After record spending in CT governor race, questions arise over future spending by wealthy candidates

The campaigns of Gov. Ned Lamont and GOP challenger Bob Stefanowski spent a record-setting $30 million-plus, exposing weaknesses in the state's otherwise-popular public-financing program that may prompt the General Assembly to raise the limit on grants for the next election cycle.

The Citizen's Election Program is set up to require candidates for governor to raise just under $300,000 through small smaller donations, which would then trigger $9 million in public funding that would be given to the campaign to spend and create a limit for spending. Thought of as a way to create equal funding for political candidates, Lamont and Stefanowski avoid the public funding and dipped into their own wealth, raising the question of whether top of the ticket candidates will continue doing this in the future and just how wealthy someone has to be to run for the state's highest office.

If the current maximum $9 million grant isn't increased for governor candidates, it could subvert the purpose of the 2005 state law aimed at removing lobbyist and special-interest money from statewide and General Assembly races while opening up the pool of potential candidates. Prior to Lamont and Stefanowski, who both ran against one another in 2018 and 2022, candidates for the General Assembly and top-of-the-ticket constitutional officers have generally embraced the public funding program.

Adopted during a special legislative session in November and December 2005, after the first corruption scandal of John G. Rowland that sent the ex-governor to the brink of impeachment and finally a year-long federal prison term in 2005, the bipartisan campaign finance law created the Citizens' Election Program, allowing candidates to leverage state grants after meeting various fundraising amounts from state residents. Only a handful of states have similar programs, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Public financing for the governor's races hasn't worked out," said Denise Merrill, the former state House majority leader and three-term secretary of the state who resigned earlier this year to spend more time with her ailing husband. "No one could have conceived the amount of money being spent on these races."

James Amann of Milford, who was speaker of the House during the Rowland scandals, recalled Friday that he initially opposed public financing. "There was a lot of controversy," Amann said, adding that Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who succeeded Rowland after his 2004 resignation, wanted to set a different tone to counter the state's "Corrupticut" moniker. "It was difficult to get me on board."

Amann, now a lobbyist, recalled that reform efforts failed during the regular session of 2005, but Rell brought lawmakers back in a special fall session, where it passed the House and Senate, but not by overwhelming margins. "But we became national leaders and other states followed," Amann said.

The program began in 2008 for the General Assembly and 2010 for constitutional officers and governor. Democrat Dannel P. Malloy of Stamford used the program in his victory over the self-funding Republican Tom Foley of Greenwich in 2010. Four years later, both Malloy and Foley used public financing in their rematch, which resulted in Malloy's reelection. In 2016, the Democratic State Central Committee paid a record $325,000 fine for using millions of dollars from a federal account funded in part by lobbyists prohibited from contributing to state candidates.

Stefanowski and Lamont's 2018 contest set spending records that were doubled this year. Both are wealthy, with reported annual incomes in the tens of millions of dollars in recent years. Lamont's family fortune dates back to the late 19th century banking empire of J.P. Morgan, while his wife, Annie is among the top-performing venture capitalists in America. Stefanowski, a former corporate executive, recently admitted to working in Saudi Arabia, but declined to list other clients of his since 2018.

A report from the election watchdog Common Cause in September, 2020, showed that the CEP fostered a sharp increase of women and minorities elected to statewide and General Assembly races. The report found that in the 2018 state races, 99 percent of candidate funding came from individuals, with minuscule amounts from other sources. In 2006 - two years before the start of the CEP - about half of the $9.3 million raised by candidates came from lobbyists, political action committees and other entities.

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Willimantic, who was recently elected to her eighth term in the General Assembly, said Thursday that as co-chairwoman of the legislative Government Administration and Elections Committee, she thinks the upcoming session will include a focus on raising the grant amounts, possibly to $12 million, as the political price rises for governor candidates every four years. Individual contributions to candidates range from $5 to $290. Candidates for governor have to raise about $289,000 to leverage the current $9 million from the CEP. 

"It's definitely something we're looking at," Flexer said in a phone interview. "We want to make sure public financing remains an option."

Shortly after Lamont won his first term, Michael J. Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, warned Flexer's committee that lawmakers needed to address the issue of funding equity, which was complicated by the 2010 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision called Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission that allowed for unlimited corporate spending on elections.

A different federal case that same year also scuttled Connecticut's plan to provide supplemental grants to candidates whose self-funding opponents were out-spending the limits of the Citizens' Election Program, which is paid for by sales of abandoned property such as bank accounts of deceased people with no heirs.

"In 2005, when the program was first adopted, the grants were adequate to run a race in contested districts and also when candidates were faced with high-spending opponents or targeted by negative independent expenditures," Brandi told lawmakers during a 2019 public hearing. "This loss of funds is problematic for the program, and as independent expenditures increase it will become a greater and greater problem until it is addressed. In order for a voluntary clean elections financing program to work, candidates must believe that they will be able to be competitive if they participate and agree to abide by the Program expenditure limits. There needs to be an alternative for participating candidates to have access to adequate resources to compete effectively while still eschewing traditional private finance and special interest contributions in favor of small dollar individual contributions."

Flexer believes that while party conventions are held in May and primaries in August, there should be a way for candidates to access political funding before those important dates on the calendar.

"I think that maybe one of the things we need to look at is the timing," Flexer said. "Maybe having a smaller pre-convention grant could help."

Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group consumer advocacy organization, said Thursday that its plain that the CEP grants have to increase for governor candidates, if the state's top office is to remain accessible to people of modest means.

"It will take a very unique person to beat a self-funder," Swan said. "A unique candidate who has a base, who can energize and mobilize people." 

kdixon@ctpost.com  Twitter: @KenDixonCT