The great Tea Party hope for capturing the governor’s mansion joined the revolution in New Haven streets—then crossed over to the Owl Shop to smoke a cigar with the “RINOs.”
Joe Visconti, a Republican former West Hartford town councilor now running for governor, traversed the two worlds Thursday night on College Street, where the Connecticut Tea Party organized a protest against a smoke-filled fundraiser featuring celebrity guest Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
The fundraiser aimed to raise money for the federal Leadership CT PAC, which supports federal Republican candidates, according to state Rep. John Frey of Ridgefield, who runs the PAC. The event was advertised to begin at 6 p.m. at the The Owl Shop cigar lounge and bar at 268 College St.
At quarter to 6 p.m., Visconti stood with a throng of about 30 people protesting the RNC. Cops made them stand across the street from the Owl Shop so they wouldn’t get in the way.
The crowd hurled insults at the Republicans across the street, calling them sellouts, RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”), and “hypocrites.”
They directed the most ire at State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, a Republican running for governor in November.
“If it looks like a RINO and it walks like a RINO and it talks like a RINO ... it’s McKinney,” read one sign.
Mark Mnich, a Tea Party activist from Meriden, held one of several signs reading, “John McKinney must go!”
McKinney “violated his oath to defend the state Constitution” when he signed 2013’s Senate Bill 1160, a sweeping gun-control bill, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Mnich explained.
“If they continue to denigrate us, they will lose horribly in 2016,” Mnich said of the Republican establishment. Like many gun rights advocates, Mnich is disappointed with the field of gubernatorial candidates.
Mnich said the only person he could support for governor is the man waving the flag on the picket line—Visconti.
With a tie peeking out of a formal dark coat, Visconti stuck out from his fellow protesters, who favored jeans and, in one case, a flag-printed uniform. Visconti jumped right in the mix. At around 6 p.m., he and Zeqir “Ziggy” Berisha, of Waterbury (pictured), were the only two yelling commentary to the Republicans streaming into the cigar lounge.
Visconti grabbed a flagpole in his leather gloves and waved an American flag with big, broad strokes. Then he waved a yellow Gadsden flag, whose coiled snake the Tea Party has claimed as its emblem.
“Hypocrites!” he yelled across the street.
“Everyone should take their party to task,” he explained to a reporter a few minutes later.
Visconti, who described himself as a founding member of the Connecticut Tea Party, said the Republican Party has abandoned its party platform, especially on gun rights. A Republican who challenged Democrat U.S. Rep. John Larson in 2008, Visconti served two years on West Hartford’s town council. The 57-year-old has worked as a general contractor and an actor. For the last nine months, he’s been focusing on unseating Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. He said he has found support from within the Tea Party, the “religious right,” and a substantial number of Democrats.
Visconti called Republicans in Congress “hypocrites” because they just approved a $1 trillion spending bill despite having little time to read it.
At the same time as Visconti blasted his own party, he recognized the need not to be marginalized. He said he planned to cross the street and enter the smoky $125-per-head event.
Visconti went inside the cigar lounge. The Independent spotted only a couple of New Haven faces—Hartford lobbyists Chris DePino and Paul Nuñez—amid the largely suburban crowd.
The event drew 175 people inside the Owl Shop, according to Rep. Frey, who popped outside to speak with a reporter.
“I welcome them here,” he said of the protesters.
Frey (pictured) is just the kind of Republican they were yelling about: “I voted the same way Mr. McKinney did” on the gun bill, he said. He said his reason was personal: He had two nieces and one nephew who survived the Dec. 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, in which a gunman killed 20 young kids and six adults.
“It was a hard vote,” Frey said. “I’m not thrilled” with the gun bill, he said, but he supported the bipartisan compromise.
Frey said the fundraiser was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the smoke-filled back rooms where political deals supposedly take place.
Outside the Owl Shop, New Haven’s Edward Anderson was giving his own tongue-in-cheek performance. The Democratic activist has been known to conduct acts of political theater under Republican guise.
On Thursday, Anderson “thanked” members of the Republican Party establishment, including state Rep. Larry Cafero, as they entered the cigar lounge. Anderson said he was waiting at the entrance to give Preibus a hug.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing, sir,” he planned to say to the RNC chair if he got the chance. “Keep it up.”
His point: The Republican Party is alienating its own members, creating an internal fissure that helps Democrats.
“They have a serious Tea Party problem, and none of them know what to do with it,” Anderson said.
Anderson chuckled that Republicans chose staunchly Democratic New Haven for a party fundraiser.
“You’re in the wrong town here, guys!” he said to no one in particular. “They got lost somewhere on 95.”
Around 8 p.m., as the event wound down, Visconti emerged, smoking a cigar.
“You guys are like Jets fans,” Anderson told him. Every year Republicans think, “This is the year we’re going to win. Go Wisconsin!”
(Connecticut’s governor, two U.S. senators and five Congressmen are all Democrats. Republicans have failed to unseat them in recent years.)
Visconti got serious.
“I win the minute I step in the race,” he said, “and don’t sit in the cheap seats throwing rocks and not getting involved.”
“Run for office. Make a difference,” he told Anderson, between puffs of his cigar.
Anderson replied that the protesters were all throwing rocks at McKinney.
Visconti said the guys across the street had “five different issues” the were yelling about.
He encouraged Anderson to run for local office.
“Why not?” he demanded. “Why not?”
Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch their exchange.