Stefanowski: Crowded field makes public financing too expensive

Bob Stefanowski

One of the few Republican gubernatorial candidates not participating in Connecticut’s voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns is trying to make an issue of the possibility that the unusually large field of contenders could cost unhappy taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Bob Stefanowski, a former business executive whose personal contribution of $350,000 made up 70 percent of the nearly $500,000 his campaign had raised by the start of 2018, is challenging his opponents to drop out of the program that pays qualifying gubernatorial candidates $1.25 million for a primary and $6 million for the general election.

That will not happen, nor is it likely to impress many delegates at the Republican or Democratic nominating conventions, where a candidate’s ability to qualify for public financing has become a selling point — an assurance your nominee will be able to financially compete with the other party’s nominee.

But it may resonate with some primary voters, especially those in a Republican Party that has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the public-financing element of the Citizens’ Election Program since its passage in 2005 in response to the corruption scandal that forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland. Many Republicans say they oppose public financing on principle, while they accept it as current rules of the game.

“I find it unconscionable that in a state with a $3.5 billion budget deficit and crumbling roads and bridges, over twenty candidates for governor are asking Connecticut’s taxpayers for up to $7.2 million each to pay their political expenses,” Stefanowski said. “Isn’t it bad enough that our hard-working residents paid $15 million to get Dan Malloy elected twice?”

Democrat Dannel P. Malloy was the first publicly finance candidate to be elected governor, winning in 2010 and 2014.

Stefanowski says gubernatorial campaigns could cost taxpayers as much as $40 million, though the assumptions behind his math are flawed. Assuming a combined $12 million in general election grants for two major party nominees, 22 candidates would have to qualify for $28 million in primary grants to get to $40 million.

Based on current fundraising, it seems more likely that closer to 10 candidates might be able to qualify in the two major parties.

To qualify for public financing, gubernatorial candidates must raise $250,000 in small-dollar donations, between $5 and $100. No grants are paid until a candidate qualifies for a primary, which requires winning 15 percent of a convention vote or gathering signatures from 2 percent of a party’s registered voters. Only one candidate ever has forced a primary by a petition drive in Connecticut: Peter Schiff, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010.

Ned Lamont, one of the declared Democratic candidates for governor, is opting out of public financing, as he did in a previous run for governor in 2010. A wealthy businessman, Lamont largely self-funded that race, as he did a U.S. Senate campaign in 2006. In Democratic primaries, opting out of public financing has been seen as a negative.

Oz Griebel, a former Republican running as an unaffiliated candidate, also has opted out, as have Stefanowski and David Stemerman, a hedge fund manager who is self-funding his campaign.

Stefanowski said it is odd that so many candidates will accept public financing as they campaign on messages of fiscal restriaint.

“It’s ironic, at best, that we are going to pay $1.2 million to candidates so they can say the state is bankrupt,” Stefanowski said.

Stefanowski said he has no objections to public financing for the down-ballot races, including General Assembly, but he questions if the designers of the program ever anticipated so many candidates for governor might qualify.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican candidate on track to raise the $250,000 after struggling in his two previous campaigns, said the expenses of the program are a valid issue, but not one that can be addressed just three months before the nominating convention.

“Yeah, it gets a little outrageous that much taxpayer money is going to be spent,” Boughton said.

Former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, another GOP candidate seeking public financing, said if Stefanowski feels so strongly about public financing, he should participate in the GOP gubernatorial forum scheduled for Wednesday night in West Haven.

Of course, Herbst added, he also would like to debate Stefanowski about his own record as a voter who infrequently voted and, at least for a brief period two years ago, was a registered Democrat.

“I think the fact he is not participating in the debates is insulting,” Herbst said.

Stefanowski has declined invitations to the state GOP’s monthly debates, one in each of the state’s five congressional districts until the convention in May. The forum Wednesday night is the third.

Stefanowski said he has other plans: He’ll be raising money for his campaign.