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Win or lose, Stefanowski shaped the agenda

November 7, 2018

Win, lose or draw, the election for Connecticut governor in 2018 was about Bob Stefanowski.

If the Madison businessman wins, he’ll have to figure out how to let down supporters expecting to actually see lower taxes, which he can’t deliver anytime soon.

If Lamont wins, he’ll have to reckon with the echoing, one-note, two-word serenade of Bob Stefanowski and the cynical, antigovernment forces he unleashed in Connecticut: “Lower taxes.” That’s now etched into the political landscape in a way that will define the next governor’s term, just as tight spending and tense negotiations defined the last four years under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Stefanowski was able to shape the race around those two words — and thus himself — in a vacuum filled mainly with anger and frustration. Not his anger; he loosened up in October and November. No, voters’ anger.

It was not about reducing spending except in the most useless way, the old, hackneyed political saws about cutting waste 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, forcing an oversimplified debate. If Lamont won, it was not from the power of his personality. It was because the state — barely — stayed home with Democratic values and rejected Stefanowski’s idea that cutting taxes is the sole answer to a very complex mess we’re in, 40 years in the making.

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. It’s similar to his political model, President Donald Trump, except that Stefanowski is a decent human being.

When I asked him Tuesday afternoon why he didn’t campaign much with his running mate, Sen. Joe Markley, he recoiled and said, “He’s been with me, I talk to him three or four times a week....We do like to divide and conquer.”

Regardless of whether he conquered the state and will be sworn in as governor on Jan. 9, Stefanowski clearly conquered the conversation, forcing Lamont to basically respond to those two words — lower taxes — at every turn.

“I don’t know that I’d say it was all about me, I’d say it’s about two policies,” Stefanowski said in West Hartford, surrounded by his wife, three daughters and his sister’s family in West Hartford, easy walking distance to the governor’s mansion.

Those two: Malloy’s higher taxes, and his 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 as one of 21 members 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? — which could have gone to a newly enfranchised high school kid. No embarrassment, no sheepishness.

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. 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.

Neither man will have leeway to do much tinkering with taxes in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Quickly here, the basics: Regular government spending on agencies, minus education, which Stefanowski vowed not to cut, minus operations that are already outsourced, amounts to about $5 billion, maybe less. A huge haircut of 10 percent would save $500 million, just a dent in the $2 billion projected shortfall for 2019-20.

Where’s the other $1.5 billion coming from? Not town aid, Medicaid, retiree and employee health, bonded debt and pension payments. That all requires long-term restructuring, not quick cuts.

The governor’s budget is due the first week in February, around the time Lamont or Stefanowski figures out how many bathrooms are in that governor’s mansion. Either governor will have a razor-thin margin, if one at all, in the legislature.

And you wonder why many of the marquee names didn’t run for governor this year. I’m talking to you, Rep. Themis Klarides, and you, Comptroller Kevin Lembo. So we move forward as a state with a new expectation about taxes, forged in one of the oddest campaigns in modern state history.

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