One day after winning all but one of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Ned Lamont tackled a new and larger challenge: How does he separate himself from the Republican winner, another wealthy businessman with a largely self-funded campaign?
Lamont’s initial response Wednesday was to question the credibility of his opponent’s promise to eliminate the state income tax while comparing him to President Donald Trump. At the same time, Lamont strove to distance himself from Connecticut Democrats’ dangerously unpopular leader, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“Donald Trump said I’m going to build a wall, and Bob Stefanowski said I’m going to eliminate the income tax,” Lamont said during a late morning press conference in his New Haven office, one day after easily dispatching his sole challenger for the nomination, Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim.
Hanging unspoken in the air was the phrase, “Sure you are.”
Attacking Stefanowski’s income tax promise
Stefanowski, who defeated four rivals Tuesday to grab the GOP nomination, has been saying since December that, if elected, he would phase out Connecticut’s income tax over eight years, a promise that runs counter to a mountain of empirical evidence that the levy may be irreplaceable.
That evidence, while complex, is fairly straightforward:
- Income tax receipts now cover 51 percent of General Fund expenses, compared with one-third when the tax was established 27 years ago.
- No other tax generates enough revenue to cover even Connecticut’s debt costs, which includes pension and retirement health care programs and service on bonded debt.
- Pension costs are projected to skyrocket over the next 15 years, outpacing — according to one report — the best revenue growth Connecticut has ever received from any major tax.
Stefanowski, who has not released any fiscal analysis of his income tax phase out plan, has said he would find the savings by reducing the state workforce and by reorganizing agencies — despite existing contracts that would bar the next governor from ordering major layoffs until mid-2021.
“Anyone who stands up here today and says you can’t do it isn’t a true leader,” Stefanowski said during an Aug. 6 debate at Fairfield University. “I will rip costs out of the state budget like you have never seen in your life.”
Lamont said he believes that Connecticut voters have come to understand the state’s pension mess stems from more than 70 years of insufficient savings by governors and legislatures, and will no longer be duped by too-good-to-be-true promises.
“I think they’ve been lied to by the politicians in this state for many, many, many decades,” Lamont said Wednesday.
The income tax yields almost five times the entire $2 billion Education Cost Sharing grant program Connecticut uses to fund local school districts.
If the income tax goes away, or is drastically cut, education will be gutted and property tax rates will shoot upward, Lamont said, adding that he would keep income tax rates stable while investing in schools and municipal aid.
“How does (eliminating the income tax) bring our cities back to life?” he asked. “How does that bring young people back here? We have two very different visions of where we need to go.”
Lamont also said he would appeal to labor unions, the business community, and others who understand the stakes of Stefanowski’s proposal.
Former Connecticut AFL-CIO leader John W. Olsen, who also is a former Democratic state chairman, said Tuesday that voters would turn to the candidate with realistic, achievable solutions.
“Everybody’s been blaming, and nobody’s been solving problems,” he said. “I think the public now doesn’t really believe in much. At some point you’ve got to be honest with people.”
Linking Stefanowski with Trump
While Lamont’s message that cleaning up state finances will be a slow fix clearly isn’t flashy, the Democratic nominee hopes a new Trump endorsement of Stefanowski will help drive voters away from the GOP candidate.
“It’s about time Connecticut had a real and talented governor,” Trump said in a Wednesday morning tweet. “Bob Stefanowski is the person needed to do the job. Tough on crime, Bob is also a big cutter of taxes. He will win in November and make a great governor, a major difference-maker. Bob has my total endorsement!”
Citing that tweet, Lamont said “Certainly Trump embraced Stefanowski and Stefanowski embraced Trump. And obviously Bob gave Trump an ‘A’ and now Trump has given Stefanowski an ‘A.’ So if there’s any daylight between them, probably now’s a pretty good time for them to say.”
The two candidates exchanged tweets that presage a dynamic of the coming campaign: Who is more unpopular in Connecticut, Trump or Malloy?
Lamont needled Stefanowski with a tweet calling him, “Bob Trumpanowski.
Stefanowski responded with two words: “Ned Malloy.”
During his victory speech Tuesday, Lamont said he fears the Republican nominee will support a conservative Trump agenda that attacks health care, abortion rights, gun safety laws, collective bargaining rights and the environment.
“It’s a chance for him (Stefanowski) to explain himself,” he said.
Keeping distance from Governor Malloy
Lamont has his own challenges, though, when it comes to political relationships, specifically when it comes to Malloy, a fellow Democrat and one of the most unpopular governors in the nation.
”The candidates Democrats have chosen to represent their party in November show a massive leap to the left and movement further down the disastrous path Governor Malloy has paved for our state,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Democrats had an opportunity to move away from Governor Malloy, but instead they backed candidates who not only embrace Malloy’s policies, but who want to advance those failed policies even further. Their party is spiraling towards socialism.”
Lamont reminded reporters Wednesday that his interactions with Malloy have been brief and combative. He battled Malloy in 2010 for the gubernatorial nomination, losing in a primary shaped by personal negative ads.
So should voters expect to see Lamont and Malloy campaigning together soon?
“I campaigned against him, so I don’t think that’s going to change going forward,” Lamont said, before offering a critique of Malloy’s first term.
Taking office in 2011, Malloy inherited a record-setting $3.67 billion deficit in his first fiscal year — an 18 percent gap between expenses and available revenues.
The governor then signed a nearly $1.9 billion tax hike into law — also one of the largest in state history — and struck a concessions deal with state employee unions.
But that didn’t stabilize state finances, which meant Malloy had to rely on refinancing debt and other borrowing to defer another major tax hike until 2015, after he won re-election.
“I would have solved the budget crisis in year one,” Lamont said, faulting Malloy for not being more aggressive in streamlining state services and in collaborating with labor and businesses to jump-start Connecticut’s economy.
“I can’t have a state that’s defined by a budget crisis,” he said. “I would have had a very different relationship with the business community.”
Both Lamont, a Greenwich cable television entrepreneur, and Stefanowski, formerly the chief financial officer of UBS Investment Bank, a senior executive at GE and chief executive of DFC Global, are wealthy individuals who’ve chosen to largely fund their own campaigns rather than use public grants.
Lamont believes the comparison doesn’t hold much weight. He said Stefanowski “didn’t grow businesses. The GE building is now empty. The UBS building in Connecticut is now empty. … Our business backgrounds could be not more different.”