New Haven — Connecticut’s political left obtained commitments from four Democratic gubernatorial contenders on a range of progressive issues Saturday at a “People’s Symposium” that was as much a test of the audience’s appetite for hitting the streets to resist President Donald J. Trump as the politicians’ visions for succeeding Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The Working Families Organization and its allies in labor and progressive politics devised the symposium as an early effort to frame the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and test their ability to identify and engage foot soldiers in the campaigns for governor and control of the General Assembly in 2018.
“We’re trying to harness the energy of the Resist Trump movement,” said Carlos Moreno, a spokesman for the Working Families.
About 500 people showed up at the Fair Haven School to watch Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, former state Sen. Jonathan Harris of West Hartford and Dita Bhargava, a former Wall Street executive from Greenwich, be quizzed on taxes, immigration, criminal-justice reform, police accountability, collective bargaining, and the fight for a $15 minimum wage.
“We have hope, based on what we see here, that progressive ideals can make a difference,” said Harris, who was the executive director of the state Democratic Party during Malloy’s re-election in 2014, then joined his administration as the commissioner of consumer protection. He now is a lawyer in private practice.
Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor from Hartford who has been testing the viability of a run for governor, withdrew from the forum, a signal that he may be ready to jump into a race for attorney general that instantly became attractive with George Jepsen’s surprise announcement Monday he will not a seek a third term next year.
Success or failure for the politicians Saturday — (only Drew is a legally declared candidate, the three others are raising money through exploratory committees) — was subjective: Bhargava’s refusal to endorse higher taxes on the wealthy played poorly, as did Ganim’s inability to clearly articulate a standard of police accountability following a controversial police shooting in his city.
All won applause for their pledges to resist the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to deport undocumented immigrants and to stand against efforts to erode collective bargaining for public-sector employees in Connecticut. Bhargava, Drew and Harris committed to a $15 minimum wage, while Ganim promised to support raising it, without saying how high.
The field is expected to grow. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and Ned Lamont, who enthralled the left as an antiwar candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006 (and less so as a gubernatorial contender in 2010) all are making calls, testing support if they decide to seek the Democratic nomination.
But by one measure, the symposium was an unqualified success: Moreno said the Working Families Organization expanded its contact list with 800 new names and emails of people who responded to Facebook invitations to the symposium, part of an effort to build a database capable of tilting elections next year. (A video of the forum is available on Facebook.)
Moreno said the Democratic candidates invited all met two criteria: They had demonstrated significant support by raising at least $50,000, and they were committed to maintaining Connecticut’s program of public financing of campaigns. Sean Connolly, the former veterans’ affairs commissioner, is exploring a run for governor, but his first campaign financing report will not be filed until January.
Questions came from two moderators: Kica Matos, the director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change; and Bilal Sekou, a political science professor at the University of Hartford (and a member of the CT Mirror Board of Directors). But they said they relied on crowd-sourcing.
The format was a mix of rapid-fire, yes-or-no questions, paired with more open-ended queries for which the participants were allowed 90 seconds to reply.
Would you support raising taxes on the top 3 percent of earners?
“Yes,” replied Harris.
“No,” said Bhargava.
“Yes,” said Drew.
“I don think you can exclude any options at all, so the answer then is yes,” Ganim said.
Liberals tend to dominate Democratic primaries, giving the participants strong motivation to engage the audience Saturday. But they were aware that an answer popular with Democratic activists could cause problems in a general election.
Drew seemed to be most comfortable Saturday. He has previously outlined an agenda geared for a primary: supporting higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 minimum wage, and opposition to the labor concessions Malloy obtained from state employees. He also calls the administration’s economic-development incentives, including a package that won a commitment from Sikorsky to build its next generation of helicopters in Connecticut, a form of corporate welfare.
All four politicians said income inequality was an issue that resonates nationally and, especially, in Connecticut.
“I think income and wealth inequality is the defining issue of our time. It’s the defining issue in our state, and it’s the defining issue in our country,” Drew said. “And you don’t need to look any further than the abomination that happened in the U.S. Senate at one or two o’clock this morning or the state of Connecticut budget that just passed a month ago.”
Drew was referring to the U.S Senate vote in favor of tax cuts that would increase the $20 trillion national debt by more than $1 trillion while benefitting corporations, small businesses and wealthy Americans.
“I agree with the mayor, that last night was an abomination,” Harris said. “It was horrific. It was another nail in the coffin of the middle class and working families,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I have supported progressive taxation from day one. I voted twice to raise the income tax when I was in the state Senate.”
Bhargava, who briefly was the vice chair of the state Democratic Party and unsuccessfully ran for state representative, tried to move the discussion from taxes to the need for economic growth.
“I’m a big believer in diversity, not just diversity in people, but diversity in our industry base, our tax base,” Bhargava said. “Absolutely, we need a progressive tax rate — and we have one. We have raised taxes twice over the last seven years, but we need to do something more than rely on taxes.”
She described herself as the daughter of an immigrant single mother, sensitive to the needs of those struggling. But she said investing in education to expand educational opportunity was a better approach than raising taxes.
Ganim also expressed some hesitation to fully endorse his audience’s interest in economic redistribution. Asked about the proposal to raise Connecticut’s minimum wage from $10.10 to $15, Ganim mentioned his concern about last month’s jobs report, which showed a loss of 6,000 jobs in October.
“I’m looking at the big picture, a lot of unemployment,” he said.
All four politicians said they would continue Malloy’s criminal-justice policies, which have included repealing mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes and refocusing prisons on rehabilitation.
The mention of second chances opened the door for Ganim to talk, somewhat haltingly, about his criminal record: After a dozen years as mayor, he was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to prison in 2003. He was released in 2010 and made a political comeback as mayor in 2015.
“For those who don’t know, I’ve been given a second chance as mayor to serve the city of Bridgeport, and it’s a great honor and privilege to frankly go through a process where if you fall and break the law and make a mistake, you come back and ask people if they would look at the whole person and say would you give me the opportunity to serve again,” he said.
Ganim said the criminal justice system as a whole lacks “balance and equality.”
“I can tell you that from the outside, and I can tell that from the inside, having been in,” Ganim said.
Ganim, however, failed to directly answer a question about how Bridgeport police should be held accountable in the shooting death of Jayson Negron, an unarmed 15-year-old shot by a police officer after a short car chase. A state police report of the investigation is expected to be delivered next week to a prosecutor, who will decide if charges are warranted.
The mayor talked about appointing the city’s first black police chief during his first stint as mayor and the first Hispanic chief more recently.
“Can more be done?” Ganim said. “Absolutely.”