HARTFORD, CT — In their third meeting over the last four days, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont struggled to respond to criticism from Joe Ganim’s campaign regarding his wealth and a previous membership at a country club that excluded minorities.
“I resigned,” Lamont said answering a question from a woman wearing a Ganim T-shirt.
A great-grandson of J. P. Morgan’s chief executive, Lamont was a member of the Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich for 16 years until he resigned his membership is 2006 when he was running for U.S. Senate against Joe Lieberman.
“I resigned,” Lamont reiterated when the woman asked if he wanted to know what he told the New York Times back in 2006. “And I’m here to fight for each and everyone of you every day. I’ve got to convince you that I’m going to be a governor for all of our people.”
He told the crowd that they’re going to want a governor who is going to have their back.
“I don’t like where you play golf or where you played golf,” Ganim said in answering the same question. “There seems to be an insensitivity — it’s part of what people need to evaluate when they look at who they want to be the next governor.”
Ganim, who was convicted of taking more than a half-million dollars in bribes and kickbacks while leading one of the poorest cities in the country, said, “I’ve got my flaws. I put them out there. We talk about them.”
Ganim spent seven years in prison and won re-election in 2015. He said he’s apologized for his error in judgment, but said Lamont has not apologized for belonging to an exclusive country club.
Ganim, who had to petition his way onto the Democratic primary ballot, said he met a lot of people in collecting those signatures who weren’t born on third base.
This campaign is “about a fundamental struggle for families trying to make ends meet,” Ganim said. “Looking for good quality education regardless of where they live. I’m gonna be that governor.”
The crowd at the Hartford Public Library on Wednesday seemed to be looking for a reason to support Ganim. One man shouted at Ganim on the way into the forum and told him he was impressed with his performance and was looking for just a little more persuasion.
It’s unclear if he got it Wednesday.
Asked by a woman wearing a Ganim sticker about how Latinos can trust Lamont because he only resigned his country club membership when he was running for office, Lamont said it’s not about where somebody is from.
“You can try and make it all about where somebody’s from, but it’s where they stand,” Lamont said. “It’s what’s in their heart.”
He said he stood up 12 years ago against the Iraq War at a time when he didn’t see a lot of other people standing up.
“I stood up because I thought it was the right thing to do,” Lamont said to applause.
Trying to capture the momentum he had in 2006 when he beat former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary, Lamont said as Connecticut’s governor he would stand up every day for what he thinks is right.
“I’m going to turn this state around and let you know that it’s a state of opportunity,” Lamont said.
He said Connecticut is a state that respects people not for where they’re from but for the content of their character.
“That’s what I want to be judged by,” Lamont said.
Ganim said this is not the same campaign as it was 12 years ago.
“This election is about a struggle and a battle that’s been going on in Connecticut, at least in our urban centers, for decades and for decades,” Ganim said. “It’s not about something we fought, argued, or ran for 12 years ago.”
Lamont had to leave the forum early in order to speak with the Bloomfield Democratic Town Committee.
But before he left he made a few promises he might not be able to keep.
“I would fully fund PILOT and I would fully fund ECS,” Lamont told the crowd.
PILOT, or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, is the amount of money the state gives to municipalities as compensation for the state property, colleges, or hospitals that a municipality is unable to tax. ECS is the education cost sharing grant the state provides to cities and towns to help pay for education. Both the ECS formula and PILOT have been underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars.
That means Lamont would be adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the estimated $4.6 billion, two-year budget deficit the next governor will inherit.
“You’re going to want a governor who is a champion for all of our cities and all of our people. We’re a small state,” Lamont said.
Asked about how he planned to pay for the increase in spending in order to fully fund those two programs, Lamont said he would “streamline the delivery of services” and “think about how they can extend the sales tax to the online Internet economy.”
Capturing sales taxes from Internet companies that don’t have a presence in Connecticut could add about $200 million in revenue, according to the state’s previous estimates. It’s unclear how much “streamlining the delivery of services” would save the state, or how Lamont plans to go to a “fee for service” model of healthcare.
Lamont said he would be proposing those changes over time, not immediately, and dismissed the notion that he wouldn’t be able to find the savings to account for the proposal.
“I’m not proposing eliminating the income tax, which would be a $9 billion problem,” Lamont said, referring to the stated plans of at least two Republican candidates.
He said Ganim wants to talk about him, rather than his vision for Connecticut.
“I can sit there and respond to every little attack he’s got, or I can keep my eye on the ball of how we get this state moving again,” Lamont said.
Lamont has largely tried to ignore Ganim, but Ganim is making it increasingly difficult for him to do that.
However, Lamont may be coming to that realization with his latest hire — SKDKnickerbocker, the public relations firm that now employs Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s former spokesman, Devon Puglia.
Puglia attended Wednesday’s debate.
SKDK says “there is no company that better understands the intersection of press, politics, and policy.”
Eva Bermudez Zimmerman and Susan Bysiewicz, who are running for lieutenant governor, also answered questions Wednesday.