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Moderates on the march: Connecticut ‘Blue Dogs’ raising money, speaking out in bid to hold their state House seats

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 11/28/2021 Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant

With Republicans showing new strength, moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats in the General Assembly are organizing and raising money to bring attention to their centrist politics ahead of the 2022 election.

“We are in very difficult districts,” said state Rep. Kerry Wood, a Rocky Hill Democrat. “Moderates do come from the purple side. We need to help people with moderate backgrounds and opinions to get elected to office. Both parties are getting more divisive, and that’s more sensational and helps raise more money. The reality is Connecticut is much more in the center, so we just really wanted to elevate our voice and help those that have similar beliefs to win office. That’s really what the goal is.”

For the first time, the House Democratic “Blue Dog” caucus has formed a political action committee, seeking to avoid election losses in 2022 in borderline moderate voting districts.

The moderates are concerned they could lose their seats as the Republicans scored gains in local elections this year and because they believe the Democratic-controlled legislature has not taken enough action on issues like high-profile youth crime.

A less-active, smaller caucus had been in place for years, but legislators say the moderates became reinvigorated by the two new co-chairs, Rep. Wood and Rep. Patrick Boyd, a pro-gun Democrat from Pomfret who represents four other rural towns in the state’s northeastern corner. The group, which now has 27 members, fought successfully against tax increases this year that liberal Democrats proposed and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont opposed.

‘It’s OK to be pro-business and be a Democrat’

With wins in the Virginia governor’s race and strong showings in traditionally Democratic towns like Westport, Windsor Locks and others, Republicans believe they have the wind at their backs as they head into the 2022 elections.

As a result, the moderates held their first fundraiser two weeks ago in Rocky Hill drawing a solid crowd with lawmakers from Rep. Stephen Meskers of Greenwich to Rep. Jill Barry of Glastonbury. Meskers made history as the first Democrat to win the shoreline seat in Greenwich since 1912, while Barry represents a town that trended Republican in the past.

With another fundraiser for the PAC scheduled in January in Fairfield County, the moderates know they will need money to run competitive campaigns.

The moderates, Wood said, are talking behind the scenes in a working group with fellow lawmakers to craft compromise legislation for the 2022 session to help stop a rash of carjackings and car break-ins that are often committed by juveniles.

“We have read everything the Republicans have put out and realize that this is something that needs to be done in a bipartisan way,” Wood said. “Crime doesn’t affect Republican districts or Democratic districts any differently. As the Connecticut Blue Dogs, we are not looking at this as a political issue but more as a safety issue.

“This is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. We are extremely serious about it.”

While dealing with complicated issues that often have no easy solution, Wood said the group’s overall message is simple.

“The message is it’s OK to work with Republicans,” Wood said. “It’s OK to be pro-business and be a Democrat.”

Can’t blame Trump in 2022

House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford was skeptical of the fundraising, saying that many lawmakers who call themselves moderates still vote the party line in the chamber that they control by 97 to 54. Several years ago, the margin was much tighter at 79-72 — a level that Republicans are trying to regain.

“I think the proof of whether or not they are moderate will be in the voting,” Candelora said in an interview. “The membership of the moderate Democrats has been the best-kept secret in the building for the last decade. If they had 27 moderates and we have 54 Republicans, we should be able to control the building. I think this is more of a political posture that they need to take for the election cycle. These labels are a political convenience as opposed to a philosophical ideology.”

State Republican chairman Ben Proto said he understands why Democrats are raising money.

“I think it’s an indication that they know they have a problem,” Proto said. “At the end of the day, they’re saying they’re scared. I agree with them. They should be scared. They are going to lose seats, and the number of Republicans in the House and Senate are going to increase dramatically in 2022. … The Democrats are going to have to deal with a tremendously unpopular president and vice president, and a tremendously unpopular Congress. They don’t get to blame Donald Trump for anything this time around. He’s not there.”

Crime has become an issue in normally quiet suburbs like Simsbury, Glastonbury, and Marlborough as various incidents have occurred in recent months. Like Wood, some moderates say legislative action is needed.

Rep. John Hampton, a longtime Simsbury moderate, said he was particularly concerned about four smash-and-grab daytime thefts on the same day recently near the Squadron Line elementary school and a day care center parking lot. The crimes involved breaking car windows and stealing purses from inside the vehicles. Police released a statement that the perpetrator left the scene in a white Jeep Grand Cherokee, adding that residents should not leave valuables in plain view in their cars.

“First and foremost for me, as a state rep for my district, is public safety,” Hampton said in an interview. “There is work to be done on juvenile justice. We can address it on both fronts — on the enforcement front, but also on the support front for some of our urban areas and helping address the intrinsic issues that cause people to commit crimes like this. We realize that there is John Jones who makes a mistake once and moves on, but then there’s Billy who does it a dozen times with no repercussions. That’s a problem. We’re looking to balance both sides, but public safety is paramount for my district and all of our districts.”

For years, Hampton was a sometimes lonely voice in the Democratic caucus, the only House Democrat who voted in 2017 against the long-term labor agreement for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition. Now, the Blue Dogs are growing.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been more organized and strong as we are now,” Hampton said, citing the efforts of Wood and Boyd.

Working with Lamont

Boyd and Hampton were key members of a conservative coalition in the House that included former Rep. Danny Rovero of Killingly. All three voted for a Republican-written budget in September 2017 that changed the political dynamic at the Capitol and led to the final passage of the bipartisan budget that was signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Halloween. That budget included spending, bonding and volatility caps that have helped the state move toward a growing rainy day fund that could reach as high as $5 billion by June 30.

“The mods have been around for a long time,” Boyd said in an interview. “We started to get invigorated in 2017 and played a huge role in that budget stalemate. With Lamont coming to office and new people elected, there’s been more interest. Kerry Wood and I took over and tried to be more organized. We found a natural partnership with the governor. … The governor was a very good partner this year, and we were able to hold the line on taxes, which is a huge accomplishment.”

In the monthslong battle over the state budget, the moderates helped Lamont block tax increases on the wealthy that were offered by the tax-writing finance committee.

“The idea that we could pass a budget without raising taxes last year, particularly when the more progressive Senate had a lot of tax proposals on the table, the moderates tried to align ourselves with the governor as much as possible in order to hold the budget to centrist principles,” Boyd said. “The next logical step forward was to create a political action committee.

“Often, we hear from the extremes of both parties, but I believe most everyday people in the state are center-left and center-right. There are a lot of common-sense, middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans. But often all we hear about are Bernie [Sanders] or [conservative Georgia Republican] Marjorie Taylor Greene. … Centrists are not exciting.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

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