Ben Proto, a Stratford-based attorney, was elected in June to chair the Connecticut Republican Party. Proto led Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Connecticut, worked on Steve Obsitnik’s campaign for governor in 2018, and served as state coordinator for the 2000 presidential run of John McCain.
The Connecticut Examiner caught up with Proto after his first few months on the job for an interview about how he sees the party’s prospects for this fall’s municipal elections.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How do you see your role as chair of the Connecticut Republican Party?
I look at the state party like a service business, because it’s our job to service various customer bases. We have our elected officials, our candidates, our Republican Town Committees, and those are all customer bases for us. Our most important customer base is our voters, so what can we do to help convince voters to buy our product and vote for our candidates? We can improve our ability to develop and deliver messages and get candidates out there. We need to have me, as the chairman, carry the flag, be at events, meet with people, and talk about why many of us believe the state of Connecticut would be in a better position if Republicans were in charge of the government.
What are some of your priorities for the party at the local level?
I’m only six or seven weeks into the job, but at the local level, I’ve talked about wanting our Republican Town Committees to remember that in addition to being political organizations for Republicans in their towns, they’re also community organizations. Oftentimes, there are nonpolitical things we can do just to help the community, like running food drives, blood drives, filling backpacks for kids going to school and getting involved in mentoring. It’s not political, it’s community based, and if we are part of the community, that helps down the road when we’re talking about how we would improve local and state government.
One issue that’s been salient nationally, and has come up in a few towns around Connecticut, is Critical Race Theory. What role do you see that issue playing on the state level this fall, and do you want it to be a top priority for the Republican party here?
It’s interesting that everybody wants to talk about the four or five towns where the caucus decided to support candidates who made Critical Race Theory a central issue of why they were running, and in those cases, chose to endorse newcomers to Boards of Education as opposed to incumbents. However, no one seems to want to write about the multitude of caucuses across the state on the Republican side who renominated and endorsed sitting Boards of Education and the issue of Critical Race Theory never came up. Do I think it’s an issue that is going to be part of the political narrative over the next few years? Yeah, I do. Do I think it will come up more and more at the local,state and federal level? I think it will, and we’re seeing that.
One of the great strengths of Connecticut is that we don’t have counties, we have 169 separate towns that vary in size from very very small to what we consider to be large cities. These 169 towns, and 155 school districts, can make their own decisions, and have local control to make the decision about what they are going to teach in, say, Guilford, and that can be different from how they do it in Clinton. It plays well into the strength of the Republican party, that belief that the individual is in the best position to make decisions for themselves and their families. Government that is closest to the people governs best, and that’s one of the core values of Republicans.
How are you feeling about next year’s gubernatorial race?
I feel better about it every day, because every day, Ned Lamont does something new and just gives us just more ammunition, which weakens him a little bit. I think his decision to let each town decide on their own mask policy is going to prove to be just an abomination, and we’re already seeing some blowback on that. Say your town is not a mask town, but you want to go out for dinner in the town next to you, and that town is a mask town, but you don’t have a mask in your car. Then, you have to go home. Lamont tried to punt on this one, because he knew a statewide mask mandate would not have been met with a lot of enthusiasm, so he plopped it in the seat of mayors and first selectmen.
That’s interesting, because you talked earlier about local control being both a strength of Connecticut’s government structure and a core tenet of the Republican party. Why isn’t local control something you support on this issue?
When you start talking about governing your town, and about what’s going to happen at your Board of Education or your local zoning development, that’s where governing from as close to the people as possible is valuable. The problem is when you have things that are bigger than just one town, where people are traveling between towns. It’s times like this where it’s important for the state to just say one way or the other.
Would you prefer the governor require masks statewide, or try to ban local mask requirements, like what’s happening in Texas?
The Governor asked for executive power so he could make decisions going forward. I would have preferred the governor to make a decision, since that’s what he asked for when he asked for his executive powers to be extended. He got those powers, and then said, I’m not going to make a decision. I just want the governor to make a decision. This is a tremendously unique situation that none of us have ever been in before, and God willing, none of us will ever be in again in our lifetime or our children’s lifetimes.
How optimistic are you about this fall’s local elections?
This runs counter to the narrative put out there by some folks, but I’ve heard from Republican Town Committee chairs that there is more enthusiasm than ever from people wanting to run for local office. There are a number of towns where we have primaries for the top spot. The narrative over the last eight or nine months that has been unfortunately pushed in the media is that the Republican party has been knocked back on its heels. I find that to be completely false. I’m seeing the Republican party becoming more and more relevant in the state of Connecticut. More people are just tired of what the Democrats are doing in Hartford, and what the Democrats running their towns and cities are doing, and they’re looking for a change.
Who are some of the local candidates you’re most excited about going into this fall?
Jen Tooker in Westport is very exciting. Jim Marpe has been first selectman there for some time, and decided not to run again, and Jen has stepped up. She’s got a very good understanding of Westport and the issues that town faces, so I think she’s very exciting. Jayme Stevenson has been one of the premier first selectmen, one of the chief elected officials in the state of Connecticut who has led Darien through some very difficult times. She’s not running again, and Monica McNally is a great candidate to fill those shoes. Irene Haines, a sitting state representative, is running for first selectman in East Haddam, and I think bringing her knowledge from the state to the local level is going to be so important.
Interestingly enough, these candidates are all women. My goal is to find highly qualified, highly electable candidates, and when I go out into these communities and look at the folks serving on local boards for libraries or YMCAs, they tend to be predominantly women, people who have done outstanding work in their communities and make excellent candidates. I’m looking for qualified folks who understand their communities, and if they’re women, great, but if they’re men, that’s great, too. My goal is to find the most qualified person, and I think gender is immaterial when you have someone who’s qualified, experienced, and electable.
According to Census data released last week, Connecticut has an increase in racial diversity. What do the changing demographics of the state mean for Republicans here?
This is an opportunity for the Republican party. Everyone wants to get into racial or gender issues, and try to make a big deal out of, oh, Connecticut is becoming more racially diverse, but at the end of the day, people are people. People want similar things regardless of race, creed, color, or gender. They want to be safe in their homes and neighborhoods. They want the opportunity to take care of their families, the opportunity to have a good job, enjoy their life, and see themselves grow personally, professionally, and within their communities. That’s what the Republican party stands for, and those are the issues we’re talking about. I believe a candidate who can provide solutions to those core issues is the kind of candidate that is going to do well, and voters are going to find more Republicans providing solutions to those issues than Democrats.
What influence does President Trump still have in the politics and policies of the Republican party here in Connecticut?
The people who bring Trump up the most are the Democrats, and they usually bring it up because they get challenged on their abject failures over the last seven or eight months. When they get challenged, the usual response is, well, Donald Trump. Everyone seems to forget that he is not the president anymore, and like most former presidents, he does not have a lot of power. He has no social media presence, and while he occasionally has some rallies, at the end of the day, I mostly hear about what’s been happening over the last few months since Joe Biden has become president and Democrats have taken over the House and Senate.
This morning, I asked our data person to run me a report looking at how many Republicans changed their affiliation since election day, and how many Democrats have done that. A little over 12,000 Republicans have changed party affiliation to something other than Republican, and just under 11,000 Democrats have changed their party affiliation, so the numbers are almost identical. Just look back at the rally in April over the religious exemption bill. The vast majority of the people at that rally were not Republicans, they were Democrats or something else. It leads me to believe Democrats and unaffiliated voters are just as, if not more, upset with what the Democrats in Hartford, compared to how upset the Republicans are.
We’ve seen a few candidates announced for next year’s Congressional races. How are you feeling about Republicans’ prospects of breaking into the Connecticut Congressional delegation, which is currently all Democrats?
We have two very, very good candidates, Mike France is in the second district and George Logan in the fifth, announced and out running campaigns, probably earlier than we ever have. The National Republican Congressional Committee sees an opportunity in the fifth district, because they’ve begun to spend money there. Mike France, in the first reporting period on June 30th, raised more money in that first period than the last three Republican candidates combined, and he’s on track to match that in the second half of the year. I’m very optimistic about our opportunities on the federal side, and that provides us down ballot opportunities. I’m very excited about what can happen in the second and fifth districts, and we may see a very strong candidate in the fourth, but we’re still having some conversations about that. I’m also hoping for a strong candidate against Dick Blumenthal. My goal, which I said the night I got elected, is that I want a candidate in every seat. I don’t want anyone getting a free pass.