Connecticut election concept
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TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Every now and then during otherwise dreary political campaigns, something happens that moves the needle. Republicans are hoping that a September surprise will be just what it takes to dethrone Democratic Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont in November, and perhaps give a boost to the longshot candidacy of Republican nominee Leora Levy as she seeks to unseat incumbent Sen. Dick Blumenthal.

Project Veritas, a discredited right-wing organization and a known purveyor of false information and doctored videos, sent out one of its “journalists” recently to interview an administrator at a Greenwich elementary school. It appears that the “sting,” as Project Veritas likes to call its operations, was launched in order to get a school administrator to admit that he and others practiced discriminatory hiring practices and that the school tries to indoctrinate its students into adopting progressive values. 

The PV video appears to show just that, as assistant principal Jeremy Boland brags over lunch about avoiding hiring Catholics and older applicants because they tend to be “conservative.” Boland also suggests to the unidentified PV operative, who was secretly taking video footage of their conversation at a restaurant table, that certain Greenwich teachers are “savvy about delivering a Democratic message.”

The reaction seems to have broken down along two lines of attack from opposing sides: 1) PV is dishonest, always doctors videos and probably entrapped Boland into saying what he did or; 2) The video proves what conservatives have always suspected about public schools – they’re self-perpetuating cradles of liberalism that indoctrinate unsuspecting children with progressive dogma against the wishes of their parents.

Isn’t it possible to hold variations of both views at the same time? If Boland said what he did in the context presented in the video and his Greenwich school actually uses discriminatory hiring practices, then he should never be employed in a school district again and the whole sordid affair merits a thorough investigation – both the civil probe promised by Attorney General William Tong, the internal probe first proposed by Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo after the PV video went viral, and perhaps even a federal investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces civil rights laws against hiring and workplace discrimination.

But it’s also proper to question the methods used by PV, which has been caught editing videos selectively to prove various right-wing conspiracy theories. It is funded by the Donors Trust, whose backers include the Koch brothers and the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which itself was dissolved in disgrace after law enforcement authorities uncovered various ethical and legal violations, including self-dealing.

One PV operative, Allison Maass, was filmed attempting to bribe members of Americans Take Action into inciting a riot at Trump’s inauguration. Another man who was the subject of a PV voter-fraud story says he, too, was offered a bribe by the organization in 2020. To say that such offenses against journalism are repellent would be an understatement.

This week, Tong received a response from PV to his earlier request that the organization preserve records related to the AG’s investigation because there are possible subpoenas in the offing. PV’s legal team shot back, citing Connecticut General Statutes, which include a so-called “shield law” protecting journalists “from compelled disclosure of information obtained by news media.” The matter could end up in court.

I’ve not yet heard anyone ask this question, so I will do it here. While PV appears to have the law on its side in resisting Tong’s request to turn over materials it gathered for its Greenwich sting, it has thus far refused to disclose the identity of the journalist who surreptitiously asked questions of Boland and recorded the exchange. The partial transcript posted online by PV merely calls her a “Veritas Journalist.”

So far, PV founder James O’Keefe has cited the journalistic privilege against being compelled to disclose “sources and methods.” But is withholding the identity of a journalist also protected by the state’s shield law? That’s precisely what’s so objectionable about this kind of journalism. One of the ways of evaluating journalism is to examine the track record of the journalist. We can’t do that here because O’Keefe evidently thinks her identity is privileged.

But I digress. The PV video imbroglio has provided Connecticut Republicans the fuel with which to engage in the so-called “culture wars.” In his rematch campaign against Lamont, GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Stefanowski has shifted his strategy somewhat, moving from the economy, inflation, taxes and “corruption” to education. Ditto Levy, who has added critical race theory to her list of grievances, though it appears she has not emphasized it lately.

Stefanowski has been running ads and pushing out social media memes proclaiming that, “It’s time to restore parental rights. To put parents first.” He has also expressed concern about the teaching of LGBTQ concepts to younger students and about biological males competing in school sports as trangender athletes with girls. 

His point seems to be that boards of education and/or the CIAC should not be trusted to make these decisions and that the long arm of the state government should intrude in such matters. Principled conservatives should cringe at that approach.

The strategy of the two GOP candidates, of course, is to influence unaffiliated and undecided voters who can be swayed by their latest approach. Peddling the concept of “educational freedom” worked for Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and Ron DeSantis in Florida. I’m skeptical as to whether it will work here, mostly because those two states have a much higher concentration of social conservatives in their electorates than Connecticut does. Nearly 60% of adults in Virginia and more than one-third in Florida identify as Evangelical Protestants, compared to 16% in Connecticut, according to the Pew Research Center.

Indeed, a WTNH/Emerson poll released yesterday lends further evidence that Stefanowski’s new campaign strategy is not working. Of the 1,000 likely voters surveyed statewide, Lamont led Stefanowski by more than 10 points, with slightly more than 9% undecided. Another WTNH poll back in May had Lamont leading by 12.5 points. Culture warriors rarely succeed in blue states like Connecticut. That’s probably why President Joe Biden garnered nearly 60% of the vote here in 2020.

Stefanowski would have done well to focus more on criminal justice. If there’s one thing liberals and conservatives can agree on, it’s that they don’t like crime – and they really hate being victims of it. How else could a Republican like Rudy Giuliani get elected mayor of a deep-blue city like New York? Or Stefanowski perhaps could have run as a technocratic manager who would check the worst impulses of a Democratic legislature, as Charlie Baker did successfully in Massachusetts.
Instead, we got the undisciplined kitchen-sink approach, coupled with high turnover of top campaign staff. That could be why voters will likely reject his candidacy. They saw a sample of what a Stefanowski administration would look like: flailing and unfocused.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

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

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