Mark Walsh of West Hartford, a retired Hartford firefighter who is a frequent critic of Gov. Ned Lamont, holds a sign moving the governor's offered $1,000 inducement for job seekers.for MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Mark Walsh of West Hartford, a retired Hartford firefighter who is a frequent critic of Gov. Ned Lamont on talk radio, holds a sign mocking the governor’s offered $1,000 inducement for job seekers. Capitol police estimated the crowd at 250. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Mark Walsh of West Hartford, a retired Hartford firefighter who is a frequent critic of Gov. Ned Lamont on talk radio, holds a sign mocking the governor’s offered $1,000 inducement for job seekers. Capitol police estimated the crowd at 250. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Aided by talk radio hosts, Republicans tried Monday to gauge the political value of residual resentment towards Gov. Ned Lamont over COVID-19 restrictions that largely disappeared in May as infections plummeted.

A midday rally outside the state Capitol to protest a proposed two-month extension of emergency powers drew an estimated crowd of 250 and an appearance by Bob Stefanowski, the Republican who lost to Lamont in 2018 and is weighing seeking a rematch in 2022.

“They’re trying to control, Democrats, every single bit of our lives,” Stefanowski said. “They want to control whether our kids wear masks. They want to control whether we go to our house of worship. They want to control whether you can go out and have a beer at night.”

The challenge for Republicans is finding a way to excite voters over a two-month extension that Lamont, who generally gets high marks for his handling of the pandemic, and Democratic legislative leaders say is largely precautionary and comes after Lamont has ended nearly all the COVID restrictions decried by Stefanowski.

Exceptions include a requirement that unvaccinated persons wear masks indoors in public settings and special conditions that landlords must meet before evicting a tenant for non-payment of rent, the latter a vestige of an eviction moratorium that ended July 1.

The administration has yet to indicate whether unvaccinated children will be required to wear masks in school, in line with the recommendation made last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No vaccines are currently approved for anyone under age 12.

“Unmask our children” was the most popular message on display Monday.

Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, told the crowd that mask wearing gave her daughter chronic headaches, and she has told her local school superintendent the child will not be wearing a mask this fall.

“It is not fair for these kids to have headaches,” Zupkus said. “They should be learning instead of wearing these masks.”

The General Assembly, which passed a temporary law this year tightening legislative oversight over emergency executive powers, is to vote Wednesday on the two-month extension. With solid Democratic majorities in both chambers, passage is all but assured.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, noted that the new law allows the six top leaders of the General Assembl, by a majority vote, to veto any executive order issued under the emergency powers.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme,  the deputy minority leader in the Senate, said Lamont has been judicious in his exercise of emergency powers, but that does not justify a continued delegation of legislative authority.

“The general delegation of broad executive powers, I think, is a danger to our democracy,” Candelora said. “I think it goes way too far. And our governor may have been judicious in the past with it, but the facts just don’t support a delegation of power.”

Similarly, Formica said his opposition is about the principle of continuing to delegate authority to the governor, not a desire to overturn any executive orders still in effect.

“I don’t have any objections to what’s in place, as much as the extension of what seems to be dealing with an emergency that is waning or has somewhat waned,” Formica said.

Neither Candelora nor Formica were among the 11 Republican lawmakers who spoke at the rally. In an interview, Candelora was more critical of the Democratic legislative majority than the governor, saying the lawmakers were happy to defer difficult decisions to Lamont.

Bob Stefanowski, the 2018 GOP nominee for governor, said Lamont is declaring a continued emergency where there is none. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

“If I’m a Democrat in the legislature, I would be more than happy to delegate that authority and let the governor make the controversial decision of whether or not children wear masks in school,” Candelora said. “It’s a legislative opportunity to punt all the decision making to this governor, who has succeeded in having a high approval rating.”

One of the rally organizers was Patrick Sasser, a leader of the successful movements that defeated Lamont’s push for highway tolls to fund overdue infrastructure repairs and improvements, an issue that gave Lamont one of the lowest approval ratings in 2019.

He has rebounded during the pandemic.

In a poll conducted in April by Sacred Heart University, nearly three-quarters of voters said they viewed their quality of life as good or excellent, and 69% approved of Lamont’s management of the pandemic.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the extension of emergency powers was meant to allow the governor to quickly respond to changes, including the possible availability of a vaccine approved for children under 12, and whatever recommendations the CDC makes about mask wearing in the coming school year.

Ritter said Republicans were seeking to create a controversy where none exists, at least not in the general public.

“The overwhelming majority of Connecticut residents right now are really, really happy that Connecticut is not Missouri, that Connecticut is a state that has done a terrific job of following science,” Ritter said. “And that involves mask wearing and being respectful to one another, and high, high vaccination rates — the third-highest in the country.”

“What executive order are we under right now that is so troubling to people?” Ritter said. “I haven’t heard one.”

Ritter said the rally Monday was about Republican politics.

“I understand that Bob [Stefanowski] is definitely trying to win a primary for governor. And I know he has to appeal to a very right-wing base and Trump supporters. So that’s what that was today. That was a political rally that is not grounded in what most Connecticut residents think. And it’s going to backfire on them.”

In his remarks to the rally and then to reporters, Stefanowski pivoted to a broader critique of the governor and Democratic lawmakers, faulting them for declining to hold a special session addressing a sharp increase in car thefts and violence, a trend being seen across the United States.

“The real emergency in our state right now is public safety,” Stefanowski told the crowd. “We have kids getting hit by stray bullets. We have more murders in the city of Hartford this year than we had the entire year last year. You know what he’s doing about it? Nothing.”

Stefanowski also reminded reporters of a campaign promise Lamont made in 2018.

“He said he was going to cut the property tax by $300 million. He hasn’t done it,” he said. “People are ready for change.”

Stefanowski demurred when asked if he will try to be that change. He still was exploring, he said.

“I’m still going around the state. I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from people that I meet,” he said, “They’re not happy with the governor. If the governor had done what he said he was going to do, perhaps not. But people are ready for change.”

In the most recent Sacred Heart poll, Lamont had an overall approval rating of 55.7%. About 26.6% disapproved.

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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.