Laura Devlin and Bob Stefanowski Credit: Paul Bass photo

Bob Stefanowski saw a recession and job losses on the menu at Bruegger’s Bagels Tuesday and charged them to Ned Lamont’s account.

Stefanowski, the Republican candidate for governor, and lieutenant governor candidate Laura Devlin served the press that argument at a media availability event held at the Whitney Avenue restaurant.

They seized on the latest figures showing that Connecticut’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined for a second straight quarter, the defining marker of a recession. They spoke about the state’s failure to recover all the jobs lost during the pandemic and a Connecticut Business & Industry Association poll in which 89 percent of respondents said the cost of business is increasing. Stefanowski pointed to an M&T Bank branch across the street to remind people that the financial institution just announced 747 layoffs.

“People are struggling,” Stefanowski declared. ​“The economy is in a free fall.”

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, meanwhile, has argued that his administration has helped get the state’s ​“mojo working.” A bipartisan crowd of political and business leaders at a recent Yale School of Management conference credited him with shoring up the state’s finances in hard times (with surpluses and improved credit ratings) and luring new employers. The administration also notes that first-quarter GDP numbers have been revised to show a net gain, which would remove the state from technical ​“recession” status. (Hearst’s Dan Haar made that argument Tuesday in more depth in this article.)

Whichever way you slice the numbers, Tuesday’s press conference reflected a national trend: Republican candidates are seizing on the fact that people are indeed concerned about rising inflation and the economy in general. They’re trying to focus campaign conversations on the economy and crime while their Democratic opponents seek to emphasize abortion and Donald Trump/democracy/Jan. 6‑related matters.

The real argument here in the governor’s race is coming down to whether to blame or credit Lamont for how the state has navigated those economic headwinds.

Stefanowski Tuesday repeated his call for the state to tap into a $6 billion surplus and $3 billion rainy day fund to offer tax breaks as part of a broader plan that includes fighting utility rate hikes. (Read the plan here.) He said the state can afford to use $2 billion of the surplus toward that end and provide an average of $2,000 in tax relief per family.

“Literally and figuratively it’s a rainy day in Connecticut,” Stefanowski said, looking at the grey sky outside the window.

Lamont’s camp — and Democrats statewide — argued that they have already passed a record $660 million in tax cuts and that the state needs to protect the rainy day fund and pay down pension debt to prepare for a true recession in the offing.

Stefanowski was asked if it’s fair to pin on Gov. Lamont inflation fueled by a pandemic, international supply-chain snags, and the war in Ukraine.

He responded by noting that Lamont was an early endorser of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and has continued to back the president’s policies, which Stefanowski blamed for fueling inflation. He also argued that in failing to tap the surplus more, Lamont has failed to take needed steps to help state families cope with rising costs.

Gov. Ned Lamont at the state Capitol Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Asked on Tuesday for his response to Stefanowski’s recession-focused critique, Lamont replied: ​“Look we’ve got a ways to go. There are some recessions, but we’re better than the average bear. We’re better than most other states right now.”

He urged patience.

“Stop knocking Connecticut,” he said. ​“We’re making progress every day, but you’ve got to be cautious of what could be a recession. That’s why I’m not, you know, handing out the rainy day fund.”

He said the state has to be prepared for what could be a recession.

Dani Heller and Dominick Zero: “Democrats all the way.” Credit: Paul Bass photo

A ridiculously unscientific sampling of two voters named Dominick buying their Bruegger’s bagels after the press conference suggested that perceptions of the inflation/economy issue — and the governor’s race in general — may hinge on national political tribal loyalties.

“Times are tough,” acknowledged Dominick Zero, a Yale administrator. But further tax cuts would deprive the government of needed money to pay for ​“infrastructure” and free bus service, among other priorities, he said.

He and his wife Dani Heller, also a Yale administrator, said they plan to vote ​“Democrats all the way” in November. Their vote comes down to ​“the bigger picture” of the Republican Party’s positions on abortion rights, universal health care, and voting rights, they said. 

Tammaro: Inflation outpaces pay raises. Credit: Paul Bass photo

Veteran Republican voter Dominick Tammaro, meanwhile, said he plans to vote for Stefanowski based on concerns about the economy and crime.

“My pay hasn’t gone up in years,” said Tammaro, who works for the city. ​“All my bills are going up. We need more conservative fiscal management.”

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.