Hugh McQuaid photo
Republican Tom Foley (Hugh McQuaid photo)

NEW HAVEN — Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley’s efforts Monday to clarify his positions on labor issues before delegates at the AFL-CIO convention were met with laughter and skepticism.

Foley, who received the Republican Party nomination at the party’s convention but is facing two primary challengers, spoke before labor delegates Monday at the Omni Hotel in New Haven. The delegates are weighing endorsements for this year’s gubernatorial election and were scheduled to hear from Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy later in the day.

During his short talk, Foley tried to clarify comments he made last year to the Hartford Courant, where he was quoted saying he was waiting for a “Wisconsin moment” in Connecticut. The quote has been repeated often by labor advocates who interpreted it as a desire to see collective bargaining rights scaled back as they were in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker was elected.

Foley maintains that he meant he was hoping to see Connecticut repeat Wisconsin’s state government flip from Democratic to Republican control. He has said he was not looking to change the way collective bargaining works in Connecticut. That’s what he told the convention room full of labor leaders Monday.

They laughed.

“Did I say something funny?” Foley asked, briefly stopping his remarks.

“Yeah,” a few in the audience answered. The group had just heard from Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO.

After his remarks to the group, Foley told reporters he was not sure why the labor delegates reacted the way they did.

“I’m not sure what they were laughing about. It was a pretty straight comment. Were they laughing because they didn’t believe me or because of something I said?” he said.

According to Lori Pelletier, Connecticut’s AFL CIO executive secretary treasurer, the group did not believe him.

“I think they didn’t buy his explanation, is the problem,” she said. “. . . For him to now come up and say ‘Oh, I just meant to change party rule,’ they bought it for what it is. He’s just changing his tune because he sees the pushback he got from it.”

But Foley insists he is not looking to enact major changes to state collective bargaining laws, an effort he says would be a “fool’s errand” in Connecticut. During his comments, Foley also echoed Malloy’s commitment to respect the terms of current collective bargaining agreements with state employees.

In order to balance projected budget deficits, Foley told the group he would hold state spending flat for the next two years.

“I can do this without layoffs and without undoing the agreements public employees now have with the state of Connecticut. The governor and the state must keep their word. A deal is a deal. You can tell everybody you know I made that commitment,” he said.

Pelletier said she was skeptical of that promise as well.

“I think John Rowland may have made the same commitment when he was running for governor,” she said, referring to the former Republican governor who had a divisive relationship with the state’s labor unions.

Foley seems well aware that Malloy will likely emerge Tuesday with the union’s endorsement. So far, the incumbent Democrat has been endorsed by both the Connecticut American Federation of Teachers and the local chapter of the United Auto Workers union.

“Every time I speak to a group I try to anticipate the issues that will matter to them and what are their anxieties and to the extent that I can relieve them, I do so. I think with this group, it’s obviously not a group that would tend to be Republican oriented. I just wanted to assure them that under a Republican governor, they’re going to be just as well off, or even better off than under this governor,” Foley told reporters.

Foley faces Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton in the August Republican primary.