Most of the concerns are uttered off the record, a few in public spaces. But the inevitable questioning from fellow Democrats has begun: Is Gov. Ned Lamont up to the tricky task of managing an unfolding school construction financing scandal in an already volatile election year?
First came disclosure of an FBI investigation, then a steady drip of complaints that Konstantinos Diamantis, an administration official Lamont fired in October, had used his perch in state government to pressure municipalities to hire certain contractors for state-financed school projects.
“If action is not taken soon by Lamont, this will be death by a thousand cuts,” a Democratic campaign consultant, Mike Farina, wrote in a Facebook thread that began a week ago and has rambled on with updates.
The social media thread echoes what other Democrats are saying elsewhere.
One source of Democratic angst is that Lamont’s campaign has not begun television advertising, while his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski, just made his second $1 million purchase. So far, the ads have promoted Stefanowski and have not attacked Lamont.
Another is Lamont’s unwavering public confidence in Melissa McCaw, who oversees the state budget as the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and named Diamantis as her top deputy.
When a demolition contractor complained to McCaw in 2020 that OPM was urging the town of Groton to set aside open bidding in favor of hiring from the state’s limited emergency bid list of approved contractors, the response was delegated to legal staff and Diamantis — the official in charge of school construction grants.
McCaw told CT Mirror in an interview over the weekend that the complaint was seen as a bid dispute, not a claim of wrongdoing.
Ceding the advertising airwaves to Stefanowski is not unusual for a governor who began the year with strong approval ratings and the name recognition and other benefits of incumbency, primary among them the ability to command media attention simply by doing his job.
But that calculus changed, at least to some Democrats, on Feb. 2 with the disclosure that the FBI had subpoenaed records relating to school construction grants and other programs overseen by Diamantis, a former Democratic lawmaker.
How that revelation influences the election will depend on the narrative that eventually evolves: Whatever Diamantis did or didn’t do, did the governor respond responsibly, with transparency and accountability?
Every day that goes by without shaping that narrative is a day lost, Democrats say.
“The danger is that you keep telling yourself, ‘Oh, the election is far away.’ It’s not that far away,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior strategist to Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “As somebody once famously said, ‘It gets late early.’ And things that happen now are foundational pieces of what will become the actual campaign when it begins in earnest.”
Vinnie Mauro, the Democratic chair of New Haven, the city that produces the most Democratic votes in statewide elections, puts a slightly different twist on the same concern: When the other party is working to make early gains, standing still can mean losing ground.
“The problem would be the governor being in neutral for so long, you end up going in reverse,” said Mauro, who also is chief of staff to the Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Lamont, who left Thursday night for a weeklong trade mission to Israel, has campaigned by governing, conducting official events that underscore themes central to his reelection campaign, including his management of the COVID-19 pandemic and his efforts to improve Connecticut’s business climate.
On Thursday morning, he welcomed David Neeleman, an iconic figure in the airline industry as a co-founder of Jet Blue and four other airlines, to Bradley International Airport to announce that his newest venture, Breeze Airways, would make Bradley its fifth base of operations, bringing new nonstop flights and more than 200 jobs.
“One thing I’ve learned in life is you don’t always have the wind to your back. Connecticut’s got the wind to its back. I can’t get distracted by some deputy at OPM and what that means,” Lamont said. “I’ve got to make sure that we keep flying. And that’s what this event is. That’s what all our events are.”
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he is confident in the governor’s reelection campaign and in McCaw and Josh Geballe, who was the commissioner of administrative services and chief operating officer.
“I’ll be the first to say that I would have a hard time believing that Josh Geballe or Melissa McCaw had knowledge of something improper and did not stop it,” Ritter said. “I have a hard time believing that.”
But the more important question, of course, is what the larger public believes — or will come to believe. Ritter said the governor “just needs to continue to be very open and honest about what’s going on. And it’s better to get everything out early.”
On Feb. 9, the governor proposed a budget that cuts taxes, makes some programmatic improvements and produces a projected surplus that can continue to pay down the state’s pension debt — normally a formula for a happy news day.
But the big news that day was that Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr., facing possible removal proceedings over his hiring of Anastasia Diamantis, would retire.
Another distraction: McCaw opened a budget briefing the same day by awkwardly attesting to her “close working relationship” with Lamont and implicitly confirming a distant relationship with others on his staff.
Her statement came a day after the CT Mirror reported that a sealed grievance filed by Diamantis says McCaw was treated disrespectfully by Lamont’s two top aides, Paul Mounds and Josh Geballe.
Occhiogrosso said the inability of the administration to cut through the clutter of those stories demonstrated it was time for Lamont, who is independently wealthy and self-funding his campaign, to start telling his story with advertising.
“When you have unlimited resources, and a track record that on paper is pretty good — I’d be trying to put this thing away now,” he said.
Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican consultant advising Stefanowski’s campaign, said the Democratic concerns are telling and harbingers of a competitive race.
“I think it tells you an awful lot about how concerned Democrats are about their ability to win and the concern they have about federal investigations into his administration,” she said.
Lamont rejects any notion he has not acted forcefully.
“You know, when it came to what happened with the deputy at OPM, he’s gone. I took that very seriously, immediately,” Lamont said. “And people are going to be continuing the investigations, that’s fine. They ought to know I acted on it quickly. If anything comes up again, I’ll act on it quickly. That’s what I do.”
The “deputy,” as Lamont cryptically referred to him, is Diamantis, a lawyer and former Democratic lawmaker from Bristol who served 14 years in the House before losing a Democratic primary in 2006.
Diamantis was hired in 2015 to direct the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, a civil-service job in the Department of Administrative Services. At the time, the DAS commissioner was Melody Currey, a former House Democratic colleague.
McCaw hired him as her deputy in 2019, a political job in which he served at the discretion of the governor. Lamont and McCaw allowed Diamantis to keep the school construction duties and bring them to OPM from DAS.
Lamont fired him from the political OPM job and suspended him from the civil-service school construction post in October, eight days after the FBI served its subpoena.
But the proximate cause, Lamont said, was the conclusion Diamantis had been untruthful about helping his daughter, Anastasia, get an executive assistant job with Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr.
The same daughter was hired by Construction Advocacy Professionals, or CAP, a school construction management company, in July 2019, about the same time the company got two no-bid contracts worth a combined $530,000 to oversee the building of a new elementary school in Tolland.
Tolland’s school superintendent, Walter Willett, issued a statement a week ago that Diamantis pressured the town to choose CAP and another contractor, D’Amato Construction, for the school construction project.
Willett’s claim was first reported Feb. 11 by The Hartford Courant, which ignited the thread on the Facebook page of Farina, who advises Democratic candidates for General Assembly.
“This is the kind of thing that brings down an Administration and affects down ballot races across the entire state,” Farina wrote. “We have our work cut out for us this fall, and we will work harder than ever to stop Bob Stefanowski and the Connecticut Republican Party.”
Farina stood by those comments in an interview.
On the Facebook page, he and others argued for days over the degree to which the scandal jeopardized Democrats’ election hopes. Farina saw the great danger to down-ballot candidates for General Assembly in swing districts.
Last Wednesday, days after warning about death from a thousand cuts if new revelations continue, Farina posted a CT Mirror story about a contractor complaining about potential interference in competitive bidding long before the FBI came calling.
Farina offered one terse comment about the piece.
“And the thousand cuts begin…”