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A look at Lamont’s early political career in Greenwich

October 7, 2018

When Ned Lamont made his first foray into politics more than three decades ago, he was a bright-eyed 33-year-old who had just started a business.

He was ambitious, full of optimism and opinion about how his new hometown of Greenwich — and the state — should employ business tactics in government. He wanted to get involved.

So when someone asked him after his first campaign speech in 1987, why he thought he could represent Greenwich on its three-member Board of Selectmen after living in town for just four years, he was taken aback and called the question “hostile,” news reports from the time show.

Now, jaded by decades of brutal campaigns and a current election cycle that’s turned negative more often than not, Lamont, the Democratic nominee for governor, laughs at his naiveté.

“In hindsight that was a pretty legitimate question,” Lamont said. “Especially for local government. You have to know the community. People expect you to know the community.”

Lamont went on to win the election that year and serve as the lone Democrat in a town known for its deep-red roots, earning him name recognition long before he ever challenged a sitting U.S. Senator.

Though he still campaigns as a businessman — often using a line he used in his 1990 state Senate run, “The problem is politics and politicians. I’m running as a businessman,” — Lamont’s politics where undoubtedly shaped by those early years in Greenwich.

Lamont, the early days

When Lamont was elected, he and Paul Hicks III were the two youngest selectmen to serve on the board in more than a decade. Hicks, 30 at the time, was and soon to become father of now-former White House communications director Hope Hicks. He and Lamont were both newly married with young daughters, and represented a shift in the face of local politics.

Henry Fisher II, a 34-year-old elected to the Representative Town Meeting at the time, said there was a concerted “grass roots” effort among young Republicans to vote for Lamont. And though he was the lone Democrat on the board, Lamont gained a reputation for voting his conscience rather than along party lines.

“In local government, you take off your partisan hat,” Lamont said this week. “In local government and local issues there is not a partisan way to pick up the snow, and I think I learned a lot from that.”

In 1989, Lamont turned down an invitation from his party to run for First Selectman. Party leadership at the time said Lamont’s bi-partisan support made him the best shot at electing a Democrat to the post for the first time since the 1930s. But Lamont declined to run. He couldn’t take on the full-time position while also running his fledgling business.

“It is true we wanted him to run for first selectman because he is the best candidate,” form DTC chairman Alma Rutgers said at the time. “It would just come to him naturally.”

Instead, he found himself on the 12-member Board of Estimate and Taxation, where he was often the lone Democrat to side with Republicans on the town budget, spending, taxes and a controversial property revaluation. He butted heads with members of his own party just as often as he did with Republicans, news reports from the time show.

The budget crisis of 1990

After a year on the town finance board, Lamont decided to challenge a sitting Republican for his state Senate seat in the 36th district, representing Greenwich and part of Stamford.

The bipartisan support he picked up in local politics positioned him to do the same in his run for the state legislature. Lamont’s fundraising efforts surpassed his opponents at the time because he was pulling in contributions from both Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans like Scott Frantz, who currently represents Greenwich in the same seat Lamont tried for, and Rene Anselmo, who’s son Reverge Anselmo has this year poured more than $1 million into political action committees supporting GOP nominee Bob Stefanowski, contributed to Lamont’s 1990 campaign.

The campaign issues at the time sound familiar today — a looming budget deficit, an impending transportation crisis and people leaving the state for lower taxes in state’s like Florida, and that was before the implementation of the state income tax, news reports show.

“Frankly the state was sort of in a similar pickle to where we are today,” Lamont said. “In 1990 we had an enormous real estate-led recession. You had probably the highest sales tax in the country, certainly the highest corporate income tax in the country. You had very high tax on capital gains. And despite all of those very high rates, you were looking in the eyes of a huge deficit ... they were skipping payments to the pension fund. I was running as a pro-business person who said, ‘Hey maybe you want to have a Democrat up there to work with the majority party.’ It hasn’t changed all that much.”

Lamont lost the election, Republicans far outnumbered Democrats in the district, and he returned to the finance board for several more contentious years.

When he resigned in 1989, he said it was to focus on his family — he had two children and a third on the way — and his growing business. Lamont stayed out of campaigning until he challenged Joe Lieberman for his U.S. Senate seat in 2006, but served on a state finance board appointed by Gov. Lowell Weiker in the 1990s.

“In 1995 I was sitting there shouting that if the state doesn’t put its share into the pension, you’re going to have a mess,” Lamont recalled. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt

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