Rep. Laura Devlin and Bob Stefanowski before an April 5 news conference outside Fairfield Town Hall. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski staged his first campaign press conference outside the white clapboard town hall of Fairfield, a community that embodies the opportunity and challenge facing Stefanowski in 2022.

The ostensible reason for the venue was its connection to Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, whom he formally introduced Tuesday as his running mate, a choice made in part due to her role in defeating Gov. Ned Lamont’s highway tolls plan.

The town also falls somewhere between case study and talisman for a Republican Party that has seen its historical base in Fairfield County fade away. But Democrats stumbled here in the 2019 municipal election, undermined by scandal over the disposal of contaminated soils.

“You know what happened? The voters of Fairfield voted them out of office. They did exactly what they should have done,” Stefanowski said. “They brought a new leadership with Brenda Kupchick.”

Kupchick, who was out of town and absent from the news conference, was a Republican state representative when she was elected as first selectwoman, and one of her campaign advisers — Liz Kurantowicz — is now Stefanowski’s strategist.

In some respects, he is trying to replicate Kupchick’s win.

In his rematch with Lamont, Stefanowski is assiduously trying to link the governor to scandal — an alleged misappropriation of relief funds in West Haven, and the state-financed school construction contracts under investigation by the FBI.

“The culture of any organization starts right at the top,” Stefanowski said. “Leaders set the tone for how they handle their administration, the level of discipline, the level of oversight and the level of transparency they’re willing to give to their constituents.”

Fairfield also offers the GOP a reminder of its recent erosion. Kupchick’s election as the chief elected official was celebrated. Unmentioned was that her old legislative seat was won by a Democrat in 2020.

A dozen years ago, Republicans still slightly outnumbered Democrats here, 10,650 to 10,309, with elections settled by the inclinations of its 14,890 unaffiliated voters.

Stefanowski lost to Lamont in Fairfield by more than 1,000 votes in 2018, and the town is solidly Democratic by two measures: Democrats hold two of its three state House seats; and there are 14,511 Democrats to 9,979 Republicans, with 16,557 unaffiliated voters.

Devlin, 61, the married mother of two, is the last Republican in the town’s House delegation. Her status as Stefanowski’s candidate for lieutenant governor was revealed Monday night to the local Republican Town Committee.

She is a former vice president of communications for Pfizer and was first elected to the House in 2014. Devlin closed a consulting business in 2019 when Lamont proposed resuming highway tolls so she could focus on her legislative job, which included her role as ranking House Republican on the Transportation Committee.

Before rebounding in the polls over his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lamont’s tolls plan seemed to mark him as a one-term governor.

He had campaigned against tolls for anything other than trucks, then proposed them for all vehicles. Lamont struggled for months to make the case why they were needed and what improvements  new revenue would bring to highway and rail commuters.

The first person Stefanowski introduced Tuesday was not Devlin, but Patrick Sasser, the pugnacious Stamford firefighter who organized a grass-roots anti-tolls campaign. Stefanowski introduced him “as the man who stopped tolls from entering Connecticut.”

Bob Stefanowski with Pat Sasser, whom he introduced as the man who stopped highway tolls. Mark Pazniokas / CTMIRROR.ORG

Stefanowski cast Devlin as an important ally of Sasser.

“Laura does not hide from a challenge,” Stefanowski said. “I can tell you, she’s tough to stop. When Gov. Lamont used all of the powers of his office to try to break his number one campaign promise and he tried to put up tolls, Laura teamed up with Pat Sasser, got the community involved and stopped that initiative dead in his tracks.”

Devlin was on message Tuesday talking about her interest in government and responsibility to constituents.

“It’s been my job as an advocate to not only make government work better for them, but to also shine a light on what state government is sometimes doing behind their backs,” Devlin said. “The people of our state deserve better than what they’re getting. We need a strong voice to stand up for the people of Connecticut and restore trust and transparency.”

Stefanowski is a former high-ranking finance official at GE and UBS and ended his full-time corporate career as the chief executive of DFC Global, a payday loan company. He has been working as a consultant since his loss in 2018, making enough money to put $10 million into his campaign.

As far as his own transparency, Stefanowski said the eventual release of his tax returns will show the sources of his income and the identities of his consulting clients.

Democrats dispatched Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons to act as a surrogate for the Lamont campaign, responding to Stefanowski from a coffee shop not far from Town Hall.

The talking points she emphasized in serial interviews were the state’s fiscal comeback under Lamont, a shift from deficits to surpluses. As for Stefanowski’s line of attack on the governor’s transparency, she was dismissive, noting Lamont has fired the individual whose work is now under FBI investigation.

“Well, I think the governor’s record speaks for itself,” Simmons said. “He is a person that is full of integrity and compassion and devotion to our state. And I think his results are going to speak for themselves with voters. I think he’s been clear that he is going to be holding individuals accountable, that he’s going to bring transparency and accountability to our government. He already has done that.”

And then she pivoted to Connecticut’s fiscal comeback.

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.