New Canaan — The fifth and final episode of a road show produced by Connecticut Republicans and starring an evolving cast of gubernatorial contenders came to an end Wednesday night without resolving a key plot point: Is the GOP any closer to settling on a front runner?
With nine candidates on stage and a cumulative limit of 12 minutes allotted to each to answer questions, Republicans in the audience could only get a sampling of the personalities and policies of the politicians whose next task is to compete for the support of the 1,100 delegates to the GOP nominating convention.
“Someone on the stage is going to be our nominee,” Republican State Chairman J.R. Romano said after the nine delivered closing messages to a crowd at Saxe Middle School that was dotted with delegates to the two-day convention that opens May 11 at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, a late entrant into the race, might disagree. Falling short of the $175,000 mark in campaign contributions required for an invitation, Stewart was absent. Bob Stefanowski, a former business executive who intends to bypass the convention and petition for a spot on the primary ballot in August, has skipped all five forums.
On stage were: Mike Handler, finance director in Stamford; Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti; Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton; Peter Lumaj, an immigration lawyer; Steve Obsitnik, a tech entrepreneur; David Stemerman, a former hedge-fund manager; Tim Herbst, the former first selectman of Trumbull; Dave Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general; and state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, who also is an allergist.
It was the second appearance for Stemerman, the fourth for Boughton and Lauretti, and the fifth for Handler, Lumaj, Obsitnik, Herbst, Walker and Srinivasan. They broke no new ground fielding questions from Ken Dixon of Hearst Connecticut, Gary Rose of Sacred Heart University and state Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan.
All of them promised to be bold and fearless. None proposed anything that would require courage in the way of cutting expenses or raising revenue. Several said they were willing to be one-term governors, ready to administer tough medicine to a state that has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession.
But no one suggested remedies that were controversial, much less distasteful. The nearly insolvent special transportation fund would be saved, but not by tolls or higher gasoline taxes. Opposing the installation of electronic tolls was a sure applause line here, as it has been at the other GOP forums. But so was opposition to the other source of new transportation revenue — higher gasoline taxes.
“Happy talk and generalities aren’t going to get the job done,” said Stemerman, who says he soon will release a detailed plan on taxes. But for Wednesday night, he would stick to generalities.
Romano said the five forums sponsored by the state party drew a contrast with the Democrats, whose state party has organized no similar events, leaving candidate forums up to local Democratic organizations. Romano said the forums were an opportunity for party activists to begin to get to know the contenders.
The candidates generally said the evenings were time well spent. The forums began in December.
“It’s good prep for hopefully what comes next — that is a much narrower field and, hopefully, real debates, because these were more like show-and-tell sessions, rather than debates,” Walker said.
“You get to hone your message,” Herbst said.
“I think it’s a good experience here for everybody to sharpen their message, to be able to kind of get a feel what it’s going to be like in the fall,” Boughton said. “I think it’s a great spring training, if you will. The fact of the matter is this is a good way to practice your craft in an environment that is certainly conducive to Republican thoughts and ideas.”
Lauretti said the format requires candidates to focus on key talking points. In his case, that means repeatedly returning to his quarter-century as the mayor of Shelton, talking about his ability to keep spending and taxes low, making the community attractive to business growth.
“There’s not much you can say when you’ve got so many people and so little time,” he said.
Kevin Moynihan, the Republican first selectman of New Canaan, shrugged when asked what the forums did for the candidates, the party or the voters.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I think the whole thing is meaningless.”