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McKinney strives to energize campaign as Fairfield HQ opens

Published 12:13 pm, Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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  • Republican gubernatorial candidate John McKinney talks with Shelton resident Frank Perillo Tuesday, July 22, 2014, at the Plaza Diner in Shelton, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll / Connecticut Post
    Republican gubernatorial candidate John McKinney talks with Shelton resident Frank Perillo Tuesday, July 22, 2014, at the Plaza Diner in Shelton, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll

 

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Chris Christie won't be making any cameos.

Not at this diner, where one of the regulars is lost in a bowl of chocolate ice cream and this week's issue of "The Weekly Standard."

And not for John McKinney, the Fairfield Republican running for governor without the party endorsement or the out-of-state fundraising fireworks.

Instead, on a quiet Tuesday morning, retiree Frank Perillo motioned for McKinney, the state Senate minority leader, to approach the lunch counter at the Plaza Diner in Shelton.

He was eager to size up McKinney, who treated Tuesday's special election in the 122nd House District as an opportunity to connect with and, if not, remind Republicans of his mere presence in the race and his vision for a Connecticut of spending cuts and renegotiated labor contracts.

It was a welcome entree for a candidate virtually written off by the national party and standard-bearers such as Christie, who stumped the previous day in Greenwich for the GOP's endorsed frontrunner for governor, Tom Foley.

"Is there a primary?" Perillo asked Tuesday, telling McKinney "I was a Republican once."

With three weeks until GOP primary voters choose their nominee, McKinney was scrambling.

The day began with the debut of a biting television ad aimed at Foley and ended with McKinney celebrating the somewhat belated opening of his Fairfield campaign headquarters, which occupies the building used by his late father, Stewart B. McKinney, in his final congressional run.

"It is surprising to see the state party sort of take a partisan position in a primary," McKinney said. "I've never seen it before."

State GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. maintained that he is a neutral broker in the primary tussle.

"I have not made any personal endorsements to date," Labriola said. "However, our party gave a strong endorsement to Tom Foley at our state convention in May. We are taking reasonable steps to put our party in a position for victory in the fall by building out our ground game infrastructure, which will benefit either candidate should they become the nominee."

McKinney shrugged off being omitted from the invite list for Monday's state GOP fundraiser with Christie and Foley, the party's 2010 nominee for governor.

"I've been working for the party, as I said earlier, for my entire life," McKinney said. "I've not been asked to go solicit Chris Christie or bring other Republican figures to Connecticut."

Joining McKinney on the trail Tuesday was his running mate, David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

"He's playing prevent defense when it's about halftime," Walker, a Bridgeport resident, said of Foley.

Foley, a private equity manager from Greenwich, has limited the number of debates he will participate in before the Aug. 12 primary.

The strategy puts McKinney, who was first elected from the Fairfield legislative district in 1998 and is steeped in government policy, at a disadvantage.

McKinney and Walker visited several polling places in the 122nd District, where voters were charged with electing a successor to fill out the term of Republican Larry Miller, who died May 31. The district includes parts of Stratford, Shelton and Trumbull.

"Special elections, they're always good to go out and meet people, especially when you're running in a primary," McKinney said.

In campaign ads, McKinney and Foley have painted each other as clones of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

In McKinney's latest entry in the television blitz, he warned that Foley's plans to hold spending flat and not reopen contracts with state employee unions would hamstring the state.

"I don't think Republicans are going to be able to beat Dan Malloy by being vague and defensive," said McKinney, top Republican in the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

After ordering a gyro, McKinney approached diner owner Damon Anastasion to introduce himself.

"Our margins are getting smaller and smaller," Anastasion told McKinney, complaining of rising fuel costs. "When fuel goes up, your business goes down."

A registered Republican who lives in Derby and owns a home in Shelton, Anastasion came away with a favorable impression of McKinney.

"I think he has a really good shot," he said.

Larry Cozzolino, who is not affiliated with a political party and would have to enroll as a Republican to vote for McKinney, said McKinney's conversational demeanor was refreshing.

"I was waiting for the campaign pitch," said Cozzolino, a Clinton resident.

Perillo, the uncle of GOP state Rep. Jason Perillo, of Shelton, said he was open to supporting McKinney, but would have to check his registration.

"You can switch all the way up until Aug. 11," McKinney said.