Democrat Kevin Lembo and Republican Jack Orchulli don’t agree on much but both candidates for State Comptroller feel the race for that office has been under-covered by the media at a time when the state’s current fiscal problems are a central issue for voters.
“Given the financial crisis, I think the office of comptroller should be raised to a higher level of importance,” Orchulli said Saturday.
Both candidates have been fighting for exposure in a campaign cycle largely dominated by Connecticut’s high-profile races for governor and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd‘s seat. But as the state’s chief fiscal guardian, the comptroller’s office is directly involved with the most pressing issue now facing Connecticut, both said.
“It’s an important office, sometimes more important than I think people realize,” Lembo said. “It’s all fine and good until it stops working correctly then people start paying attention.”
Lembo and Orchulli also said they would both seek and eliminate wasteful spending within the state’s budget but from there their policies diverge. Each candidate characterized themselves and the dynamics of the race differently.
“In this race you have a spin-master versus a business guy running for office,” said Orchulli, who was CEO and the chief financial officer of the Michael Kors fashion company before selling his ownership interest in 2003.
But Lembo, who worked in the comptroller’s office for six years and currently serves as State Health Care Advocate, questioned that analogy and said that the career politician versus the career businessperson dynamic present in many of the state’s races was flawed.
“In this cycle folks think all they need to do to set themselves apart is to say ‘I’m a businessman,’” Lembo said. “But not all business people are created equal just as not all public servants are created equal. It’s better to look at specific records.”
Lembo pointed out that during Orchulli’s tenure at Michael Kors the company filed for bankruptcy because of, among other things, uncontrollable overhead costs.
“We as a government don’t have the luxury of declaring bankruptcy,” he said.
Kors’ 1993 bankruptcy was an event that Orchulli was quick to defend, saying the company was put in a tough spot when a vendor who owed the company millions did not pay. He said his experience dealing with that financial crisis would be a useful trait for Connecticut’s next comptroller, who will be facing a massive budget deficit.
“We had to make tough choices at Kors. It took several years but we hung tough to make it work,” he said. “I turned it into a success. It’s crisis management. This problem the state of Connecticut has is not going to be resolved overnight.”
Orchulli also criticized his opponent’s involvement with the state’s healthcare reform program, SustiNet, which he said would have a negative impact on small businesses and healthcare providers. Ochulli said that the program’s 54 mandates don’t affect larger, self-insured, corporations but will force smaller operations to pay for aspects of insurance coverage that their employees may or may not need.
“It should be up to consumers to decide which of those mandates they need,” he said.
For his part, Lembo said his work on healthcare reform is part of his “proven track record of standing up and defending the people of the state.”
“I’m one of 11 people in the state doing the difficult but necessary work for better healthcare in Connecticut,” he said.
Lembo said he has helped tens of thousands of people through patient advocacy and 2,600 last year alone. In addition to his day-to-day advocacy of patients, Lembo said he has helped secure $20 million in consumer savings.
“Health insurance companies have a big presence in this state,” he said. “As the state’s fiscal guardian, I’m willing to stand up and do what’s right even when it’s uncomfortable.”
With the general election only nine days away, neither candidate is taking anything for granted.
Lembo, who was 17 points ahead of Orchulli in Thursday’s Suffolk University poll said public financing is helping him use the remaining time to get out and communicate with voters.
“It’s always nice to be up in the polls but we’re still running as if this election is a dead heat,” he said.
Orchulli said he actually found his opponents 17-point lead encouraging, as he hasn’t had public financing and has only recently had television ads on the air.
“It’s really sort of ironic. I see myself as the taxpayer’s advocate but taxpayer’s money has been spent on my opponent,” he said.
But Orchulli said he still thinks there’s time to close the gap and said that if voters should elect his opponent instead, “we’ll at least I know I tried.”
Lembo did receive some unplanned publicity this summer during the Democratic primary when his opponent, Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura, filed a lawsuit against him claiming it didn’t qualify for public funds. Jarjura lost the lawsuit and the Aug. 10 primary.