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Blue wave barely carried Lamont to victory

November 7, 2018

A blue wave definitely washed across Connecticut on Election Day.

Entering the election, the state Senate was split 18-18 between Republicans and Democrats, while Democrats held a modest 80-71 majority in the House of Representatives. Those margins were a modern high-water mark for Republicans who, over the course of a decade, had in successive elections whittled away at large Democratic majorities.

The wave washed away that decade of progress. Democrats, it appears, will end up with a 24-12 control of the Senate and 93-58 of the House, though a couple of close races could alter those margins slightly.

Historic? Consider that in Fairfield County, Stephen Meskers of Old Greenwich, a retired financial analyst, took the 150th House District seat that Republicans had held for a century, most recently by Rep. Michael Bocchino.

The results were fueled by a massive voter turnout for a midterm election. The likely explanation for both the turnout and the Democratic surge is a backlash to the divisive conduct of President Donald Trump.

Southeastern Connecticut saw less upheaval, with every state legislative incumbent in the area returning to office, including the Republicans. Trump, it appears, is not as big a boogeyman in these parts.

True to form, Democrats captured all five under-ticket statewide offices — with Denise Merrill returning as secretary of the state and Kevin Lembo re-elected comptroller, while William Tong became the attorney general-elect and Shawn Wooden won the treasurer’s race. Democrats won all five U.S. House races and voters returned Chris Murphy to a second term in the U.S. Senate.

The Democratic victory was comprehensive and complete. Strange, then, that on such a night the candidate at the top of the party’s ticket, Ned Lamont, could only eke out a slim victory over Republican Bob Stefanowski — 48.4 percent to 47.1 percent, with petitioning candidate Oz Griebel at 3.9 percent, according to unofficial results.

On a night when voters sent a message to Republicans that they find the conduct of the president unacceptable and the party’s continued drift to the right too extreme, ticket splitters also signaled unease with handing the governorship to another Democrat, following the Gov. Dannel Malloy years of persistent budgetary crises and large tax increases.

Lamont’s challenge will be to win the confidence of the citizenry. That will mean showing backbone when Democratic leadership wants to close a looming deficit by expending the emergency reserves, the so-called Rainy Day Fund, which holds 2 billion. Lamont recognizes this is the wrong approach because it would not address the structural problems driving persistent deficits. Some portion of the fund likely will have to be used but Lamont must stand in the way of squandering all or most of it.

The governor-elect will have to follow through on his talk of bringing the state labor unions back to the table to find more savings, particularly in the providing of health care to employees and retirees. With such a clear Democratic victory, labor may expect a pass. Lamont shouldn’t grant it.

Legalized sports betting and the tax revenue it can generate need to be placed on the fast-track. And it is time for a serious discussion on how Connecticut can best regulate and tax recreational marijuana for sale to adults 21 and older.

The legislature should begin the process of developing a plan for implementation of tolls on Connecticut highways, not because anyone enjoys paying tolls but to raise the revenues necessary to repair and update the state’s aging transportation infrastructure. The lockbox constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters Tuesday assures the toll money would be spent on transportation.

The next governor needs to find a way to follow through on his property tax relief pledge, difficult given the fiscal outlook.

Give Lamont credit for staying positive in the campaign, for emphasizing the strengths of our state and making the argument that its problems are solvable.

“Labor and business, Republicans and Democrats, we’re all in this together as a state. I need everybody rowing in the same direction,” Lamont said in his delayed victory speech Wednesday.

Time, a legislature that will be tempted to again push away the hard decisions and the drive of special interest groups to put their interests first will all test that optimism.

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