(Updated 9:35 p.m.) House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero drove across the state Tuesday to do some last-minute campaigning for a Tolland Republican running in the first election since the legislature adopted a new two-year budget and expanded the state’s gun regulations.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Tolland and parts of Ashford and Willington, in an election to replace former Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, a Democrat who left office earlier this year to accept a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Democrat Anthony Horn and Republican Sam Belsito were running to replace Hurlburt as representative of the state’s 53rd District. When the votes were tallied late Tuesday in all three towns, Belsito had won the election by a margin of more than 500 votes. Voter turnout in both Tolland and Willington exceeded 20 percent.
Cafero leads the House Republican caucus, which had been outnumbered by majority Democrats 98-52. He drove Tuesday from his home in Norwalk to Tolland, about a 90-mile trip each way, to stand with Belsito in overcast weather and to wave at cars as they entered the town offices parking lot.
“I’m here supporting our 53rd member in the 53rd,” Cafero said. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Belsito, meanwhile, had more ambitious goals for state Republicans in upcoming elections.
“I told you it was an omen, didn’t I tell you that? That we’re going to take over the state, we’re going to take Connecticut back. First the House and the Senate, then the governor’s office,” he said. “Mark my words: We’re taking over, we’re going to take our state back in a year and a half.”
Cafero, who has been considering running for governor in 2014, laughed.
“From his lips to God’s ears,” he said.
Whatever the outcome of the special election in the 53rd District, it will do little to shift the balance of power in Hartford, where Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office.
But while many of the voters casting ballots Tuesday reported voting predominantly based on local issues, some offered their assessments of the General Assembly. The vote comes less than a week after the end of a legislative session during which lawmakers addressed some weighty issues.
Cafero said the polling he has seen has indicated Connecticut residents are unhappy with the state’s elected officials.
“People are very disenchanted right now with the direction the state’s going,” Cafero said. “They want a change. We’re getting worse and worse.”
Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, another potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, traded arguments last week with Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy over the recently approved state budget.
Democrats have accused the Republican leaders of taking potshots from the sidelines without offering their own budget proposal. But the minority leaders claim that the budget employs the same types of gimmicks Malloy opposed as a candidate before he was elected. The budget relies on accounting changes to keep it within the state’s spending cap.
Brad Cowles, a Tolland voter who identifies as a Republican and said he voted for Belsito, agreed with the Republican leaders’ criticisms of the budget. He said he was tired of seeing one party control the state Capitol.
“I think they’ve been passing irresponsible budgets,” he said. “They’ve significantly increased spending over the last few years and really failed to cut anything meaningful.”
Other residents reported concerns about one-party leadership in Hartford, but still chose to cast their votes for Horn. Bill and Susan Byers described Belsito, who’s currently a member of the Tolland Town Council, as a “naysayer,” who voted against allowing an expansion of the town library to be placed on referendum.
“I agree with a lot of people that Democrats [in the General Assembly] are just too one-sided. It’s not necessarily a good balance but that doesn’t mean I want to see Mr. Belsito in that seat,” Bill Byers said.
Horn, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, does not contest the argument against a government controlled solely by one party. He said things can get “loosey-goosey” when one side holds all the power.
If he were to be elected, Horn said he did not expect to vote with the Democratic majority, simply because of “the D” in front of his name.
“Quite frankly, I’m the more reasonable candidate from either party,” he said.
Horn also did not discount concerns about the state’s recently-adopted budget. He said he has had some experience trying to formulate budgets during his time on the Ashford Board of Finance, where he is currently serving as an alternate member. He said towns often have to make cuts to keep their budgets in balance.
“I think it’s too much,” he said of the state’s budget, adding he would have liked to offer specific places to trim. “. . . With the state, it’s like there’s 50,000 of these little spigots dripping our money when it’s not necessary.”
Tuesday’s election also had the distinction of being the first since the legislature passed a bipartisan bill significantly tightening the state’s gun laws. The bill was negotiated by lawmakers in response to the December murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Gun owners and 2nd Amendment groups lobbied heavily against the bill. During legislative hearings, many warned that they would campaign in an effort to unseat lawmakers who voted for stricter gun laws.
Both Horn and Belsito have stated they would have opposed the legislation and both said it was a hot-button issue among the voters they spoke to during the course of the one-month campaign.
But guns did not seem to be weighing heavily on the minds of the voters at the Tolland Town Offices. Most ranged from saying they doubted the restrictions would prevent future shootings to calling for even further-reaching weapons prohibitions.
George Kotowicz, a Tolland resident who identifies as a Republican, said he was personally neither for guns nor against them. But he said he thought the bill that was passed was a “knee-jerk” reaction by lawmakers, who knew residents expected a response from them.
“There were lessons to be learned there and I think they just jumped a little too quickly,” he said.
Cafero helped negotiate that bill.
Although he acknowledged that guns are an issue that some people are passionate about, Cafero said he thought people were voting based on other concerns.
“I don’t think that’s at the tip of everyone’s mind,” he said. “. . . Certainly there’s some avid gun owners or avid gun control folks who think differently, but I think for the most part, people are trying to make a living. They love this state. They want to see it grow.”