A donor to national efforts opposing abortion, gay marriage and, more recently, critical race theory and transgender rights has turned his attention to Connecticut’s gubernatorial race with a cheekily named new independent-expenditures group, “Parents Against Stupid Stuff PAC.”
The new super PAC’s chair and initial contributor is Sean Fieler, a hedge fund manager and conservative Catholic philanthropist who has kept a relatively low profile in Connecticut since moving from Princeton, N.J., to a sprawling Tudor home on four acres in Stamford in 2018.
In an interview Monday, Fieler said the group will spend more than $1 million arguing that Gov. Ned Lamont, a first-term Democrat, is at odds with parents over critical race theory, sexually explicit curricula in public schools and the participation of transgender athletes in girls’ sports.
“Broadly speaking, these are three cultural issues where he’s at the extreme of where the Democrat Party is and just not where the electorate in Connecticut is,” Fieler said. “These are not controversial issues, at least not when you poll them. The residents of Connecticut, the electorate of Connecticut, oppose this kind of stuff.”
Fieler said the new Connecticut group is independent of the American Principles Project, the conservative nonprofit and super PAC for which he serves as chair and a financial backer. Its prescription to the GOP is to confront the “wokeism” of the left and “commit to an agenda centered around rebuilding the American family.”
Through that group and others, Fieler long has been a behind-the-scenes player in America’s culture wars, as well as an advocate of limiting the influence of the Federal Reserve by reinstating the gold standard as a foundation of monetary policy.
Fieler, the majority owner and chief investment officer of Equinox Partners, has contributed more than $1.7 million to American Principles’ political affiliates and millions more to Republican candidates, conservative causes and Catholic charitable groups and schools.
Parents Against Stupid Stuff is his first foray into Connecticut politics outside of limited contributions: $10,000 to the state GOP in 2021 and 2022, $1,000 to the Family Institute of Connecticut and $250 to Rep. Kim Fiorello, R-Greenwich, in 2020, and $3,500 to Bob Stefanowski’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
Whatever his broader interests, Fieler emphasized his PAC will be tightly focused on issues relating to the influence of parents and families in the schools, not abortion or gay marriage. He said he sees parental rights resonating in Connecticut in ways that other social issues do not.
“So there’s obvious political application to these issues in a way that there aren’t for some of the other social issues in a state like Connecticut,” he said.
His new PAC was registered March 1 with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, and its first quarterly report showed initial contributions of $80,000 from Fieler and a payment of $60,375 to Evolving Strategies of Bethesda, Md., for “messaging test research.”
Evolving Strategies describes itself on its web site as “a behavioral science and clinical data science firm. We use experiments and artificial intelligence to modify (not just predict) human behavior — we get more people to do what you need them to do.”
Fieler declined to say when or how its messaging would begin. CT Truth PAC, another independent expenditures group with a budget of at least $1 million, already is running ads on television and the web attacking Lamont, who is independently wealthy and largely self-funding his campaign.
“We’re looking forward to working closely with a number of the parents’ groups that have spontaneously formed over the last six months to a year here,” Fieler said.
In Virginia, education was an issue in 2021, when voters ended a 12-year Democratic winning streak in governor’s races and elected Republican Glenn Youngkin, who had staged “Parents Matter” rallies.
Some Connecticut operatives in either party are skeptical about whether that can be replicated here. Last year, the election was held while Virginia parents were furious over continuing mask mandates and long school closures due to COVID-19, as well as concerns about what was being taught.
“That’s why it got life in the Virginia governor’s race,” said Mark Bergman, a Democratic consultant who has advised campaigns in Virginia and Connecticut.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe didn’t help his cause when he seemed dismissive of parents, saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The influence of critical race theory on local education was an issue in several Connecticut towns in 2021, most notably in Guilford. A slate of insurgents used the issue to unseat Republican incumbents in a GOP primary, but they were defeated in the general election.
The ability of transgender girls to compete in girls’ sports became an issue in 2020, albeit a narrow one arising from a lawsuit filed against the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference on behalf of three female track athletes who objected to competing against a transgender girl, as allowed by CIAC rules.
The Connecticut Republican Party generally has shied from the culture wars, though a former state chair, J.R. Romano, gave a “courage award” in 2020 to the three female athletes.
“When you have biological males beating girls in girls’ sports, that’s something that Gov. Lamont has really, I think, tried to avoid as an issue,” Fieler said. “And to the extent that he said anything about it has been on the wrong side of the electorate.”
In 2020, the Trump administration threatened to withhold federal education aid over the CIAC’s policy and a Connecticut law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.
After months of silence, Lamont promised to defy the administration: “We’re gonna stand up, fight against discrimination.”
But he clearly was discomforted by the issue.
“Look, I’m 66 years old. This is a tough situation — trans,” Lamont said at a press conference in September 2020. “We’re going to work through this as a state, but I don’t need the heavy hand of the federal government coming in and penalizing schools and shortchanging kids to do this. I think we’re going to do this at the community level. We’re going to figure this out with our leagues. And I just wish the federal government butt out on this subject. Leave our kids alone.”
Fieler could not say why he was confident Stefanowski, the presumptive GOP for governor, would support banning transgender athletes. Citing a state law banning a super PAC’s coordination with a candidate it is supporting, he said he has not spoken to the Republican candidate.
Stefanowski could not be reached Monday on the issue.
Lamont’s campaign manager, Dan Morrocco, was quick, however, to brand Fieler as “an anti-choice, anti-gay-marriage, Trump-supporting zealot” whose support will reflect on Stefanowski.
Stefanowski has broadly signaled solidarity with parents who complain of lacking influence in their children’s education. In a video posted on social media last week, Stefanowski and his wife, Amy, talked about issues on which Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters can agree.
“One is giving our kids a solid education,” Stefanowski said. “Amy and I were fortunate to have great schools for our kids. We had a say in their education. We had a say in looking at their homework and watching what they’re learning, and parents deserve that.”
That, of course, is a long way from banning transgender athletes who identify as girls from competing in high school sports or participating in a debate about which books might be appropriate for which ages.
Fieler said he is aware of cases of sexually explicit or inappropriate materials being used in the schools, mentioning a controversy over a lesson about sexual consent mistakenly offered to eighth-grade students in a family health and human sexuality class in Enfield.
“Sexually explicit material being taught to young children in schools defies common sense,” he said.
Fieler moved his family and eventually his business to Connecticut after his wife, Ana Cecilia Fieler, an economist, began teaching at Yale. They are the parents of six children: the youngest is 2, the oldest a freshman in high school.
In a speech in 2018 at the Catholic Information Center annual gala, where he received the “John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization,” Fieler said his own evangelical work began with his checkbook, a description that could apply to his political activism or his philanthropy.
As described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the New Evangelization is a recognition that relatively few Catholics practice their faith and a call for all Catholics to evangelize to others.
“I immediately gravitated towards the easiest way to evangelize. I gave money to others to evangelize,” Fieler said. “And, to be very frank, that is the vast majority of my involvement in what might be loosely called ‘The New Evangelization’ until I met Cecilia and we had a family.”
He challenged his audience to be evangelicals willing to confront fellow Catholics who have fallen away from the faith and accept the “Gnostic heresies” of modern life.
“Let me sum up the moment this way: By the time the government has decided that guys who claim to be girls should have access to the girls’ locker room because they are really girls, you can be pretty certain that the gnostic heresy is well advanced,” he said. “We, the co-conspirators in the New Evangelization, are kidding ourselves if we think that we can boldly proclaim what we believe and sidestep the dominant heresy of our time.”
His challenge was not unlike the advice the American Principles Project is giving to the Republican Party: Evangelicals, like political activists, must be willing to engage on matters of faith and family, especially when the message is difficult or out of fashion.
Fieler said “while the culture war strongly discourages us from making the case for the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage in the public square, we must nevertheless publicly affirm what we believe.”
Clarification: This story originally linked to a New York Post story about gender identity lessons taught to a kindergarten class in New Jersey, based on Fieler’s reference to a Post story published over the weekend. Fieler clarified he was referring to a Post story published on Feb. 10 about Enfield.