Flatto launches bid for state comptroller

First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, who's held Fairfield's top job for more than a decade, said Monday he hopes to cash in on his experience as he launched his candidacy for state comptroller -- Connecticut's chief elected fiscal officer -- days before Democrats convene in Hartford to nominate their slate for November's elections.

During his announcement in front of old Town Hall, Flatto, 58, said he won't step down as first selectman during the coming campaign, even though he said the local job typically requires him to work 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

He said he'll find time to balance the rigors of campaigning for state office with those of running the town.

The comptroller's job is open this fall since the incumbent, Nancy Wyman, is running for lieutenant governor with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, Dannel Malloy.

Flatto argued that his background in both politics and finance gives him a unique edge over other candidates. He cited his 30 years of experience as a certified public accountant; more than decade as first selectman and his stints as comptroller of both Orangetown and Yonkers in New York, as well as with the Natural Resources Defense Council, as strong credentials for the state finance post.

"I've never loved a job as much as I've loved being first selectman," he said, "but the state faces immense challenges now and it needs the right qualified people to step up."

The comptroller is essentially the state's chief accountant, said Steve Jensen, a spokesman for the office. The comptroller issues a monthly report on state finances and writes a public report each year that analyzes the budget in terms of the broader economy, according to the office's website.

The comptroller also administers the health plan for all state employees, retirees and their dependents, about 200,000 people. The term runs four years and the position is paid $110,000 a year. That would mean a pay cut for Flatto, who was paid $125,780 as first selectman last year.

An issue that may provide fodder for others seeking the comptroller's post to question Flatto's financial expertise is the large loss the town suffered in its municipal pension fund in late 2008 with the collapse of Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The town lost more than $40 million invested with feeder funds allied with Madoff, but has since recouped much of that loss.

Flatto, who does not directly oversee management of the pension funds, has claimed credit for restoring stability to the pension investments.

Meanwhile, he is likely to point to Fairfield's citations from Connecticut Magazine as the best town of its size in the state and from CNN/Money magazine in 2008 as one of the top 10 "mid-sized communities" in the nation.

Flatto said that the state government will likely face tough restructuring in coming years. He said that, by advising the governor and legislature, he could help solve the problem of projected state budget deficits in the $4 billion range. One of his goals, he said, would be to get the state's bond rating to AAA -- the top rating that Fairfield bonds hold -- during his first term in office.

If his bid succeeds, Flatto will have to step down as first selectman in early 2011, vacating the town's chief elected office that he has held since 2001, as well as a single earlier term from 1997 to 1999. The town charter states that the remaining two members of the Board of Selectmen would then appoint a fellow Democrat to replace Flatto for the remainder of his term, which is scheduled to be on the fall 2011 ballot.

Selectman Sherri Steeneck, a Democrat, would be eligible, though not obliged, to assume the interim role. If Flatto's bid fails, though, he said he'll continue serving as first selectman until his term ends. He would not specify whether he might seek another term as first selectman if his bid for statewide office fails.

Flatto is not alone in running for state comptroller, however. Since Wyman -- who has served since 1995 -- announced last Tuesday that she's running for lieutenant governor, four Democrats have announced they want to be her replacement.

On Thursday, Wyman endorsed Kevin Lembo, the state's health-care advocate, as her replacement. Lembo was previously running for the lieutenant governor nomination. He was the state's assistant comptroller under Wyman from 1998 to 2004. Also seeking the Democrats' comptroller nomination are: Mike Jarjura, the mayor of Waterbury, and state Rep. Tom Reynolds of Ledyard.

As of Monday, two Republicans were seeking that party's nomination: Jack Orchulli of Darien and Stephanie Labanowski of Bolton a party spokesman said.

Asked about Wyman's endorsement of Lembo, Flatto said Monday that when he spoke with Wyman over the weekend, she wished him well and told him that he is qualified for the position.

At Saturday's convention, Flatto -- and the other contenders -- will need 15 percent of the delegates' votes to earn a spot in the Democratic primary race, which will be held on Aug. 10.

"I hope and intend to get well over that number of votes," Flatto said.