Scene from an ad: Bob Stefanowski talks to voters in a diner in one of his first TV ads.

The political air wars are under way in Connecticut with a self-funded $1 million ad buy that will reintroduce Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski as the self-made product of a struggling middle class.

In an interview, the wealthy Stefanowski said he will begin his campaign making a case that the wealthier Gov. Ned Lamont is out of touch with the burdens of inflation and expensive housing and utility costs.

“I have struggled to make a rent payment. I have struggled to make a car payment,” Stefanowski said. “I believe I’m more in touch with what the people in Connecticut are going through.”

Stefanowski, a former global finance executive who has worked as a consultant since losing the 2018 race to Lamont, has put $10 million of his own money into his campaign account. Lamont spent $15 million of his money in 2018.

“I’m proud of the fact that I can put money towards this campaign,” Stefanowski told CT Mirror. “I earned it. I didn’t inherit it. My grandfather didn’t start J.P. Morgan. I started with nothing. I was given the tools to be successful.”

His jab at Lamont was off by a generation. Lamont’s great-grandfather, Thomas W. Lamont Jr., was a former journalist who migrated into finance, becoming a partner at J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1911 and eventually its chief executive.

Lamont shrugged off Stefanowski’s suggestion he was out of touch with middle-class needs.

“We’ve held the line on taxes, cut taxes for working families, held down health care costs for working families, doing everything we can to help people start up their own businesses,” Lamont said. “I’ll let my record speak for itself.”

Lamont, who declared his reelection candidacy in November, said he has no plans to join Stefanowski on the air, at least not in the near term.

“We have a lot of work to do between now and politics,” Lamont said.

The ads went up as Lamont, a first-term Democrat with his own business background, experienced the advantages and challenges of incumbency at official events in Waterbury and Bloomfield.

Lamont spoke about the state’s support for the remediation of old industrial sites at the announcement in Waterbury of plans by Amazon to open a regional fulfillment center on a site straddling Waterbury and Naugatuck.

Benefits of incumbency: Lamont is applauded in Waterbury at announcement of plans by Amazon to build a distribution center on long vacant industrial land straddling Waterbury and Naugatuck.

In Bloomfield, he was joined by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, both Democrats seeking re-election, at KADD Transport, a trucking company owned by a Black couple, Latoya and Garth Scott.

Lamont was publicizing his administration’s new procedures that make it easier for small minority-owned businesses to get state and federal contracts in advance of the coming influx of federal infrastructure funds to Connecticut.

But the governor also faced questions about complaints raised Tuesday by SEIU 1199, the New England Health Care Employees Union, about the administration’s slow pace of filling more than 300 vacancies at state mental health facilities.

Lamont said the labor market for most health care jobs is exceedingly tight, even though Connecticut has upped pay for some of the vacant positions.

“We are reaching out every day. We’re recruiting, probably hired more than ever before in this last year,” Lamont said.

A pledge to cut the sales tax

One of three 30-second ads being played in rotation introduces Stefanowski as the grandson of immigrants. “I grew up in New Haven,” Stefanowski says in the ad. “I know what its like to start with nothing.”

It cuts to a narrator.

“This is Bob Stefanowski,” a narrator says before the spot shows a black-and-white film of immigrants passing by the Statue of Liberty. “His grandparents came through Ellis Island, immigrants, oyster shuckers.”

Stefanowski pegged his 2018 campaign on a single issue: repealing the income tax as way to spark economic growth. His tax-cutting pitch in his new ads is more modest: reducing the sales tax and waste in government.

“One of the first things I will do when I’m governor is I’ll cut that sales tax,” he said in one ad. “We’re going to audit every agency of the state government, and we’re going to find out how they’re spending money, where they’re wasting it.”

Connecticut currently spends $12 million annually on about 100 auditors who examine the books on most state agencies every two years. They are part of the legislative branch, supervised by a Republican and a Democrat.

Stefanowski said he will stress a need for greater accountability in government, as well as a need to make living in Connecticut more affordable. As is often the case with challengers, he talks about the opportunities of generations past.

“My parents didn’t have a lot. But we had enough and they focused on education. My three sisters and I all graduated from Connecticut colleges without a ton of student loan debt,” Stefanowski said. “I was able to build a career in Hartford, which was a vibrant city. And I was able to make a life with a beautiful family.”

Stefanowski, 59, is married and the father of three daughters. He lives in Madison, a Long Island Sound coastal community between New Haven and the mouth of the Connecticut River. He grew up in New Haven and North Haven.

None of the ads criticize Lamont, but he said in the interview he will continue to make an issue of the COVID testing contract that went to Sema4, a company in which the venture capital firm of First Lady Annie Lamont had invested.

Stefanowski was unsure how much disclosure he would make about his own finances and business activities, such as the identities of his consulting clients.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Stefanowski said. “Last time, we disclosed our tax returns.”

He said he expected he would do so again “at the appropriate time” if Lamont did so.

“The problem with his tax return is you only see half of the story,” Stefanowski said. “Clearly his finances are tied to his wife, which we see in Sema4. Last time he only filed married filing separately. I think it’d be great to see how he’s accumulated wealth.”

Avatar photo

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.