Having been largely shut out of the government since M. Jodi Rell left 990 Prospect Avenue six years ago, the Republicans in the state of Connecticut are easy to make fun of. Despite modest gains in recent years, they still don’t have any seats in Congress, and they control neither legislative house in Hartford and none of the six constitutional offices. Heck, even deep-blue Massachusetts now has a Republican governor again.
That’s precisely why, if they want to be taken seriously, prominent Republicans in this state need to be careful not to make knuckleheaded moves. I’m sure they would love to be able to say Republican State Central Committee Chairman J.R. Romano merely slipped on a banana peel last week when he decided to bar Hearst Connecticut reporter Neil Vigdor from the party’s nominating convention.
What was Vigdor’s offense? According to Romano, the journalist wrote a series of stories that cast the state GOP in a negative light and — of all things — Vigdor used anonymous sources. I’m not a fan of anonymous sources, either, but I’d venture to say plenty of other reporters in the Connecticut Convention Center have used them lots of times. So complaints about anonymice from the likes of Romano have a hollow ring. He just didn’t like what Vigdor’s sources were saying.
Complaints were flying on social media and among Democrats such as Senate President Martin Looney that freedom of the press was at stake. “For a party that claims to honor the Constitution, it appears that Chairman Romano is quick to trash the First Amendment and deny freedom of the press.” That’s a peculiar accusation coming a leader of the General Assembly, which enjoys convenient exemptions from freedom-of-information laws and which bars reporters from covering its legislative caucuses in the Capitol.
To be clear, this whole sordid episode has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which merely “prohibits” the government from “infringing on the freedom of the press.” The Republican State Central Committee is essentially a private organization. As such, the committee and its chairman can invite or bar whomever they want from their dopey convention. But as a matter of imaging and pettiness, it is dumb beyond belief.
If Vigdor had been disruptive or hostile at previous events, that would be one thing. But to banish him from the convention because of his journalism — which, by the way, is first-rate yet clearly in the mainstream — does nothing but attract negative attention to the GOP.
Then again, maybe Romano doesn’t see it that way because he clearly saw a fundraising opportunity. The chairman sent out an email urging fellow Republicans to email Vigdor to tell him what they think about his journalism. “After you’ve emailed Neil, could you chip in $5, $10, or even $25 to help us keep up the fight against liberal bias?” Romano asked.
Kudos to House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, and other prominent Republicans for calling out Romano. Those words and those of others probably prompted Romano to relent and lift the Vigdor ban, which in a Facebook video Romano later insisted was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Chris Healy, one of Romano’s predecessors at GOP state central and himself a former journalist, would never have pulled such a stunt. Healy would have taken Viggy out to lunch, cracked some jokes, and filled his head with snarky anecdotes about Democrats.
It was encouraging to see that earlier this month both houses of the General Assembly passed a bill that increases transparency in the too-secretive University of Connecticut Foundation.
The bill would require the nonprofit fundraising arm of the state’s flagship public university to act like it really is a public institution. The foundation would have to submit an annual financial report to the General Assembly that would become a matter of public record. And the names of its donors would have to be disclosed, though they can opt to have their personal information shielded from public disclosure.
As I have written before, the UConn Foundation’s dire warning that donors will jump ship if they have to identify themselves is largely a scare tactic. My nine-year experience as a fundraiser says otherwise. Most donors are eager to be recognized. That’s why annual reports and naming opportunities were invented.
From Hillary Clinton’s $250,000 UConn speech to UConn President Susan Herbst’s fancy house in West Hartford to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s trips to China and Davos, the UConn Foundation has too often functioned as a slush fund for items the government itself would be ashamed to pay for.
That has got to end and this bill is a good start. We can only hope Malloy signs the bill when it hits his desk.
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