Mike Handler has a general election message honed. He’ll have to find a way to get Republican primary voters to let him deliver it.
Handler’s pitch: The number-one challenge facing Connecticut is to solve its long-term structural budget woes by reining in government salaries, pensions and health care benefits. He has dealt with these problems as Stamford’s chief financial officer, working under both Democratic and Republican mayors and in concert with public-sector unions in Stamford. So he can do it as governor.
“I’m a numbers guy. I’m not a career politician,” he said in an interview on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program. “I have the hands-on experience of having turned around a city financially.”
Handler, 47, describes himself as a fiscal conservative — and a “moderate Republican” on social issues. He’s pro-choice. (“I trust women to make what decision’s right for them.”) He supports preserving public financing of elections.
He even says that climate change is real. “I believe the science,” he said. “We have an obligation to leave this planet better than we found it.”
Rather than vote for a Republican for president in 2016, he wrote in Michael Bloomberg.
Not too long ago, when Connecticut elected Republicans like Lowell Weicker to the U.S. Senate and Stewart McKinney to the U.S. House of Representatives, those were safe positions for GOP candidates to take. They could survive primaries, if they even had any, and prevail in general elections.
Handler’s candidacy for next year’s GOP gubernatorial nomination will test the proposition of whether a Republican can still win a party primary in 2018 with what have become heretical positions elsewhere in the country. And whether voters are ready to put the blame for the state’s fiscal condition squarely on the Democrats.
The Trump Effect
Republicans clearly sense that voters are blaming Democrats, buoyed by some private polls apparently showing Any Generic Republican beating Any Top-Name Democrat next year. Even though Democrats control all federal elected offices in the state. And even though Connecticut’s 481,336 Republicans constitute under 21 percent of registered voters statewide, compared to 37 percent for (848,493) Democrats, according to the most recently available figures. The 956,463 unaffiliated voters — at 41 percent of the electorate — are the big prize, and the betting money, at least for now, is that they’re leaning red for state government elections in light of ongoing structural deficits. Already this past year Republicans pulled even in the State Senate and close enough in the state House to win a governing hand with the help of conservative Democrats
Twenty-two Republicans have already entered the 2018 gubernatorial race. And 2018 hasn’t even started yet. Eleven have already demonstrated “significant” funding to run campaigns, noted state GOP Chair J.R. Romano.
Some of the candidates are pitching directly to Trump voters on issues like immigration (Danbury’s Mark Boughton, for instance) At a gubernatorial candidate debate this week, Tim Herbst of Trumbull struck Trumpian notes by calling for a return to capital punishment and a reversal of criminal-justice reform policies that have enjoyed bipartisan support in other states. He and another candidate, Peter Lumaj, staked out anti-gun control positions including opposition to bipartisan measures passed in response to the Sandy Hook massacre.
Some other candidates — Handler, Steve Obsitnik, Prasad Srinivasan, all members of the “top 11” club in the candidate pack — have focused on fiscal issues and aimed for the general-election voter. They’re not running from Trump, but they admit they disagree with him on some issues. (Note: In earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Srinivasan did not vote for Trump. He did.)
As a result, they have no chance of winning the party’s nomination, predicted one longtime party stalwart who’s still active in state campaigns.
“Impossible,” said the party stalwart. “The right wing of the party is going to dominate. Twenty-five percent of the Republicans are going to vote on primary date. Whoever is the right-wing Republican candidate is the odds-on favorite. The ones to the left may be outstanding people in the general election, but they’re not going to get the nomination.
“Trump was the ultimate game-changer in Connecticut politics. I say this quite frankly — the Republicans who [don’t embrace] Trump do so only at their own political expense.”
GOP State Chair Romano warned against viewing the campaign through an outdated lens. Conventional calculations — that primary voters risk pushing candidates too far right to be able to appeal to general-election voters — reflect a misunderstanding of the Trump phenomenon, he argued.
“Fifty thousand new registered Republicans joined the party” because of Trump, he said. “We had a lot of party switchers.”
He pointed to Republican George Logan’s unseating last year of Democratic State Sen. Joe Crisco in the 17th District as reflective of the new Trump voter’s impact. That district includes such different communities as Hamden, Ansonia, Derby, Woodbridge, Bethany, and Beacon Falls. Naugatuck Valley voters went for Trump and for Logan — and for the most prominent elected official in the state from the Democratic Party’s left wing, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Romano noted. Logan, a New Haven-raised son of Guatemalan immigrants, calls himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate.
“At the end of the day, what most liberals don’t understand, Republicans are the big tent party,” Romano claimed. “We have candidates who are pro-life. We have candidates who are pro-choice. We don’t have a litmus test the way the Democrats do. We don’t do that. These people will run on the merit.”
Mike Handler is running on having tackled what he described as Connecticut’s structural fiscal problems on an urban scale.
“If you look at our state budget, over a third of our budget are these fixed costs —pensions, retiree health benefits, debt service,” he said. “We know what happens if we do nothing here. We’re all feeling it. There’s a palpable fear of what happens in our state.”
Stamford, too, had spiraling pension and benefits costs baked in union contracts that the government couldn’t afford to pay when Handler began working as that city’s director of administration (comparable to chief administrative and chief financial officer). He claimed that he oversaw dramatic reform not by fighting with municipal unions, but by working with them — spending time understanding their needs (riding in patrol cars, for instance) while “educating” and “explaining” to labor leaders about the unsustainability of paying benefits that far exceed those in the private sector.
Exhibit A for the Handler campaign is the Smith House nursing home. Stamford owned the home. It was losing over $5 million a year, Handler said. Ninety of its 128 patients were on Medicaid, which reimbursed the home $450 a day for the $800 cost of each patient bed. “We were losing our shirts. We weren’t investing in business,” he said.
Stamford turned the home over to a private operator, Center Management Group. Now it has a waiting list and better facilities — along with a guarantee that it will remain a nursing home and that the existing employees keep their jobs at the same salaries.
The catch: Their benefits went from public-sector standards, like defined-benefit retirement plans, to private-sector standards, like 401(k)s.
In the end, the workers benefit because they’ll still have jobs, because the home stays in business, he argued.
Handler said he’s sure he can convince state unions to ditch the long-term agreements they’ve struck with the Malloy administration and accept trading in some of their “unsustainable” benefits in order to avoid a fiscal catastrophe that will hurt their members along with everyone else.
“Paying out benefits that total 50 to 60 percent of your total compensation is unsustainable,” he said. Workers’ pensions are more at risk if the state’s finances collapse, he argued.
“It’s not threatening. It’s educating. It’s sharing what we’re all facing. The state pension system is no better funded than the city of Hartford’s. We’re fooling ourselves. How many of your listeners have free retiree health in the private sector? Do you know anybody?” Handler said.
Handler also predicted that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling next year in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — over whether public-sector unions can require non-member workers to pay dues toward collective bargaining — will set a pro-management precedent and give Connecticut’s next governor added power in negotiations. He predicted that Connecticut will move toward having the legislature vote on union contracts.
State labor unions have called those ideas a non-starter. Citing concessions they’ve already made twice since Malloy’s election, they accuse advocates of those positions of blaming workers for a mess that both parties’ politicians have created and of wanting to punish working families rather than tax the rich.
Handler, like other leading Republicans, argues that more taxes on wealthy Nutmeggers will not produce more revenue because they’ll leave the state. “Connecticut has more millionaires and billionaires in 2017 than in 2007,” responded state AFSCME spokesman Larry Dorman.
Dorman (at right in photo) argued that Connecticut has a “revenue problem,” not a spending problem — that the failure to tax the wealthy more and close loopholes (like carried interest, which gets taxed as capital gains rather than income) — leads to disinvestment in health care, public safety, and K-12 and higher education, all crucial to an infrastructure for job creation. He also decried the move to switch public workers to less reliable and predictable 401(k)-style defined contribution plans.
“I appreciate Mr. Handler’s ‘educating’ workers,” Dorman said. “Ultimately he’s advocating policies that would constrict, not expand, the working and middle class I don’t think anybody should be bragging about making retirement worse for people who put their lives on the line.”
Finally, Dorman argued that Handler “is showing his ignorance of what state employees have” given up in the deal struck with the governor in July: $1.57 billion worth of concessions over two years, totaling $24 billion over 20 years, including three years of wage increases and higher contributions to their health and pension plans. (Click here to read the full agreement.)
Besides labor relations, Handler promised a new direction on government borrowing, especially restructuring debt. Cities as well as the state government put off fiscal challenges — and endanger long-term finances — by refinancing debt and taking all the benefits up front, he argued. He said in Stamford he created new rules under which any up-front benefits from bond sales are reserved for capital purchases over time, and under which the terms of refinancing cannot extend beyond the years of the current financing.
A Door In Mexico
Handler rounded out the case for his candidacy by citing other parts of his resume. Chair of the authority for Stamford’s wastewater treatment plant. Fourteen years as an investment manager in the private sector before beginning government work, as senior portfolio manager at SAC Capital Management and as executive vice president at Jefferies Asset Management. A sideline career as a volunteer certified EMT in New Canaan, where he lives.
As an EMT, he has at times had to perform triage — decide which injured people needed to be attended to first, a process he likened to dealing with Connecticut’s finances. “I think triage is a very important skill to have, especially in a state that’s on fiscal life support.”
Asked about one time he had to make a quick life-saving decision, he cited an episode that occurred during a vacation in Mexico in the 1990s. He was traveling on a dirt road when he came across a “traumatic” motorcycle crash that critically hurt a husband and wife.
“What was really amazing was what you didn’t hear: sirens,” he recalled. “Here we are in Mexico without sirens, and we’ve got to treat [them].”
A pick-up truck was at the scene too, filled with lumber. Handler noticed a door in that woodpile. “We took the door off the back of the truck and transported the patient to the hospital on that door.”
Anyone happen to notice any lumber parked along Capitol Avenue?
Click on or download the above audio file or on the Facebook Live video to below to hear the full interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Handler on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear the full interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Prasad Srinivasan on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.” Click here to read a story about that interview.
Click on the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear a previous WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven"interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Obsitnik. Click here to read a story about that interview.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear a previous WNHH FM “Dateline New Haven” interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Ganim. Click here for a story about that interview.
Click on or download the above audio file to a previous WNHH “Dateline New Haven” interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Boughton on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program; and click here to read a story about that interview.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear a previous WNHH “Dateline New Haven” interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Drew; and click here to read a story about the interview.