McKinney, honoring his father's legacy, charts own path toward governor's office
You can tell a lot about a man by his smart phone.
The voicemail box on John McKinney's is full -- again.
The Pandora Internet Radio app is tuned in to country music, which the Republican state Senate minority leader can't quite figure out how to get to play through the car radio speakers of his Audi.
So he asks his aide for a Bluetooth tutorial.
"I like Rascal Flatts," McKinney volunteers, crossing Reef Road in his hometown of Fairfield in triple-digit heat.
Once inside the air conditioning of the Fairfield University Bookstore's Starbucks, McKinney thumbs through the photos on his phone and pauses. The image is black-and-white. He's the young boy in the front with the blazer, flanked by his four older siblings and standing in front his father: Stewart B. McKinney.
The year was 1972 and the elder McKinney had just accepted his party's nomination for a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until his death in 1987 at the age of 56.
Aware of the constant comparisons between himself and his father, who died of AIDS at a time when patients with the virus were ostracized, McKinney, 49, is expected to announce his candidacy for governor by month's end. That would mean a likely battle for the GOP nomination with Greenwich resident Tom Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, who lost by 6,500 votes in 2010 and wants a rematch.
It's a leap of faith for the Senate's top Republican, a contrarian voice in a legislature ruled by Democrats loyal to first-term Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who rankled the political right when he helped negotiate Connecticut's post-Sandy Hook gun law.
"I've been very encouraged by the people I've talked to about the prospects of running," says McKinney, who is in his 14th year in the General Assembly representing Fairfield, Westport, Easton, Weston and, notably, Newtown.
Living up to the legacy
His father went to Yale. So did he.
His father embraced the label of centrist lawmaker, a fiscal conservative and social moderate. So does he.
"I think I've always known that at some point in my life, I wanted to do community service," McKinney says, an aide shadowing him to the interview with Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.
Reminders of his old man are everywhere for McKinney, who recently went to get his motor vehicle emissions test done at a Firestone tire and auto body shop on King's Highway East in Fairfield that was once owned by his father. The connection was not immediately apparent to the current owner.
"He said, `Are you related to Stewart?' I said, `Yeah, he was my dad,' " McKinney recalls.
As the youngest child in his family by several years, McKinney often accompanied his father on the trail, which had begun with his two terms representing Fairfield in the state House of Representatives from 1966-70 -- as well as a notable electoral loss when he challenged Democrat John J. Sullivan for the Fairfield first selectman's seat. The elder McKinney. however, later worked closely with Sullivan on behalf of Fairfield projects, and a legacy of that bipartisan relationship is the town's Sullivan McKinney Elder Housing complex named in their honor.
"The way you drove my father to events was you'd sit in the front and he'd drive," he says.
McKinney is in the driver's seat now. He gets sentimental about his father's 1966 Mustang black convertible, which has become his cruising car when he's not logging 35,000 miles a year trucking back and forth to Hartford.
"It's a great connection to my dad," says McKinney, whose late grandfather was auto designer and America's Cup winner Briggs Cunningham.
His own man
McKinney's political allies are quick to discount the theory that the divorced father of three teenagers feels pressure to carry the torch, however.
"John is comfortable in his own skin. I think he's proud of his dad," says Christopher Shays, who succeeded the elder McKinney as congressman from Connecticut's 4th District.
When Republicans saw their winning streak of 40 years come to an end in that district in 2008, McKinney's name shot to the top of the GOP's short list to try to win his father's former seat back. The party's nomination, multiple Republicans say, was -- and still is -- his for the taking.
"I always thought there was a likelihood that if I left Congress on my own terms that he would be a natural person to be in that seat," says Shays, who lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Jim Himes. "He's very oriented toward Connecticut. He didn't get talked into running for Congress for one reason alone and that was his kids."
Voice of dissent
Colleagues on his side of the aisle characterize McKinney as a level-headed lawmaker who can digest the most complex of bills with ease and comports himself in a dignified manner learned from his father.
They say he can put aside differences over policy, a trait that escapes other lawmakers.
"If they don't agree with you, they won't talk to you. John's not of that ilk," says state Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, McKinney's second in command.
State GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. says you know where you stand with McKinney, whom he called a highly skilled lawmaker like his father.
McKinney is not exactly a household name outside Fairfield County, however.
So it's no wonder he criss-crossed the state in March and April on a so-called fiscal responsibility tour, cutting into Malloy's administration on taxes, the debt and economic incentives offered by the state to major corporations.
Awaiting McKinney on the GOP side in likely pursuit of next year's gubernatorial nomination, in addition to Foley, is Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.
"He's clearly the underdog because he hasn't spent $15 million getting his name out," Shays says of McKinney. "But you know what? He's truly talented."
For the better part of June and July, while many in the GOP establishment have been wondering if he will enter the fray, McKinney has been Jason Bourne off the grid.
"Sequestered is a little strong," McKinney says with a smile. "When you're not in session, I try to have my life."
McKinney says his life revolves around raising his two daughters and son, ages 13, 14 and 17, who he has shared custody of with his ex-wife. He characterizes his 2010 divorce as amicable and says there is someone special in his life.
"I'd like to keep my personal life private," he says, looking slightly uncomfortable. "It doesn't matter whether they're Democrat or Republican, I don't think people's family should be part of the public discourse."
A child of the 1960s who says he grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, McKinney is eager to show he's not a crusty politician. He name drops Pitbull and Carly Rae Jepsen as artists he's familiar with from having teenagers.
He's on Twitter, but fesses up that his aides maintain his account. He's also on Facebook, but says he doesn't use it to snoop on his son and daughters, one of whom recently took a "selfie" while riding in the car with McKinney. Yes, he uses the word, "selfie."
"You tell them that's something that's in the public domain forever," says McKinney, who has a law degree but gave up practicing more than a decade ago.
McKinney's last major public appearance came at a GOP fundraising dinner in May, when he received the Prescott Bush Award, the state party's highest honor. His mother, Lucie McKinney, 80, who resides in Westport and is a descendent of the founder of Standard Oil, sat near him on the dais.
"I think John can appeal to everybody," she says. "I think he's not a conservative Republican. I think he's not a liberal Democrat. I think he's mainstream."
But the decision to recognize McKinney in front of 600 GOP faithful was not without controversy, with some members of the Republican Town Committee of Enfield boycotting the dinner because of McKinney's support for a package of sweeping gun control measures that were adopted in the wake of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
"Ultimately, if those parents asked me to do anything for them, I would try to do it," says McKinney, who is dogged by a small contingent of Second Amendment activists at public events.
Back to his cell phone: McKinney almost got another one after gun control advocates gave out his personal number during the legislative session.
"Being torn between the gun control advocates and the right of our Republican Party, who did not like the gun legislation, John stood up for what he believes in and did not necessarily carry the Republican flag," Fasano says.
McKinney answers questions calmly and openly about the illness that took his father from him.
"Stewart wanted people to know that he had AIDS and died of AIDS. He didn't want to hide that," says McKinney, who was 23 when his father died.
His father's health became compromised when he camped outside to protest homelessness and got pneumonia, says McKinney, who says he doesn't give much thought to how his dad contracted the virus.
"I don't know. I never asked," McKinney says, noting that his father had quadruple heart bypass surgery at St. Luke-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, the same facility where tennis champion Arthur Ashe had a similar procedure before dying of AIDS.
Stewart McKinney is memorialized in a foundation bearing his name and run by his widow that operates a homeless shelter for people with AIDS in Fairfield. When the shelter was first conceived, the foundation had to sue local zoning officials enforcement office to open the facility.
"It's amazing how far we've come as a society," the younger McKinney says.
The city of Stamford's train and bus hub is named the Stewart B. McKinney Transportation Center. A wildlife refuge spanning 70 miles of Connecticut's coastline was posthumously named after the late congressman.
"We took some ashes up in a plane," the son says, "and scattered them over the islands and the Sound."