Tall, soft-spoken and broad-shouldered, Matthew Corey’s callused hands are a testament to the hard work he does and how proud he is to do it. He’s dressed down in a t-shirt and jeans, in a corner booth of McKinnon’s Irish Pub in downtown Hartford, just a few blocks from the state Capitol.
Corey owns the pub and a window washing company. He plans to mount a third challenge to U.S. Rep. John B. Larson. Corey challenged Larson twice before. Once in 2012 as an independent, where he got one percent of the vote, and a second time in 2014, when he ran as a Republican and took 37 percent of the electorate to Larson’s 61 percent.
“If you look, if you think your life is better under liberal policies in the state of Connecticut, then there’s nothing I can do for you. There’s nothing more I can offer,” Corey said.“If you think you’re better off in the middle class, you think you’re better off with taxes and what you’re paying for gas and energy and lights, then John Larson’s your guy. If you want something different, then it’s pretty easy to do. Hey, give the [new] guy two years.”
But he knows that it’s a tough sell. “I know people blasted Linda McMahon for spending so much money, but nobody knew who Linda McMahon was. But they did after she spent $55 million. I’m not expecting to raise that much but a couple hundred-thousand would be great to at least get my name out there.”
Like McMahon before him, and his own party’s presidential candidate, Corey has never held political office. He’s an entrepreneur, and hopes this will win over voters looking for an experienced job creator as a way to pare down the unemployment rate through less red tape and more corporate interest in Connecticut.
But unlike McMahon or Donald Trump, Corey’s not a billionaire. He started a high-rise window cleaning company in Manchester in 1989 after finishing his service in the Navy, and opened McKinnon’s in 2002. He still runs and operates both.
There’s two main reasons Larson keeps winning, in Corey’s view: name recognition and funds. “If you look at what he spent in 2014, he spent $1.6 million. We raised $32,000.”
For his part, Corey has raised $8,632 in his bid against Larson this year. Meanwhile, in July, Larson had raised $473,578 for his re-election effort.
Corey believes he understands the issues Hartford is facing better than Larson ever could, simply because he works in the city and experiences it daily. “Congressman Larson will come home and he’ll talk about ‘infrastructure isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, it’s an American issue.’ But that’s all he has to offer. His policies do not represent private sector construction.”
Corey, on the other hand, has worked directly in that field. “I worked on the last two cranes that were up in Hartford, and one was building the Goodwin Square in 1989, the next one was in 2006 building Hartford 21. So I understand that private sector construction has left the state of Connecticut along with a lot of major corporations. If you want to follow some of the highest unemployment, all you have to do is follow John Larson in the 1st District.”
Corey also had some harsh words for Larson’s new initiative to bring in jobs and reduce crime in Hartford’s north end, part of a federal project that recognized the area as a “promise zone,” granting access to special federal resources. “If you’re going to embrace conservative tax issues, why couldn’t it be good for the south end of Hartford? Why couldn’t it be good for the west end of Hartford? As a matter of fact, why can’t it be good for the entire country? I’ll tell you why. Because he wants the inner-city minority community in the north end to own the vote, and that’s the pathetic part about that. That’s the sad part about that.”
He speaks wistfully of lost manufacturing companies in Torrington and Hartford, but is confident that the state can bounce back and provide for working-class Americans. As he sees it, it’s just a matter of reducing taxes and regulations on companies looking to enter the state.
With a high property tax rate “how are they going to move to Hartford? There’s no incentive to come there,” Corey said. “The labor we can compete with around the world. Only because even if somebody else is charging cheaper labor, we can still maintain our labor prices here. But we can’t fight high energy costs here. We can’t fight regulations that are crushing businesses. And we can’t fight high corporate taxes.”
And to Corey, Larson’s perceived inaction on this is inexcusable. “I say as a congressional leader, with the federal money going into these huge government contracts that the defense industry get, that the insurance industries, as a leader, you must be able to approach these CEOs and say ‘look, we want to set up minority-owned shops.’ Not even minority-owned shops. How about small manufacturing companies in the inner cities to train kids? To get kids off the street? To bring them in?”
Larson on Corey
Asked about his Republican challenger’s barbs, Larson says to simply look at what Corey’s own party is doing to the very same workers he claims to be fighting for. “I represent all of the people, and labor is an important part of that,” Larson says. “The AFL-CIO is an important lobby and Republicans have directly opposed infrastructure and jobs.”
The AFL-CIO gave Larson their endorsement for 2016, a choice which irked Corey. “It’s easier for them because they don’t have to explain to their membership why they voted for a Republican. Not only why they voted for a Republican, why didn’t they vote for a Republican that’s actually a member of the AFL-CIO?” Corey said.
Though Corey is a member of the Teamsters union, he claims AFL-CIO membership through the Screen Actors Guild of New York. SAG-AFTRA said Monday that it’s prohibited from disclosing its union membership.
Corey says he actually prefers the stage to the screen, and though his businesses take up most of his time, he still pays union dues and occasionally auditions in New York. “I miss it,” he said.
Corey once planned on selling his window washing business years ago to move to the Big Apple permanently and try his luck as an actor.
“But if I do that, I figured, I’ll end up being a bartender, but maybe I can open up a bar in Hartford.” Corey laughed. All these years later, he’s still both a window washer and a Hartford bartender.
As far as the north Hartford Promise Zone goes, Larson says that Corey’s criticism comes from a simple misunderstanding of what the initiative means. President Barack Obama came up with the Promise Zone initiative to identify and support areas of the country afflicted with interrelated social issues, so the policy prescription in the north end is tailored to that individual community. “Spend time in that area, and you’ll understand,” he said.
In general, Larson sees Corey as a good man, an “honest and hard worker,” but one who is misguided and “sometimes misinformed on the issues.” Asked about Corey’s distaste for Congressional gridlock, Larson simply asked, “Is Matt running against the Republicans?”
While he said Corey’s campaign mostly consisted of “talking points,” he did express admiration for his opponent for simply trying to run a conservative ticket in the 1st District. “The first is an uphill battle . . . I mean this, anyone willing to get in this arena deserves a lot of credit,” Larson said.
But Corey disagrees: he thinks that the core fiscal conservatism his platform represents will be popular among young people in the city looking for work. It’s just a matter of getting the message out and getting people to look past classical partisanship.
On the Issues
Corey sits up straight and blinks as talk shifts to policy. Loud trucks blast exhaust into the bar. A few regulars shuffle inside.
Corey is a committed fiscal conservative, frustrated with the federal budget deficit and ready to make hard cuts for the sake of the country’s pocketbook. He claims he’d advocate for fading out the Department of Education.
He’d like to see veterans hospitals managed by “a great CEO that used to run a United Healthcare or Aetna,” and while he’d never allow a federal government shutdown over “a social issue,” he would support a shutdown “for the right measures, for the right reasons. If it’s about balancing a budget, yes. If it’s about something petty, over a petty issue, I would not do that. I would hate to see that over some ideology.”
Like many in his party, Corey is also concerned about illegal immigration. He wants the government to ensure documented workers don’t overstay their work visas — “I gather those are the people that are the worst offenders,” he says — because they drive down wages and pull resources away from American citizens who need them.
As for undocumented workers already in the country, Corey thinks that “we’re not in the business of breaking up families” but opposes sanctuary cities, and particularly believes workers who have broken laws need to be deported. “Like I said, they’re draining the system of tax dollars for resources that can go to the inner-city kids that are struggling themselves,” Corey said.
Finally, the conversation shifts to guns. The interview took place two days after a young man killed 49 party-goers in an Orlando LGBT nightclub.
In the back of the pub, Corey takes a conciliatory tone, saying that he understands why Connecticut voters probably won’t see eye-to-eye with him on the appropriate response to gun violence in America.
“Of course it’s a huge issue, and it’s a huge issue for Connecticut because we had a couple tragedies,” Corey said. “We had a tragedy in Manchester, I lost friends over there. I understand this. But taking guns away from law abiding citizens is not the answer.”
Instead, he encourages gun education and increased opportunity of access. To him, efforts to ban certain types of firearms seem less driven by safety than by ethical concerns. “You can’t legislate morality. It’s just impossible. If it wasn’t a gun it would have been something else,” Corey said.
Corey was endorsed recently by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a popular Second Amendment group in Connecticut.
Larson on the other hand led a 25-hour sit-in with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in an effort to get Republican leadership in the House to vote on gun control measures. He said the House’s inability to vote on the issue is an example of the kind of obstructionism Corey claims to hate.
Corey thinks that banning gun access for people on the federal No Fly List is the wrong approach, because the list is poorly maintained, including containing several congresspeople. He does support background checks for the purposes of seeing whether convicted felons are purchasing guns, and having the Center for Disease Control investigate gun violence as a health epidemic.
“Any federal help to investigate why people murder people would be great,” Corey said.
This is the first of five profiles of Connecticut’s congressional contests this year.