Elephant Out of Water
Disillusioned Dispatches from the 2014 Connecticut State Republican Convention
By Eugene Sherman
Live Wire Staff Writer
If the professionals have it right, 2014 is supposed to be the “Year of the Establishment” in Republican politics; the year where the party sheds its image of guns, God, and insanely unfounded accusations of socialism, in favor of a cool and competent, fiscally-conservative style of governance.
Recognizing that the former type of rhetoric perhaps got a little bit out of hand amidst the government shut-down and the “legitimate rape” comments of the 2012 election, the idea of applying ideological litmus tests to Republican candidates-to-be is altogether disappearing.
No where is this more on display than at The Mohegan Sun Resort & Casino, site of the 2014 Connecticut State Republican Convention, where the state party’s delegates met on May 16 and 17 to compile a ticket to run against the administration of incumbent Governor Dannel P. Malloy.
When I pulled off CT-32 and into Mohegan Sun’s self-parking lot, I noted a stark absence of evidence telling me that I’m about to attend the state GOP’s big day. There was a bumper sticker, applied to a massive Ford F-450, reading “Conservatism: The Intelligent Choice”, but that’s about it. No campy Constitution bullshit, no NRA “Stand & Fight” banners. Every county fair I’ve ever been to has been visibly more pro-Republican than this convention.
When I got inside the casino, I found the delegates and their guests to be mostly your College Republican/stock-broker type; making the trip up from their yacht clubs and golf courses in Fairfield County to gorge their appetites for expensive women, high stakes, and thirst for Democrat blood. Not the kind to waste time touting about sanctity of life or real-or-perceived grievances against the Constitution. The delegates gathered here this weekend knew exactly what type of candidate they need to nominate to win in Connecticut and they’re hell-bent on dragging Malloy’s bloated hide from the capitol.
That top candidate, to take on Malloy, is wealthy businessman and former United States Ambassador to Ireland, Thomas G. Foley.
Foley, who held the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, lost to Malloy by a mere 6,400 votes (or 0.5% of the total cast) and seems to be the most sensible choice to topple Malloy, whose approval ratings are underwater and won’t budge.
Foley’s opponents are Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, State Minority Leader John McKinney, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, and West Hartford Town Council Member Joe Visconti, all decently qualified (excepting Visconti) but lacking in the proper machinery and financing to deliver a win.
By the time the balloting for the gubernatorial nomination opened on the convention’s second day, the press area was full of journalists working hard on a story, that hadn’t even happened yet, to meet their deadlines. We all came here knowing that Foley was going to win, overwhelmingly.
It was pretty clear from the onset that Boughton would get enough votes to qualify for a primary fight, but for the most part, nothing interesting happened yet. By the time the convention got to calling, say, District 2, all of us journalists were hoping that this would wrap up soon so we could return to Mohegan Sun’s gorgeously elaborate bars and load up on $6 drafts.
The convention’s official rules allow for vote switching once the tallies from the first ballot are added up. When the ballot closed, delegates who didn’t want to be on the losing side of things were just directing their votes to pad the leads of Foley and Boughton. But then, all of the sudden, something interesting happened.
Foley’s campaign, presumptively preferring a three-way primary to a head-on contest with Boughton, started to release votes to McKinney, who had finished just shy of the 15% threshold to qualify for a primary on the first ballot.
McKinney, who was considered the front-runner before Foley’s entrance, immediately strikes your reporter, who’s a registered Democrat who would most likely vote against him in a general election, as the most decent man in the race. One can sense an acute difference between McKinney and Foley by just observing the two on the convention floor.
Foley hovers around the convention floor like some sort of sinister Sith lord, never apart from his entourage and never giving more than a two-second handshake and nod to his supporters. McKinney, on the other hand, is out slapping backs and shaking hands. He seems genuinely appreciative of what everyone in the room has done for him, regardless of the outcome. It may be an act. Sure. But at least McKinney doesn’t carry the air of an expectant child; the same can’t be said for Foley.
After the switching, McKinney: whose district includes Newtown and who was instrumental in the passage of Connecticut’s recently revised gun laws, who led the pack in small individual donations until just days before the convention, who waited his turn and declined to challenge Foley in 2010, and who had to bury his mother during the hardest-fought political contest of his life, got enough votes to continue his campaign until the August primary. McKinney – the David to Foley’s Goliath – will live on to fight another day.
As I stand up to record the final totals off the convention floor’s massive projection screen, I glance over to my right and see none other than McKinney, positively radiant with emotion and practically on the verge of tears.
The man knows he’s an underdog but even if he’s aware of the fact that the party will probably eventually unite around Foley, he knows that they should be uniting around him. Hopefully, his campaign will be able to take solace in the fact that Foley has a few skeletons in his closet.
Foley made his millions, or as his campaign would put it, his qualifying experience to be governor, in private equity, a field familiarized to the electorate in the 2012 presidential election due to Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capitol. Private equity is the practice of “restructuring” failing companies and Foley likes to cast himself as a “turnaround” specialist, making for the perfect narrative of Foley being the man to get a handle on Connecticut’s fledging debt. Except that’s not really how it works.
Take Foley’s dealings with the Bibb Corporation. A textile manufacturer that was based in Macon, Georgia, Foley, as the head of The NTC Group (a company that is run out of Foley’s home and, according to their website, employs a staff of “approximately two”) took over Bibb’s management and initially proved to be a great success, boosting the company’s annual profits to the $30 million mark within a few years of the takeover.
However, Foley, who failed to recognize the looming threat from international competitors, massively expanded the company’s operations and loaded it with debt. By 1996, Bibb filed for bankruptcy under Foley’s leadership, after The NTC Group had taken $20 million in management fees, and including a cool million the year the bankruptcy was filed. Long story short: everyone who worked for Bibb lost their job and Foley still got paid. There really wasn’t any “turnaround” to speak of.
Foley, who has never been elected to anything in his life, delights in casting his opponents as “career politicians,” obviously alluding to most people’s rather sensible disillusioned view of politics. While it’s true that Foley has never been much a public service type of guy, he knows wheeling and dealing, the influence peddling side of politics.
Foley, a prolific fundraiser for the party, bundled so much cash for George W. Bush that he got himself two jobs in Bush’s administration (Director of Private Sector Development for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland) and enough for Bob Dole to be seated as a delegate at the 1996 Republican National Convention.
Ask your everyday devotee to Machiavelli where he’d rather be working from: The State Department or the West Hartford Town Republican Council and he’d go with the former anyday.
As I slink out of the convention floor and back into Mohegan Sun’s gaming area, I can’t help but think that, despite McKinney’s triumph, Connecticut’s voters are still going to be checking the boxes next to the names Foley and Malloy come November. That the only hope our state has from becoming a gigantic hedge fund is if either Boughton or McKinney resort to the scorched-earth negative campaigning that we’ve all come to know and hate.
They need to go all out – I mean really bury Foley – and not get cold feet. Only then can their section of the GOP get past Mohegan Sun and into the rest of the state.