Kristi Allen photo
Tim Herbst and Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola two weeks ago at the state Capitol (Kristi Allen photo)

If a Republican challenger attacks a Democratic incumbent and no one responds, does he still make a sound?

Tim Herbst, Republican candidate for state treasurer, is doing his best to find out. The Trumbull first selectman has been waging a rather one-sided campaign against five-term Democratic incumbent Denise Nappier.

“If any other candidate for public office showed this level of disengagement with the public and media they would be rightfully rebuked on the editorial pages of every major newspaper in the state,” Herbst said in a statement.

Nappier disagreed with Herbst’s characterization Monday. In a phone interview, she said that she’s always debated her opponent and is looking forward to her first community forum with Herbst. The two are scheduled to appear on Oct. 7 at the Hartford Public Library.

“My campaign has been and will continue to be active,” Nappier said. “It has never been driven by political gamesmanship as is the case with my opponent. I tell people I consider myself a fiduciary first.”

Herbst has called for five debates and even started an online petition to try and encourage Nappier to accept the invitation. Nappier said her campaign staff received the debate request on August 14 and will be responding.

But is it too little, too late?

Despite all the recent hype over the state’s unfunded pension liabilities, there are few voters who know what the state treasurer does. The state treasurer is the sole trustee and fiduciary of state employee and teacher pension funds. The treasurer also manages the state’s cash and is responsible for issuing the state’s debt.

“By and large, with some exceptions, people don’t know about the candidates below governor…there’s an awful lot of party line voting,” Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said Monday.

While some Democrats may cross party lines in the governor’s race, it would appear that most still vote party line on lower-ticket offices, Schurin said. Democrats have controlled most of Connecticut’s constitutional offices for the last decade, even when there was a Republican in the governor’s mansion.

Election statistics corroborate that theory. In 2010, 50,000 fewer votes were cast in the treasurer’s race than the governor’s race.

That’s bad news for Herbst, who is running statewide for the first time this year.

Nappier, who rarely gives media interviews and admits she’s more comfortable with email communication, told the Courant Editorial Board last week that the media hasn’t given her office enough coverage over the years, particularly her advocacy for lowering the unfunded liability in the state’s pension plans or pressuring the legislature to enact pension and debt reforms.

Hugh McQuaid file photo
Denise Nappier (Hugh McQuaid file photo)

“Unfortunately, there’s been no media coverage and there’s been no public outcry about the growing unfunded liability. I ran on that in 1998…that was my number one issue,” Nappier said.

On the other hand, Herbst said he feels he’s getting adequate media coverage.

Of all the constitutional offices below governor, “I think we’re actually getting the most attention,” Herbst said Monday.

Yet, he’s still been unsuccessful in getting Nappier’s campaign to engage.

Until Monday, Nappier’s campaign had declined requests to comment. Nappier said that’s partially due to the fact that they didn’t hire a spokeswoman until last Thursday.

Two weeks ago, Herbst held a press conference at the state Capitol and made the unfunded state pension liability a central focus in his campaign. He also took issue with Nappier’s characterization of her record when it comes to the state’s unfunded pension liabilities.

“Denise said this four years ago, and she said it 2006 and she said it in 2002. It is very politically convenient to say these things 45 days before an election,” Herbst said. “Since she’s been in office [the state’s unfunded liabilities] have gotten worse, not better.”

Nappier’s campaign manager declined to comment on Herbst’s criticism following the press conference. However, Nappier explained Monday that the state’s pension fund didn’t start out as an investment fund. She said for years it was “pay-as-you-go.”

“The fact of the matter is when I became state treasurer the state had one of the worst-funded pension plans in the country and that has not changed,” Nappier said.

However, through agreements between the governor and state employees the state is making progress and contributing the actuarially required amount, she said.

She took exception to a report by an associate professor of finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who concluded the state’s pension fund could be insolvent by 2019.

She said the report, which Herbst is using to illustrate the state’s unfunded pension liability, “assumes the state would never contribute” to the fund and that’s not what’s happening. She said the state is contributing at least the actuarially required amount.

While they disagree on some issues, Nappier and Herbst actually agree on several issues, such as raising the retirement age, putting surplus money towards unfunded liabilities, and lowering actuarial rates of return on the state’s pension funds. Herbst has said that Nappier’s inability to accomplish these goals showed that she was disengaged and ineffective. But Nappier said she simply doesn’t have the jurisdiction to accomplish them so it’s an unfair criticism.

Actuarial rates of return are set by pension boards, employee benefit contracts are negotiated by the governor and the unions, and the legislature is in charge of appropriations. The treasurer is responsible for managing the investment of the state’s pension resources. Much of Herbst and Nappier’s strategies for fixing the unfunded pension liability rely on pressuring other politicians to enact the reforms they want.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.