MADISON – Beyond core issues of the economy and taxes and crime, what Republican Bob Stefanowski wants to change most about state government if he’s elected Governor is what he calls a culture of privilege at the state Capitol that pervades decision-making on every level.
“I think there’s a sense of entitlement and privilege up there and a sense that they work for the government, not for the people,” Stefanowski said during an hour-long interview at his home with a view of Long Island Sound. “You see it in everything from the reckless spending to legislators drinking on the job. One thing I know I can do is to set the right culture and hire the right people. I’m going to hold people accountable and put the sense back in that we’re there to serve the people.”
Stefanowski’s remarks came a day after he announced that he would again challenge Gov. Ned Lamont, after losing to him by 44,000 votes in 2018.
This time around, he said, he will push a broader message than the near-singular focus on eliminating the state income tax that dominated his last campaign.
A semi-retired business and finance executive who will turn 60 in May, Stefanowski has started his campaign with an infusion of $10 million of his own money.
His campaign-launch video, tagged Working for Connecticut, features a lineup of residents complaining how expensive the state has become, including an older woman from Morris who says her electric bill now exceeds her rent.
“We’re for affordability,” Stefanowski explained to CT Examiner, speaking in characteristically short, direct sentences. “We’re for lower taxes. We’re for parents having a say in their kid’s education. And we’re for transparency in government. I’m running because I don’t think people are getting that right now.”
His campaign announcement also stressed that he planned to “ruffle some feathers” in Hartford if he were to be elected.
“I think it’s time for the status quo to be moved around a little bit,” he said the following day.
One glaring example of the “lax” sense of accountability at the Capitol, he said, is the long-established and routine drinking of alcohol in the building that became a public issue last year when photographs emerged of lawmakers drinking in the parking garage and other areas of the complex during the legislative session while it was closed to public access due to the pandemic.
The situation was further inflamed when a legislator who later admitted drinking excessively stumbled through a televised speech on the House floor, and eventually had to be assisted in leaving the chamber by concerned colleagues.
“When you’ve got legislators drinking on the job that’s not acceptable,” Stefanowski said, noting that he drinks only occasionally. “They’re drinking while they’re being paid by taxpayers. Not to sound corny but this is the people’s house. This is where laws are made. Never mind drinking on the job – why is there any alcohol up there?”
While acknowledging that he would have little formal authority to address the situation, Stefanowski said he would try a common-sense, compromising approach that he also would deploy in negotiations over the budget and policy matters.
“You don’t come in and dictate,” he said. “You say, ‘Listen, do you really need to be drinking when the legislature is in session?’”
Another of what he describes as unnecessary “perks” at the Capitol is the perennially-debated assignment of state-paid vehicles to the six Constitutional officers, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, who also have a full-time state police detail.
“I don’t see the need for it and I don’t think it’s right,” he said of the use of state vehicles, including those assigned to the Secretary of State, Treasurer, Comptroller and Attorney General, who are typically driven by a staff member.
Stefanowski tells a story about eliminating all company cars and refusing free use of a Porsche after becoming a CEO during his business career, even though the car was already leased by the company for three years for that purpose.
“We raffled it off at the Christmas party and a guy in accounting won it and now he’s driving around a $250,000 car for two years,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It showed that we’re all equal. It showed that I’m not better than anybody else because I’m not.”
Climbing up the ladder from a closet
He lives in a colonial valued at close to $3 million, but Stefanowski said he remains driven by his middle-class upbringing – another prominent campaign theme.
He was born in his parent’s native New Haven, where they lived in a multi-family home with his grandparents, and then in North Haven to where the family moved when he was in grade school.
His three sisters shared one bedroom, he said, and his was a converted walk-in closet off his parent’s room.
“I’m not complaining,” he said. “It was a safe neighborhood. We had dinner at 5:30 every night. We went on vacation one week a year and it was perfectly fine.”
His father, Bob, who still lives in the house, was a star baseball player in New Haven who once turned down a minor-league contract in the Boston Red Sox organization before working at Southern New England Telephone for 30 years.
Stefanowski’s first jobs were delivering the now-defunct New Haven Journal Courier and working as an usher at the Yale Bowl, where his father was a scoreboard assistant.
He played baseball and soccer at North Haven High School, worked some landscaping jobs, and then turned his attention to pursuing an accounting degree at Fairfield University.
“I like finance and I wanted to be able to get a job,” he said of his choice of major. “All the accounting people were getting 3-4 job offers out of college.”
After graduating in 1984, he went to work as an auditor at Price Waterhouse in the Gold Building in Hartford, a job that he said exposed him to the inner workings of a range of industries and companies, including his biggest account, Pratt & Whitney.
He met his co-worker and eventual wife Amy when they were both assigned to the Sikorsky Aircraft account.
Stefanowski earned his MBA at Cornell University in 1992, and two years later began a 13-year career at General Electric in Norwalk, where he held multiple roles including the head of commercial and industrial finance.
From 2008 to 2011, he was chairman and managing partner of 3i Group plc in London, and then moved on to become chief financial officer of UBS, and CEO of Dollar Financial Group in London and Philadelphia.
Acknowledging his public persona as a hard-nosed executive, Stefanowski said he is more diplomatic than he may appear.
“I think if you talk to people who work with me they’d say I’m tough but fair,” he said. “I’m not a micromanager. I’ve seen a lot of different leadership styles and to me it’s being able to set a vision. Being able to motivate a team. Being able to hire good people. Being willing to take ultimate accountability.”
He says he would bring a no-nonsense, decisive approach to a Capitol that he believes is in sore need of it.
“One thing the state lacks right now is leadership and consistency in decision-making,” he said in a reference to Lamont. “You don’t say something on Monday and change your mind on Tuesday. You listen to different perspectives and then you make a decision and unless something changes you go with it.”
A truckload of masks and political baggage
Evidence of his leadership style, Stefanowski said, is the hands-on approach he took during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 when he responded to a state shortage of protective medical masks.
Stefanowski and a few partners found a broker in New Jersey who could supply masks, and they eventually raised and contributed more than $1 million to buy and distribute about a matching number of masks.
“We got in a truck and went down there and loaded them on and paid the guy and we handed them out ourselves,” Stefanowski said of the effort, which led to an award from the Waterbury NAACP.
Some criticized the move as an intentional political poke at Lamont, whose response to the pandemic has drawn praise from across the country, until a widely-publicized delay in obtaining and delivering millions of state-purchased COVID tests, and the administration’s conflicting explanations for it.
“He promised there was going to be 3 million of them on Thursday. Well, they’re not here – stand up and say you made a mistake,” Stefanowski said of Lamont. “When I was at GE, it was perform or be fired. There was none of this ‘Oh, the vendor misrepresented the facts.’”
Still, he acknowledges that Lamont has maintained a strong favorability rating that he will have to work hard to counter.
“He was rated the most popular Democratic governor but I don’t think it’s going to hold,” Stefanowski said. “I just don’t think the data supports it. When two of your three years you’ve had executive authority and COVID has spiked to its highest level in the history of the pandemic and sadly the death rate is reaching record levels – at some point you have to be held accountable for that.”
Stefanowski said he expects Lamont will be hurt on some level by what many see as the flailing administration of President Biden.
“Ned was an early endorser of Joe Biden and I think they’re alike in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think they’re both for big government and I don’t think either of them has a really good sense for what’s going on in a real person’s life and I don’t think either of them are supportive enough of our law enforcement. There’s a lot of corollaries there that are going to hurt him.”
Stefanowski inevitably will be held accountable by Democrats for his association with former President Trump, who endorsed him in his 2018 run against Lamont – a move that Stefanowski at the time called “pretty cool.”
Stefanowski has since distanced himself from Trump, especially regarding Trump’s false assertion that Biden won the election fraudulently.
Asked how he would respond if Trump again offers to endorse him, Stefanowski said:
“I’m not going to answer hypotheticals but I’ll tell you where I am on it. First of all, Biden is the President and we really need to move on. I know the Democrats don’t want to move on because they’ve got very little else to talk about.”
“Trump had some good policies – some of the things he did with lowering taxes and getting the economy moving,” Stefanowski continued. “Some of his policies weren’t that good. And I wasn’t crazy about the personal side – the tweets and everything else. But I’m running for Governor of the state of Connecticut. It’s surprising to me that there isn’t more focus on what’s going on in our state and what are the responsibilities that fall onto the Governor.”
Guns, drugs and ethics
Stefanowski, a father of three grown daughters who was once and briefly a registered Democrat, describes himself as “fiscally conservative and a bit more moderate socially.”
“I believe in empowering people rather than regulating them,” he said. “I believe in free markets.”
He supports the 2nd Amendment but says he doesn’t own a gun.
He has smoked marijuana in the past “like everybody else” but was opposed to its legalization in Connecticut last year and believes the state should have a test to detect it in suspected impaired drivers as it does for alcohol.
He said the 50,000 state employees, who typically are wary about a Republican governor trimming the workforce and benefits, have nothing to fear from him.
“I need to do a better job of getting out and seeing state employees because I think last time I let Ned paint that picture of me as anti-state employee and I’m not,” he said. “In fact, I think I’d be a better friend to them than Ned has been.”
One of his first actions in office should he win would be to hire an inspector general to perform a forensic audit of the spending by every state agency – including the Governor’s budget office that controls much of it.
He also would seek to tighten state ethics rules that he says should not allow such situations as Lamont awarding more than $25 million in no-bid COVID-testing contracts to a Stamford company in which his wife Annie’s venture-capital firm had invested.
Both Lamonts have promised to donate to charity any profits they made in such cases.
Stefanowski said that despite Lamont’s current political popularity, he believes the state is already shifting more conservative.
“Is it moving our way now? Absolutely,” he said. “But will it be in November? I don’t know. Nine to ten months is an eternity in politics. But if Ned and I both had ten minutes with everybody in the state, I’m convinced I would win by a wide margin. A lot of politicians are more form and flash and that’s not me. I’m more roll up your sleeves let’s get it done.”