Connecticut’s rich Republican candidate for governor, Bob Stefanowski, says living in an urban neighborhood until second grade makes him more understanding of everyday economic challenges than his richer Democratic opponent, Gov. Ned Lamont.

“You know, people say we got two rich guys running for governor,” Stefanowski said Tuesday, standing on a corner in the Newhallville neighborhood in New Haven. “I’ll admit it. I’ve done pretty well. But one of the two guys running grew up in Greenwich, Conn., going to the polo grounds on the weekend. I grew up here, terrific upbringing.”

Stefanowski was engaging in a bit of political license. 

Lamont actually grew up in wealth in Washington, D.C., and on the North Shore of Long Island, not Greenwich, where he settled as a married adult. But Stefanowski’s point was that Lamont’s is fourth-generation old money, and his fortune is first-generation fresh.

“It’s one thing to kind of think that you know what people are going through,” Stefanowski said. “It’s another thing to have gone through it. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great upbringing, dinner at 5:30 every night. But you know, unless you’ve grown up sleeping in a closet, which I did … well, I just think it’s hard to empathize.”

Stefanowski came to Newhallville to outline a plan for tax cuts on a corner outside Visels, the family-owned pharmacy he remembers fondly, then led reporters on a brief tour two blocks up Dixwell Avenue to Pond Street to the three-family home where he recalls his bedroom as an oversized closet.

The Republican candidate, who earned an average of $12 million in each of the past three years and is spending $10 million of his own money on the campaign, was making the point that he is self-made.

Democrats were quick to counter that Stefanowski’s claim on the neighborhood was tenuous, and a portion of his fortune came from running a payday loan company that profited off the urban poor — though not in Connecticut, where the high-interest loans are illegal.

“I think you can live outside of where you grew up and live a life that many people could dream about and still be seen as authentic,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat who represents Stefanowski’s old neighborhood. 

But Winfield said in an interview that Stefanowski’s payday loan experience and his long absence make a poor case for urban empathy. Jake Lewis, the Lamont campaign spokesman, made a similar point in an emailed statement.

“Bob likes to pretend he’s a working person,” Lewis said. “But he must of forgot about where he came from or who his neighbors were, as he made millions of dollars from ripping off working families who were desperate to pay rent or keep afloat by offering them loans he knew they couldn’t pay back that only send them further into debt.”

By car, it is 22 miles and 29 minutes from Stefanowski’s current home, a hilltop manse in Madison overlooking the Long Island Sound, to Newhallville. He said he was last in the neighborhood a few weeks ago for lunch.

Stefanowski’s family left for the suburbs in 1967 or ’68, when he was in second grade, the parochial school around the corner still was open, his family attended Mass at Saint John the Baptist, and Visels was the friendly corner pharmacy.

Visels is still here, run by father-and-son pharmacists, Edmund Funaro Sr. and Jr. Their family bought the place in 1967, not long before Stefanowski, his three older sisters and their parents decamped for North Haven.

The elder Funaro said he was taught to ride a bike by Stefanowski’s grandmother. Stefanowski recalled riding his own bike to the pharmacy, which used to have an ice cream counter.

Stefanowski talking about the old neighborhood with Edmund Funaro Sr., who runs Visels Pharmacy with his son, Edmund Jr. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

“I’m a little bit upset. You got rid of the ice cream fountain, was my favorite,” Stefanowski teased. “But I’d ride my bike down here. What a great upbringing. These guys have been here since 1913. Still do home deliveries. What pharmacy do you know in Connecticut that does home delivery?”

The younger Funaro gently corrected Stefanowski. The pharmacy indeed was founded in 1913 but owned and run by others until the 1960s.

The intervening decades have been difficult for the neighborhood, part of a census tract where the median household income is $29,000, the population is 97% minority, and 55% of the children live in poverty.

Stefanowski’s family lived on Pond Street, a walk of two blocks up Dixwell from the pharmacy. On the way, he passed Saint John the Baptist, a Roman Catholic Church founded 101 years ago. It closed five years ago and was sold to the French Speaking Baptist Church in 2020. Stefanowski said his parents were married there.

“And next door is the grammar school I went to, which is now a methadone clinic,” Stefanowski said. “So Democrats have been in charge of the cities for 40 years now. I think we can do better.”

Stefanowski was premature. His old parochial school, also Saint John the Baptist, has changed hands twice since the church closed it. Its current owner, indeed, plans a health facility with a methadone clinic, but the neighborhood is objecting, and it has yet to open.

Engrossed in conversation as he turned the corner on Pond Street, Stefanowski didn’t immediately recognize his childhood home, a three-family house with a tattered American flag and a rusted chain link fence bearing a warning, “NO TRESPASSING.”

His campaign manager yelled, “Bob!”

The Republican nominee for governor reversed course, walked back to the brick- and vinyl-sided house and briefly paused before leading reporters and his running mate, Laura Devlin, down an uneven asphalt driveway.

“Which of these windows was your room?” Devlin asked.

Laura Devlin asks Stefanowski which bedroom window was his. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Stefanowski said he had been certain, less so since arriving. But he brightened, recalling getting chased by bees when helping his father working on his next-door-neighbor’s house.

“There’s certain things you remember as a kid,” he said, smiling. “I remember the bees.”

He left without seeing if anyone was home.  A reporter later tried the doorbells. One was beside a door with a sticker saying, “Women for Obama.”

No one answered.

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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.