Former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (FILE / CTNewsJunkie)
TERRY COWGILL

Whenever they can get away with it, politicians love to proclaim their independence. This is especially true in New England, where the number of unaffiliated voters far exceeds those of either of the major parties.

Some truly are independent. Former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, who served on the Senate Watergate Committee and was one of Richard Nixon’s fiercest critics, was a “maverick” long before John McCain had been elected to anything. Weicker later ran successfully for governor on a third-party ticket and promptly asserted his independence by pushing a state income tax through the General Assembly, angering many of his erstwhile Republican colleagues.

In the realm of politics, actions speak far louder than mere words. Former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who is seriously considering a run for governor, wants us to take her word for it that she’s an independent-minded politician — not about forming general policy positions, mind you. Rather, she insists she won’t be unduly influenced by family members in the decisions she would make as governor.

Virtually every Connecticut elected official has relatives in the state. All must be careful to avoid conflicts that would compromise their ability to make fair and unbiased decisions about policy. As required by law, members of the General Assembly routinely recuse themselves from voting on legislation because of conflicts of interests. 

Three years ago, for example, the independent-minded Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, recused herself from voting on the confirmation of Andrew McDonald for chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court because she had previously sought to disqualify McDonald from hearing a case involving her husband. Lawmakers who work for Eversource routinely recuse themselves from voting on matters affecting the company.

If Klarides were to become governor, her conflict would be much greater. Her husband, Greg Butler, whom she married last year, is general counsel of the aforementioned Eversource, the much-hated electric utility that dominates the state and badly botched its response to the massive power failure that occurred last August as a result of Tropical Storm Isaias. 

Butler, who himself had considered running for governor three years ago, sold nearly $500,000 in Eversource stock, according to public records, “the day before Isaias pounded Connecticut, leaving thousands of Eversource customers without power for day after sweltering day,” former state lawmaker Kevin Rennie reported on his blog, Daily Ructions.

As one of 187 members of the General Assembly, Klarides could easily disqualify herself from voting on or crafting any individual piece of legislation that might affect Eversource. But how exactly would she deal with that as governor?

In an appearance last week on WTNH’s “This Week In Connecticut,” host Dennis House asked both Klarides and Butler precisely that question. Their answers were — shall we say — less than satisfying.

“Well, Dennis, you’ve been married for awhile,” Butler replied. “You’ve covered Themis for 20 years. You know that Themis is a very fiercely independent legislator and fairly fiercely independent person. She fights zealously for the people that she believes in and cares about.”

“I have spent 22 years [in the General Assembly] … and I have made a lot of votes and I have been very independent,” added Klarides. “I have made votes that are popular and that are unpopular. I’m an independent person and I will continue to make decisions legislatively or as governor, if I choose to do that, that are in the best interests of the state of Connecticut.”

It’s one thing to do battle with a president of your own party, as Weicker did — or to recuse yourself from voting for a judicial nominee, as Slossberg did. But it’s quite another thing for Connecticut’s chief executive to have nothing to do with the state’s largest energy utility.

Eversource provides electrical service to more than 1.2 million customers in 149 Connecticut cities and towns, and many more in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The company also serves approximately 229,000 natural gas customers in 74 Connecticut cities and towns. In 2017, Eversource acquired the Connecticut-based Aquarion, the largest investor-owned water utility in New England serving 52 municipalities in the state.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), whose commissioner is appointed by the governor, is responsible for regulating Eversource, along with the much smaller United Illuminating and Norwich Public Utilities, and making sure they play by the rules on rates, service, billing and emergency performance.

If Klarides were to recuse herself from involvement in everything Eversource, she would be in the awkward position of being unable to propose legislation affecting the company, limiting her ability to lead on an key issue affecting virtually every resident of the state.

As general counsel and executive vice president, Butler makes a reported $2.5 million a year and as of last month still owned more than 5,375 units of Eversource stock worth nearly $6 million. Of course, the problem could be solved if Butler retired or simply quit his job and divested. But I’ve known people who had similar compensation. They all tell me that it’s awfully hard to walk away from that kind of cash.

It should go without saying that no matter how much integrity one has, on matters of conflict of interest, perception matters. A sizable percentage of the public will always wonder if a Gov. Klarides is acting in her own best interests or theirs. 

If Klarides does run and Butler decides to stay in his current position, Bob Stefanowski, Tim Herbst and Heather Somers will hit her over the head with it. The issue will surely dog her campaign because, “Trust me. I’m independent-minded” won’t go terribly far in the rough-and-tumble world of Connecticut politics.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.