Chris Mattei, the former federal prosecutor who sent former Gov. John G. Rowland to prison for receiving secret campaign payments, spoke to the Windsor Democratic Town Committee Thursday about his recent editorial on the public perception of political corruption.
Instead, what he ended up doing was continuing a conversation that’s been happening in Democratic circles everywhere since the election of President Donald Trump.
Mattei, a former Windsor resident who is now in private practice with Koskoff, Koskoff, and Bieder in Bridgeport, spoke with friends Thursday night about how Trump’s election has challenged the Democratic Party and caused them to focus on what’s really important.
“We all have an obligation to resist this man’s worst impulses because the very essence of what makes us who we are as Americans is at risk,” Mattei said. “If the Democratic Party is going to rebuild in order to resist Trump and what he represents, that work starts right here at home.”
Mattei (pronounced Matt-E) said he believes Connecticut has reached a point where “the way we’ve done politics in our state just isn’t working for everyday people who work and live here and want to have a future here.”
The harsh reality is that “state government feels closed off and unable to address the political and economic isolation that so many people are struggling with,” Mattei said.
He pointed out that only 41 percent of registered Democrats voted in the Democratic presidential primary last April. That means 430,000 Democrats didn’t even show up.
“We need to give them something to vote for,” Mattei said, adding that they need to give people whose voices have been drowned out a reason to come back into the process.
Darleen Klase, chairwoman of the Windsor Democratic Town Committee, said Democrats have to decide whether they’re going to do something.
“This has been a really difficult time for Democrats,” Klase said. “But I think we can really rally around a message that says we are a party that is inclusive.”
She said whether it’s deciding to make Windsor a sanctuary community or fighting against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or even passing the local budget on the first referendum, “one individual, one person can make that difference.”
Eileen Redden, of South Windsor, said she believes that person is Mattei.
“One of the reasons I came tonight was to meet Chris and encourage him to run for governor in 2018,” Redden said.
She said she feels like the Democratic Party is very vulnerable, and she worries that independent voters, who outnumber Democrats and Republicans, are going to turn away from the Democrats.
That arguably happened at the state level when Republicans picked up eight seats in the House and three seats in the Senate, which is now evenly divided between the two parties.
“I think we have to generate our energy now and not wait until campaign season,” Redden said.
That may be more difficult than it sounds, since Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not said whether he plans to seek a third term. Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, a Democrat, has announced he plans to run for governor in 2018, but that puts him in the awkward spot of trying to raise money to possibly challenge a sitting a governor.
Sources say it will be awkward for any Democrats to step forward until Malloy makes a decision. And Malloy has the luxury of waiting until at least the fall to make a decision, which makes fundraising harder for Democrats who want to position themselves to campaign in 2018.
Rep. David Baram, D-Bloomfield, told Redden that he agrees with what Mattei said Thursday and that Democrats have to get back to their core values.
“I think that the next two years are an opportunity for us. I do believe we will have new candidates running for governor, and some of the constitutional offices will open up as well,” Baram said.
Al Simon, a Windsor Town Councilor, said Connecticut needs a fresh voice.
“The Democratic Party has to own up for its part in losing votes because the electoral process is controlled by insiders with wealth or connections,” Simon said. “I would love to see a candidate forcefully confront that.”
He said he thinks Mattei would be able to confront what’s wrong with the Democratic establishment.
Mattei, who grew up in Windsor and recently moved to Hartford, has not filed any paperwork to become a candidate, but has not ruled out running for office.
“I strongly believe that anyone who feels called to serve should start by listening to people about their hopes for themselves, their families and their communities. So, for me, tonight was more about listening than talking,” Mattei said. “And, what I heard was deep unease about where Donald Trump wants to take our country, but also a commitment to resist his assault on our most basic values. I heard people talk about the need to move beyond the staleness of our state’s politics and to offer a new voice to people who have checked out of politics and who just want to be heard. I really enjoyed the opportunity to listen tonight.”
Mattei, the former federal prosecutor who headed the public corruption and financial fraud unit and who started his career before law school as a union organizer, is one of a handful of possible gubernatorial candidates on the Democratic side.
Drew is the only Democrat to formally announce his interest in the seat, but State Comptroller Kevin Lembo and Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris have also been mentioned as possible 2018 gubernatorial candidates.