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Despite Public Financing, More State Races Unopposed

By MARK PAZNIOKAS | Courant Staff Writer

June 03, 2008

Gov. M. Jodi Rell and legislative leaders are expected to do a little bipartisan bragging today about how they have squeezed special-interest money from Connecticut politics.

And they have.

Lobbyists who gave $1.6 million to underwrite legislative campaigns in 2006 are on the sidelines this year, barred from writing checks. So are state contractors.

"This is a massive change," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a consultant who once was chief political strategist for Senate Democrats.

But a keystone of the sweeping campaign reforms that take effect this year public financing of legislative races is doing little to increase competition for the General Assembly.

Even with the promise of state grants ranging from $7,500 to $170,000 under the new Citizens' Election Program, the number of unopposed races actually has risen since 2006.

Republicans say they still don't have a candidate in 43 of 151 House districts, while Democrats have no candidate in 15 districts. Two years ago, Republicans were AWOL in just 31 races, while Democrats skipped a dozen.

Months ago, the House Republican minority's chief strategist, George Gallo, said the GOP's goal was to offer a challenger in every district. Reality is proving more complicated.

Today, Rell and other officials will announce that two incumbents and one challenger are the recipients of the first grants of the 2008 general-election season.

The public grants are only one aspect of far-reaching legislation passed in 2005, when Rell and legislative Democrats competed to be toughest on ethics following the conviction on corruption charges of former Gov. John G. Rowland.

The new law limits how legislative leaders, organized labor, business associations and other advocacy groups can directly assist candidates.

"It's a new kind of politics. That, in a lot of ways, understates it," said Andy Sauer, executive director of Connecticut Common Cause. "It's revolutionary. I think people are just beginning to comprehend it."

Using an interlocking web of political action committees, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate raised nearly $2 million in 2006, with 80 percent of the money coming from lobbyists.

The PAC money underwrote highly centralized campaigns in Hartford that hurt grass-roots organizing and fundraising in the districts.

With lobbyists now barred from contributing, a provision being challenged in court, candidates are forced to raise money in their districts from average voters.

Participation in the Citizens' Election Program is voluntary, although state elections officials are estimating a participation rate higher than 70 percent.

The free money comes with a challenge: Candidates must demonstrate a fundraising base of small donors.

A House candidate needs to raise $5,000 in small donations from 150 contributors. For a Senate race, candidates must raise $15,000 from 300 donors.

Each donor must sign an affidavit stating that he or she is not a lobbyist, a state contractor or close relative of a lobbyist or contractor.

The basic general-election grants in contested races are $25,000 for the House and $85,000 for the Senate. But the actual grants depend on the level of competition.

A candidate for an uncontested House race could receive as little as $7,500. On the high end, a Senate candidate could get a double grant of $170,000 if targeted with spending by an independent group.

Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, one of the first three candidates to qualify for a grant, said the complexity of the program seems to be intimidating to some would-be candidates.

Sawyer found it relatively easy, however, to raise her qualifying $5,000. Her biggest problem: Her mail solicitation to constituents brought in nearly $7,000, meaning that her state grant will be reduced.

She is one of 15 unopposed Republicans.

Some fears about the public financing have not materialized.

Critics predicted that lobbying firms, trying to maintain their influence in campaign season, would create campaign consulting subsidiaries.

One prominent lobbyist, Patrick Sullivan, briefly formed such a firm with former Democratic State Chairman John Droney and Erik Williams, a former Senate Democratic aide. It disbanded.

"People have expressed some reservations about working with a political consulting firm that had lobbyists associated with it," Williams said. "The negative mail pieces practically write themselves."

Sullivan and Droney will continue to consult with clients in other states, while Williams intends to work on Connecticut campaigns. He will not lobby.

House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, had his lawyers explore the legality of the House majority caucus forming its own consulting firm. This would have allowed the caucus to charge candidates consulting fees. House Republicans also examined the idea.

Neither caucus went forward.

Gallo said Republicans concluded that such a scheme would have "violated the spirit of the law."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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