What’s the matter with Connecticut? On Tuesday we’ll hold a bunch of primaries featuring the biggest bunch of candidates ever for state-wide office, all running at a time of perceived peril to our state and nation. You’d think we’d have a bunch of real debates; or a few; or one anyway. Not so. How come?
There are two elections really, state and federal, and two debates; one over the condition of Connecticut’s economy and government; the other over the slow moving, closely related deaths of America’s democracy and its middle class.
Such different elections being held the same day makes the always risky enterprise of handicapping races doubly hazardous. If more voters come to register national concern, Democrats breathe easier. If more arrive intent on cleaning up the state’s mess, the tide turns Republican. Either way, voters’ mood will be dark. Two men whose names aren’t on any ballot are responsible. Want to know how a person will vote in November? Ask whom they hate more, Dannel Malloy or Donald Trump.
No fewer than two Democrats and five Republicans are running for governor. Democrats fight over the number of bathrooms in a mansion and whether Ned Lamont, should he lose, is honor bound to back his challenger, vaguely repentant, multiple felon, Joe Ganim. Republicans debate such vital questions as “which is sleazier, pay day loans or hedge funds?” and “must society grant a second chance to a man convicted of not voting for Donald Trump?”
Even when pretending to address issues the candidates mostly don’t. Courant columnist Kevin Rennie recently called Republican David Stemerman the smartest politician he ever met. It’s a common trap, thinking a person who agrees with us on everything must be really smart.
The next state budget will weigh in at $21 billion; $2 billion in the red. Stemerman vows to “slash” taxes another three billion. He also promises a mass transit system with everything but a monorail to Mars, but opposes even a single electronic highway toll to pay for it. He says he’ll sell off some assets and knows about some low interest federal loans. Brilliant.
Voters who don’t read detailed policy papers still yearn for intelligible choices. That means candidates admitting what programs they’d cut and what taxes they’d raise. Too much to ask? Apparently.
Politicians have always camouflaged hard choices but it’s worse now. Both parties are so in hock to big money neither can afford to be for real change. The money all goes to propaganda: autobiographical tone poems, lethal attack ads. Since neither side can embrace reforms the broad middle class craves, both talk mostly to their base, ministering to cultural grievances, vowing one another’s destruction.
In Connecticut, intraparty debate is especially muted. Red state Republicans swear fealty to the cult of Trump. In these parts he’s in low repute, but state Republicans still crook the knee. Democrats nationwide are having a rip-roaring debate over core values and first premises. Here, not so much.
It’s partly our aged, inbred party machines. In the three-way Democratic primary for Attorney General, Chris Mattei, a clear progressive, faces State Senator Paul Doyle and State Rep. William Tong, two rare Democrats so corporate friendly they’ve been endorsed by the powerful business lobby CBIA.
Math favors the progressive. But Mattei, a former prosecutor, brought a corruption case against staff of former House Speaker Chris Donovan that produced seven guilty pleas. It was one of the two biggest corruption cases of the last decade. The other involved John Rowland. Mattei brought and won both.
Donovan, liked by all, loved by labor, was never charged but the case ended his career. The capitol crowd wants pay-back, not from the felons who sold out our democracy but from the prosecutor who brought them to justice. The result: Labor and its close ally, the reputedly populist Working Families Party, are all in for Tong, fresh off his 2016 CBIA endorsement. Shame.
Such urgent issues and hardly a line drawn on policy. In the 5th CD Democratic primary, Jahana Hayes, an African American woman, runs as a change agent against party stalwart Mary Glassman, yet it’s Hayes who’s tapped the big money and on issues they’re almost twins. The Dems’ Lieutenant Governor race pits vivid progressive Eva Bermudez Zimmerman against permanent party fixture Susan Bysiewicz, but even that race hinges more on personality than ideology.
The candidates talk as if our state economy were in a coma. It’s ailing, not dying. The nation’s June jobless rate was 4 percent. Ours was 4.4 percent. Of 50 states, we rank first to third on wealth, income, and educational attainment. Meanwhile our state government is a public policy disaster area. That our economy’s this strong saddled with a government this weak testifies to its strength and our resilience.
Our woes arise from our choices; to neglect our cities and ignore our debts; to let property taxes choke small business; to let money be the ruin of democracy. Our two debates both come down to corruption, the problem that keeps all the other problems from getting solved. Tuesday’s winners can begin an honest debate, or let Malloy’s and Trump’s shadows to determine their fates and ours.
Bill Curry is the former state comptroller and a two-time gubernatorial nominee.
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