Connecticut’s program that provides money to candidates running for state offices from the legislature all the way up to governor saw a record year.
A total of 335 candidates received grants from the Citizens Election Program (CEP) worth a combined $26.5 million, according to the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
“I think it was a tremendous year for the Citizens Election Program,” said Michael Brandi, executive director of the agency.
CEP is considered a model around the country, and it’s benefitted both Republicans and Democrats over the years. From 2010 to 2016, Republicans gained 41 seats in the General Assembly, but then saw major losses in statewide elections last month.
This year, many of the Democrats who received public financing were successful in their bids for office. Gov. Dannel Malloy used the program for both of his general election victories before deciding not to run for a third term.
Brandi says the program allows candidates to avoid the process of spending weeks and months raising money.
“Candidates can get out there and actually get out there and actually meet their constituents and address the real issues in their districts.”
However, two candidates that didn’t participate in the program were the two major candidates running for governor, Democrat and Governor-elect Ned Lamont, and Republican Bob Stefanowski.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the candidates at the top of the ticket participate,” Brandi said.
Lamont, a wealthy businessman, funded his own campaign, and his Democratic primary opponent Joe Ganim, Bridgeport’s mayor, was disqualified from participating in the CEP due to his criminal past.
The Republican primary is where public financing was a larger issue.
Three candidates, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst, and Steve Obsitnik used the program, while Stefanowski and David Stemerman either used their own fortunes or raised money.
“Too late and too little money,” said Boughton during an interview Wednesday.
Boughton was the endorsed candidate for the GOP, but didn’t receive his $1.35 million CEP grant until July, about six weeks before the August primary. By that time both Stemerman and Stefanowski had been on the air for months. In the case of Stefanowski, he had been paying for TV ads since the fall of 2017.
“I think the program is well intentioned but there are things that have to be done,” Boughton said.
He added, “The objective of this program, even in the primary, is to level the playing field. And when you have David Stemerman spending $5- $6 million on a primary, Bob Stefanowski spending $3 to $4 million in a primary. Myself, and Tim Herbst and Steve Obsitnik spending $1.3 million. It’s not a level playing field.”
Democrats in the General Assembly say there have been no discussions toward adjusting the program in any way.
Boughton suggested releasing some funds to candidates earlier if they have qualified, and even moving the qualifying deadlines to earlier in the year to allow for earlier campaigning.
In the case of the governor’s race, candidates had to raise $250,000 in small amounts, not to exceed $100 in individual contributions in order to qualify for up to nearly $8 million in public funds.
Brandi says some changes could be made if they come up during the legislative session, which starts in January, but says the schedule and deadlines are aligned with the primary calendar as well as state conventions.
“It’s really difficult to back up those deadlines because there are pieces of the program to show public support before we can give the grant money out and that’s, when you start talking about a year prior to the conventions,” Brandi said. “I’m not sure how that would work. Everything can be discussed.”
Even though the GOP and Democratic nominees self-funded their campaigns, past election results, Brandi says, shows that when candidates face each other and one is using the program and the other isn’t, public financing has often prevailed.
“Look, a self-funder can always run and can always spend an inordinate amount of money. We saw Linda McMahon. We’ve seen others throw tens of millions of dollars into candidate committees and still not be successful.”
Boughton says eliminating the CEP is also not a viable solution, because the program has proven valuable down the ballot.
“Mend it, don’t end it,” Boughton said.