The communist country he escaped 23 years ago made Peter Lumaj into the Republican U.S. Senate candidate he is today.
Lumaj, a criminal and immigration attorney from Fairfield, said he escaped Albania to seek “the fruits of freedom” in America.
“I’ve seen the policies I left behind in Europe come to America,” Lumaj, told the East Haven Republican Town Committee last week. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve seen the United States move more to the left.”
Lumaj said America’s foundation was built on “two beautiful documents that are almost as significant as the Bible: The Declaration of Independence, which guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the Constitution, which is written so as to not violate those rights. No other nation in the world has that.”
“We need to get to the basics of our constitutional limited government,” Lumaj, who is one of five Republican candidates running for the seat that is being vacated by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, said.
“Right now, nothing is too small to be regulated by government,” he said. “Government regulates every aspect of our lives. That’s a concern, because that is how socialism started.”
He said that when he and his three brothers fled Albania, if you were caught you would be executed or imprisoned for 25 years and your family members would be placed in a concentration camp.
“My father passed away at that camp,” Lumaj said. “When my brothers and I left, he gave us his blessing. He said, ‘Go and search for freedom.’ ”
While in a refugee camp in the former Yugoslavia, he said he wrote “United States, United States, United States” when the United Nations representatives asked him to list the three countries where he wanted to live.
“I believe in this country,” Lumaj said. “I put my life in danger to come here.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Lehman College and then graduated from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.
And his personal story is beginning to resonate with some members of the party.
“I was very impressed with him and how he opened up about the tough childhood that he had and coming to the United States and the opportunities that were here for him,” Marianne Cesare, the secretary of the East Haven Republican Town Committee, said.
“He was very passionate in the way he spoke,” she added. “I liked him very much. He was very eloquent in his speaking. He also knew what he was talking about.”
“He may get some support,” East Haven Republican Town Committee Vice Chairman Ben Mazzucco, who has not endorsed a candidate, said.
“He hit a few points,” he added. “He said there are still a lot of people out of work, despite what Obama says.”
It’s not the first time Lumaj has received positive feedback.
“I have gotten lots of encouraging words,” Lumaj said of the reaction from the roughly 20 Republican Town Committees that he has spoken to.
But it’s tough for a newcomer and relative unknown candidate to break into the upper ranks of the Republican field.
Former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon of Greenwich and former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays of Bridgeport have received most of the attention since they each entered the race last fall.
Brookfield Republican Town Committee Chairman Marty Flynn said he didn’t know that Lumaj was running.
However, Lumaj had raised $108,740 through Dec. 31, which is more than twice as much as any of the other lower tier candidates in the GOP field – attorney Kie Westby of Southbury, attorney Brian K. Hill of Windsor and former Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy, who has suspended his campaign.
Lumaj entered the current quarter with $84,223 cash on hand and has opened headquarters in Waterbury and Fairfield, hired a campaign manager, and attracted a corps of volunteers.
But the grassroots support seems to pale in comparison to the growing list of endorsements McMahon has received.
Mazzucco believes that McMahon is the favorite to win the convention endorsement May 12.
Cesare hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates, but said she “worked very avidly” for McMahon two years ago when she lost to then-state Attorney Gen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Greenwich, in the race for an open seat.
“I do like Linda very much,” she said.
Lumaj said if he doesn’t receive the 15 percent of the delegate votes needed at the convention to get on the Aug. 14 primary ballot, his volunteers are prepared to collect the necessary signatures so he can petition his way onto the ballot.
Two years ago, McMahon captured the primary with 49 percent of the vote in her race against former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington and Euro Pacific Capital CEO Peter Schiff of Weston.
Lumaj said both McMahon and Shays have serious liabilities.
“How can we trust someone who raised money to defeat Republicans and who didn’t even vote in 2006, the last time this seat was up for election?” Lumaj said.
World Wrestling Entertainment has made campaign contributions to Democrats, including Rahm Emanuel, the former congressman and White House chief of staff who is now the mayor of Chicago.
OpenSecrets.org reported two years ago that since 1989 McMahon and her husband, Vince McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, had given 54 percent of their political contributions to Republicans and 44 percent to Democrats. It reported that the fifth largest recipient over that time was Shays.
“She can use all the money she wants, but she is not electable,” Lumaj said of McMahon, who spent a record-setting $50 million two years ago.
He also complained that as he has traveled across the state over the recent months McMahon’s political director, former gubernatorial candidate Tom Scott, has spoken to Republican town committees far more often than McMahon has.
Amanda Bergen, Shays’ communications director, said that as he has spoken to Republican town committees, Shays also has seen Scott appear more often than McMahon. She said Shays’ campaign also uses surrogate speakers when there are schedule conflicts, but that in most instances Shays has spoken to those town committees at a later date.
Erin Isaac, McMahon’s communications director, stated in an e-mail message that, “We are proud of the overwhelming endorsements Linda is receiving from Republican leaders across the state – 25 Republican State Central Committee members, 76 Republican Town Committee chairs and four Republican Town Committees.” She did not comment on Scott’s appearances at the RTC meetings.
As for Shays, Lumaj called him a career politician.
He said the former congressman’s 2008 loss in the Fourth District to U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Greenwich, also raises questions about his electability.
“If he was such a good congressman, why did he lose?” Lumaj said.
“On the social issues, he voted with the left,” he added. “We need a conservative, because conservatism works. Before I came here, we saw it work with Reagan.”
“We’re looking for an ordinary person who understands us,” Lumaj said. “I’m that kind of person.”
In the Democratic race, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy of Cheshire is the apparent frontrunner in a field that also includes former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz of Middletown and state Rep. William Tong of Stamford.
On fiscal issues, Lumaj said he agrees with Shays that Congress should try to balance the federal budget in six years, but believes “it will probably take longer than that.”
“I think it can be done if we eliminate federal agencies and cut down on the employees in some of the others,” he said. “I don’t see that we have problems with revenue in Washington, we have problems with spending.”
Regarding immigration, Lumaj said America needs to make it easier for qualified applicants to live here.
“There is no reason to have somebody wait six or seven years to come to the United States,” he said.
However, Lumaj said he opposes “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
“Illegals are coming to the United States and not making the effort to become Americans,” he said. “They are using the system. About 38 to 40 percent of the inmates we now have in federal prisons are illegals.”