First, the news: Tom Foley has an arrest record. The Courant reported this week that the party-endorsed Republican candidate for governor was arrested in connection with two driving incidents that happened decades ago. The charges were dropped in both cases.
Now, the spin: Foley’s two rivals for the Republican nomination pounced immediately. Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, in a press release, called the incidents “troubling” and urged Foley to “come clean.” Oz Griebel insisted that the arrests raised some “very real and serious concerns” about Foley.
Really? Two decades-old arrests in which no charges were pressed are Very Serious Concerns? Given, this is probably the most press the Republican gubernatorial race has received since the convention, but still. Foley, many, many years ago, did some things in a car that he shouldn’t have done. He was arrested; charges were dropped.
What’s the big deal? Why is this a story that provoked such an instant and scathing response from Foley’s rivals?
Oz Griebel edged perilously close to the truth when his campaign included the following sentence in his press release: “If the headline: ‘Tom Foley’s arrest record,’ isn’t enough to question whether Tom is right for Connecticut, I don’t know what is.”
Here’s the thing: Griebel understands, or thinks he understands, something about the way voters (and the media) work in a primary like this where there isn’t a ton of ideological space between the contenders. If candidates aren’t measured by their positions on the issues, then primary voters will judge them by other metrics, such as the rather fuzzy qualities of ‘character’ and ‘electability.’ Griebel rolls both attacks into a single press release by suggesting that Foley is a shady, criminal sort of guy whose awful, awful past means he now has no chance of being elected.
How true is that?
Well, if we get beyond the shock of the headline, the actual arrests don’t seem so bad. Did Foley run his ex-wife off the road in the 1990s? Did he ram a vehicle on purpose nearly 30 years ago? Who knows? These are just allegations, and no charges were filed so nothing was ever proven. There isn’t a judgment to be made about Foley’s character, because there simply isn’t enough evidence one way or the other. Two incidents over the course of a long lifetime do not a pattern make.
And will voters in the fall really care about Foley’s arrests as much as Griebel seems to think? Maybe some will. In a very close race with few clear differences between candidates, it could actually matter. But overall, troubles like these where there was no clear, flagrant and systematic ethical lapse seems to matter less than opponents hope. Heck, Richard Blumenthal is still way ahead in the polls, despite his own recent conflicts with honesty. Sometimes voters look past what they see as forgivable ethical lapses when the candidates seem otherwise worthy. Foley’s chances in November, should he win in August, are probably no better or worse now than they were before the story broke.
In fact, it may say more about the characters of Griebel and Fedele, both desperate to catch the frontrunner before Primary Day, that their campaigns condemned Foley as quickly and as harshly as they did.
Chris Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.