being grumpy, I want to meet you and give you my phone number. So if you think I’ve done something wrong to you, or if you think I’ve got something inaccurate, I want you to be able to call me and say, ‘That’s wrong. You should not do that.’”

I think the same applies in politics. There’s too little of that these days.

When I was in Weicker’s office in 1990 negotiating the budget, we spent a lot of hours late into the evenings with bottles of various alcohol in various offices, bringing down legislators, having a beer, having a glass of wine, having a scotch. And Weicker would bellow out, “Go get me Ritter.” Tom Ritter would come down and he’d sit down, and we’d all sit around, “What can I get you?” It was a social thing.

Weicker would have legislators over to the governor’s residence. Not so much for policy stuff, just a social time. Get to know them, right? That trickles down to more of a willingness to work together than apart.

I also think that part of it is the social media aspect of it. There’s less discipline in the caucus because people feel that they’re their own machines. They have their own followers. You see that with Donald Trump. He doesn’t need anybody, right? Because he has all these Twitter followers. That’s his army.

People are basically in their own individual silos, and it’s tough to wrap your arm around all those people that have their own special interests in 2017. Everyone needs to have a drink.

Obviously, social media has played a role. What are some of the other changes since that time that you just described that may have created today’s circumstances?

I think what I’ve said, first of all, that’s the biggest thing – that politics has a little bit more of an edge to it now. And it’s the 24-hour news cycle. I was talking to my friend Roy Occhiogrosso, and he says, “When you were in the ‘90s, there was no Capitol Report.” There wasn’t the constant person like me just kind of poking every single day. Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke.

You were able to have down time. There weren’t cell phones. You weren’t constantly interrupted. You weren’t constantly checking to see what you said and, “How did that play?” You just basically did what you had to do.

People are now more wary to step out on a limb because there’s a lot more “gotcha” out there.

Well, you, perhaps more than anyone else, contribute to the 24/7 cycle with your site.

Exactly. That’s right.

Are you conscious of that when you’re putting things up?

I put things up all the time, but I do understand that I could focus my site and my headlines on stuff that I think needs to be seen.

Let’s talk a little bit about those headlines and the content on your site. Do you see yourself as just an aggregator? Or are you an influencer in the state’s political class?

I like to think I’m an influencer. And I like to think that people look at my site just because it is what it is. I don’t create anything. I highlight it. So if I highlight you, or if I highlight Mark Pazniokas, or I highlight Keith Phaneuf – and people read their stuff – I think that’s a good thing.

If I think I can amplify that, if there’s something that I think is screaming out for amplification – yeah, that’s what I do. I draw attention to this stuff. I point it out. And sometimes I point out the obvious stuff that’s sometimes not so obvious.

So, of course, you are a former Republican state legislator. You have a background in Republican politics.

Yes. Worked for Weicker, though, who was an independent. Even when he was governor, when he was in the Senate, he was somewhat of a liberal Republican or more moderate.

But to anticipate your question, my site – I tell people this all the time – when I started the site, they said, “Well it looks like Drudge. And Drudge is a conservative.” I said, “Well, I can’t make— What a stupid business model it would be for me in Connecticut, which is deep blue, to try to make money looking like Drudge and being conservative.” So that’s why I say my site is Drudge-looking, but not Drudge-leaning.

I try to shoot straight down the middle. Now, what happens is, because the Democrats control the legislature and the Democrats control every constitutional office and the Democrats control every congressional seat – Murphy, Blumenthal, Elizabeth Esty, you know – so, as a result, the news is when Republicans attack the Democrats.

So, on Capitol Report, what makes headlines is people going after the Democrats. Now, if it were reversed, and the state was all red, and everybody was Republican, then the Democrats would be sniping at the Republicans. It would be all Democrats on Capitol Report, and that’s because whatever stone is in someone’s shoe is what’s getting on Capitol Report.

Do you think your background, though, plays any role in what gets amplified or what doesn’t? Or do you think it is as straightforward as that?

No, I think what gets amplified is the interesting stuff that I pick out of great reporting because, as they say, it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve seen this before. I can pick and choose what I choose to report on, or link to, based on what I think needs to be seen.

Did you ever envision yourself as being a Matt Drudge-like aggregator of news in Connecticut?

Well, I think people in life should have many, many careers. And I suspect this is not my last one, either. So now I’m on TV. That’s a natural extension of the Capitol Report brand, but I make no bones about the fact that what I do is not rocket science. I’m not operating on people’s brains. I’m not working in a 7/Eleven, third shift trying to make ends meet with my second job at minimum wage.

I’m blessed with the fact that I get to aggregate other people’s great work and monetize it. For that, I’m thankful.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

The panel on the first episode of Capitol Report. From left to right: Dudchik; Jennifer Schneider, spokeswoman for SEIU 1199; Roy Occhiogrosso, former senior advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy; Jodi Latina, chief of staff to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart; and Liz Kurantowicz, principal at The Drury Group.

Let’s talk about the TV show. You said that you want to bring something new and fresh to the airwaves in Connecticut. What are you hoping to bring to the table? What’s different about your show?

For years in Connecticut, political programming has been kind of like, “Between Two Ferns.” It’s been a kind of, under the FCC guidelines, you had to have a certain amount of public affairs programming to fulfill your FCC license, to get licensed. So they would traditionally, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, put a blue drape and you’d have an anchor who’s just one of your normal anchors and plop in X number of politicians, you’d basically talk. The politicians would tell you nothing, or would tell you what they wanted to tell you, and there you go.

Since then, fast forward to 2017, we have entire networks – MSNBC, CNN, Fox News – where all they talk about is politics with lively, engaging, great people. That’s missing in the state of Connecticut. I need to get a program where I can have good Republicans and good Democrats who get along with each other mix it up, talk about what’s news in Connecticut politics and just do something different – lively, fast-paced. And that’s what I think makes it fun.

Let’s talk about Republican politics in Connecticut right now. What are you seeing in the state party?

I’m still waiting for Republicans in the state of Connecticut to figure out what they want to be. We live in a moderate state. We have moderate people. Gov. Malloy, now, is more of a moderate Democrat, right? If you look at the history of Connecticut politics, we kind of elect moderates. We don’t like crazy lefty progressives or liberals, right? And we don’t elect crazy right-wing conservative people. We’re kind of in the middle.

And I think the parties in the state tend to attract their base in a primary. They tend to go toward the more fringy aspects of the party, which makes it more difficult in a general election. The only difference is, if you do that as a Democrat, there’s more of those than there are Republicans.

So I’m waiting for the Republicans to kind of figure all that out right now. We’ll see.

The Republican field for governor is looking pretty crowded these days, and could become even more crowded in the coming weeks and months. What do you see from the candidates in the field right now?

I’m not going to talk about individual candidates. Sorry.

As a whole, do you see a crop of candidates that can win? Or what do you see?

I try not to get into the political handicapping game. Honestly, back when Dan Malloy was running for governor, I had said to friends, “There’s no way this guy is going to be governor. No way.” I have neighbors – big Democrats – they had fundraisers. They were having fundraisers. I’d tell them, “Take the Dan Malloy sign down.”

And who would’ve thought Donald Trump would win? Who would have thought Barack Obama would win? Politics is a very strange business. You may look at Kevin Lembo, or you may look at Jonathan Harris, or you may look at Mark Boughton, or you may look at Mark Lauretti or Timmy Herbst and say these guys are never going to be governor. But you never know. You never know. It’s a very strange world in politics, especially in 2017.

Maybe this is a better question. What do you think the winning message for a GOP candidate in 2018?

Well, I think, like any winning message, is to focus on the economy, people’s jobs, and pocketbook issues. That’s what people care about. I think everybody would be good to focus on those economic messages.

But no one cares what I think. That’s why there’s no opinion on Capitol Report. They don’t care. When I do my political show, those people, I let them talk. I facilitate them. I’m the traffic cop.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

A look inside the WTNH studio during the taping of the first episode of Capitol Report.

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