Timothy Herbst’s reputation precedes him on a summer evening’s visit with the Republican Town Committee in Cheshire. In eight years as first selectman of Trumbull, plus one statewide campaign for treasurer, Herbst has been a pugnacious mixer, happy to scrap in person, in the media or via his personal political action committee.
Herbst is on the summer RTC circuit to talk about why his time as a young suburban CEO, shrinking an unfunded pension liability, striking new deals with labor and stabilizing taxes, makes him the Republicans’ best hope to win Connecticut’s open race for governor in 2018. But his elbows are out, even when trying to impress.
“What you see is what you get — proven reformer, Hartford outsider. And I am not afraid of taking on the Hartford insiders,” Herbst tells his audience, a dozen early campaign window shoppers. “And unfortunately, I hate to say it, Hartford insiders are made up of people in both parties, people that have been there for far too long.”
Herbst is one of six Republicans either running or exploring a run for governor who have raised at least $100,000. The others are Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan of Glastonbury, former congressional candidate Steve Obsitnik, and Peter Lumaj, the GOP nominee for secretary of the state in 2014. A seventh, former U.S. Comptroller General Dave Walker, has raised $72,000.
Herbst doesn’t identify the insiders, not to the Republicans, not when pressed in an interview. The only GOP lawmaker in the race is Srinivasan, a soft-spoken allergist who’s been a prodigious fundraiser, but has little statewide profile. Herbst seems to be taking a pre-emptive shot at two stronger potential rivals, the GOP’s two state legislative leaders, Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven and Rep. Themis Klarides of Derby.
“We’re not going to change Hartford by sending the same people back to sit in different chairs,” Herbst tells the Cheshire Republicans. “And with all due respect, when you’ve been a chief executive, it’s a lot tougher than when you have to push a red button or a green button.”
That’s how they vote in Hartford: Push a red button for no, green for yes.
A certified public accountant named Tim White arrives late, missing Herbst’s jabs at the Hartford insiders. But he has heard things about Herbst, or at least read them. He is curious about the stiletto prose that a blogger and columnist, Kevin Rennie, has jabbed at Herbst. At the end of an item about litigation over Herbst firing his sister’s fiancee from a job at town hall, which the candidate says he did to avoid the appearance of nepotism, Rennie archly observed, “His disputatious manner has become his calling card.”
Herbst slightly reddens at the query, even if White comes across as curious, not hostile.
“I think that being a fighter is a good thing,” White says. “Righteous anger can be good. But there’s also a balancing act between being a bully and avoiding that.”
By chance, J.R.Romano, the GOP state chairman, is in the audience. Romano intently watches how Herbst, one of a growing field of candidates the party hopes will direct most of its fire at Democrats, handles a question he is likely to hear again. Romano, who was Herbst’s classmate at Trinity College, managed his bruising campaign against Treasurer Denise L. Napper, a 16-year incumbent who won by not quite two percentage points.
“You know what,” Herbst tells White, his voice even. “I don’t really read a lot of what Mr. Rennie writes, because a lot of it I don’t agree with. But look, I tell it like it is. It’s who I am, OK? I am a very honest and straightforward person. What you see is what you get. You’re either going to agree with me or disagree with me. That’s who I am. But I’m not going to stand here and tell you what you want to hear, that I can promise you.”
The answer is worth $20.
That’s the amount of the check White writes at the end of the evening to Herbst’s campaign.
‘Sometimes, I’m very blunt and direct’
During an interview over coffee, Herbst betrays neither pleasure, nor annoyance when asked about allegations of a disputatious manner.
He answers, but only after a long preamble about the record he has established since his election as first selectman.
He is polishing it into a tight narrative about why it qualifies him to be governor of Connecticut, a financially struggling blue state where the GOP is poised to compete for control of the State Capitol. Trumbull is a suburb of Bridgeport with a population of about 37,000. Herbst was elected as its chief executive in 2009, at the age of 29. He’ll be 38 when voters go to the polls to next choose a governor.
Herbst said he learned upon taking office that 39 employees, including the mayor and many political appointees, were getting free health care at a cost of $767,000 a year. He ordered that they make the same contributions as the rest of the town’s work force. He also eliminated a pension for mayor, instead creating a 401(k) plan. He said he would take a similar approach as governor.
“A lot of the issues that I have kind of made a focus of my campaign for governor were issues that I had to tackle in Trumbull, to a smaller extent,” Herbst says. “So when I came into office in 2009, I took over in the middle of the Great Recession. I replaced a very popular, four-term incumbent, and I took over at a time when we had at the time a projected $3 million dollar budget deficit. Taxes increased 54 percent in eight years preceding my term. So one of the first things that I said to my team when we took office is, ‘You know, I know we’re here because people can’t take the tax increases anymore. We’ve got to stabilize the tax rate. We’ve got to find efficiencies.’ ”
That’s the elevator pitch.
Like his competitors, Herbst doesn’t get too specific about issues, not with the Republican primary more than a year away. He talks about general approaches to government. The state must emulate Trumbull and the myriad private businesses that now offer defined-contribution savings plans for retirement, not the defined benefit of a pension. He cites what he calls inexcusable waits at the Department of Motor Vehicles as emblematic of a government that’s not customer friendly.
Herbst expresses admiration for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, at least the popular, pre-Bridgegate politician who mixed it up at town-hall meetings, like the one where he told off a public-school teacher in an exchange that went viral, making Christie a tell-it-like-it-is presidential contender for a time.
He is careful when asked about another Republican governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin. By winning changes in collective bargaining laws, Walker has largely neutered the power of public-sector unions.
“My response to that would be, ‘One size does not fit all.’ So what might work for Wisconsin might not necessarily work for Connecticut and might not work for New Jersey. I think one of the key distinctions is there are a lot of things that Governor Walker did in Wisconsin that we might not be able to do, because of our constitution and the way certain things are laid out with how the government functions.”
Herbst is more forthcoming on what he says is the need for Connecticut to narrow the purview of collective bargaining, which he says now impinges on the ability of managers to manage.
As examples, he says municipalities should be able to save money by going from weekly to biweekly paychecks without negotiation. They should be able to mandate that police officers wear body cameras without fear of a grievance.
“I’m going to lay out a very specific vision of where I want to take the state of Connecticut as the campaign progresses, because I think one of the reasons why Republicans have lost in Connecticut is we have been so focused on talking about why our friends on the other side of the aisle are wrong that we never tell people what we’re going to do,” Herbst says. “You have to tell people what you’re going to do. So I’m going to be very specific about pension reform, tax reform, regulatory reform, including spending reform, infrastructure reform, talking about the need to really focus on our infrastructure.”
Herbst says he doesn’t know if he would join Republican governors like Brian Sandoval of Nevada in urging President Trump and Congress not to scale back Medicaid, which now provides health coverage to one in every five Connecticut residents.
He says he was curious about an assertion he saw on Fox recently that the states with expanded Medicaid also had the highest rates of opioid abuse. He also wanted to explore whether businesses are relying on Medicaid for their employees’ health care, rather than offering benefits.
Herbst was unabashedly critical of congressional Republicans on one health issue: their failure to have a workable alternative to the Affordable Care Act, after years of complaining they could not overcome a Democratic veto of a new plan.
“Now they are in a position to make policy instead of making noise, and they can’t come up with a constructive alternative to a law they opposed for eight years,” Herbst says. “It’s one thing to complain, but if you want to lead, if you want to govern, you need to give people alternatives that make sense.”
Eventually, he returns to the question of his willingness to fight and his knack for generating news, such as a Hartford Courant story last month about a freedom-of-information request he made about how many former state officials who later were elected to Congress prefer the state’s health coverage to the congressional plan. It showed, he says, how generous the state is with retiree health.
His campaign recently filed an elections complaint against Walker, accusing him of running a full-fledged campaign for governor, while raising money under the more permissive rules of an exploratory campaign. (Walker has since declared himself to be a candidate.) Herbst’s political action committee ran digital attack ads against a handful of Democratic legislators in 2016. And he accused Democrats of publicizing the lawsuit against him by his sister’s fiancee.
Herbst defends firing his sister’s fiancee as a principled stand against nepotism.
“There would have been plenty of stories about that,” Herbst said. “So you know what, I look back on it, I did absolutely the right thing. There have been other candidates who were seeking this office that have had similar issues confront them that in my opinion didn’t do the right thing. I make no apology for what I did because I have an obligation to uphold not only my oath of office but the code of ethics. The code of ethics is clear on that point.”
He pivots, casting his reputation for combativeness as an attribute of leadership, not a failing.
“I make no apologies for the fact that what you see is what you get,” Herbst says. “I make no apology for the fact that I’ll tell it like it is. And I make no apology for the fact sometimes I’m very blunt and direct in how I make my point and get my point across.”