Dan Haar: Despite loss, Stefanowski defined the race
Democrat Ned Lamont may be the apparent winner, but it was Bob Stefanowski who defined the 2018 election with his one-note, two-word serenade: “Lower taxes.”
We’ll never know how and whether the Madison business executive could have cut taxes at all, though it’s been clear all along his vow to eliminate the state’s personal income tax was political folly.
But make no mistake, Gov. Ned Lamont will have to reckon with the anti-government forces Stefanowski unleashed in Connecticut. That’s now etched into the political landscape in a way that will shape the next governor’s term, just as tight spending and tense negotiations framed the last four years under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
It’s not that everyone agreed with Stefanowski, as we see from the result — a likely Lamont win by more than 30,000 votes. Rather, it’s that Stefanowski was able to shape the race around those two words — and thus himself — in an election marked by the sort of anger and frustration that powered President Donald Trump in 2016.
Take Eli Soto, a truck driver from Waterbury. He’s unhappy about a lot of what he sees, including taxes. “The little guy is always going to suffer,” Soto said Tuesday night at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, hours after he voted.
But Soto, a youthful 45 who grew up in Puerto Rico and has a daughter in college, also worries about cuts affecting health coverage and crime in the cities. Of Stefanowski, he said, “He said he had ideas for a tax cut and then it came up that he wouldn’t do anything for two years. He didn’t seem to have a plan.”
He voted for Lamont, but now thinks the Democrat will feel pressure to cut taxes if he wins.
A couple of miles away, Dennis Cronin, a poll watcher and self-described Democrat who’s willing to vote Republican, described going into the balloting without knowing who he’d vote for. But the subject of the election, if not his most important issue, was clear to him: “Taxes.”
What’s remarkable is that Stefanowski was able to steer the debate so narrowly in a blue state with a long tradition of debating its broadest community aspirations. The election hewed so closely to taxes that it only touched on reducing spending in the most useless way — with the old, hackneyed political saws about cutting waste, outsourcing and zero-based budgeting.
It was not about the trade-off between cutting taxes and investing in cities, or maintaining social services, or upgrading roads and bridges, or boosting education.
All of that is what Lamont tried to make happen. But Stefanowski wouldn’t play ball.
Lamont didn’t win on a powerful personality and soaring dreams, though he showed fleeting signs of both. Rather, he won because the voters came out in force, more than a 65 percent turnout, drawn by dislike of Malloy and Trump — and stuck by Democratic values.
That is, with a slim plurality, they rejected Stefanowski’s idea that cutting taxes is the sole answer to a very complex mess we’re in, 40 years in the making.
But that idea, in loss, still defined the race. Voters’ anger at high costs in Connecticut, along with anger toward all public institutions including the Republican Party itself — enabled Stefanowski to win a primary handily, without paying much heed to the party establishment.
In that way he’s similar to his political model, Trump, except that Stefanowski, unlike Trump, is a decent human being.
I asked how he pulled off the steering feat on Tuesday in West Hartford, where Stefanowski brought his wife and three daughters to the polling place of his sister and her family, walking distance from the goverbnor’s mansion.
“I don’t know that I’d say it was all about me, I’d say it’s about two policies,” Stefanowski said. He named Malloy’s higher taxes, and his own plan to lower taxes. So we’re saying the same thing.
Voters’ anger enabled him to set that minimalist agenda despite the fact that by his own reckoning, his major civic activity has been sitting on the board of a nonprofit, Catholic agency that helps low-income families in Bridgeport. Admirable, but not the stuff of ascension to the state Capitol corner office for a guy with zero experience in government or politics.
And he did it despite the fact that on Tuesday at the Madison Senior Center he cast his first vote in a state or presidential election since at least 2000. “I was happy to vote today, we’re going to drive change, we’re going to put it through,” he said in answer to my question — how did it feel to vote?
It’s understandable that he started his day in Greenwich — not, notably, at Lamont’s neighborhood polling place. All statewide Republicans must encamp in Greenwich, the party’s largest town. But why did Lamont schedule a stop at the senior center in Madison, barely an hour after Stefanowski voted there? Lamont rescheduled to Guilford and never made it to Stefanowski’s hometown, but the point was made — he needed to respond to Stefanowski.
What about that anger? Taxes are certainly high in Connecticut and we’re losing people. But they’re higher in other places that are magnets for young professionals — big cosmopolitan cities of the sort we lack. Lamont wanted to make the conversation about our cities but, again, there was so much anger over broken promises of the past — not his doing — that a cohesive debate never happened.
The governor’s budget is due the first week in February, around the time Lamont figures out how many bathrooms are in that governor’s mansion. He’ll have strong opposition in the legislature and more important, the tail of a backlash that he cannot, and should not, ignore.
And so we move forward as a state with a new expectation about tax cuts, realistic or not, forged in one of the oddest campaigns in modern state history.