Spoiler Alert, Connecticut: Jon Pelto Says He Isn’t One

Meet the blogger and former legislator who just might be incumbent Governor Dan Malloy’s worst enemy.

Cole Stangler

Pictured here with his running mate, Ebony Murphy, gubernatorial candidate Jon Pelto doesn't think Connecticut's Democrats speak out enough on behalf of the middle class. (Courtesy of Jon Pelto)

At first glance, Jonathan Pel­to seems like anoth­er run-of-the-mill Demo­c­rat — a time-test­ed par­ty loy­al­ist. He was first elect­ed to the Con­necti­cut State House in 1984 — his senior year at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut — where he served until 1993. Dur­ing that time, Pel­to worked as polit­i­cal direc­tor of the state par­ty; after leav­ing the Capi­tol, he made a liv­ing as a high-pro­file lib­er­al polit­i­cal con­sul­tant. In recent years, how­ev­er, Pel­to has explic­it­ly con­cen­trat­ed his ener­gies on reform: He has emerged as one of the state’s most promi­nent left-wing crit­ics of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Dan­nel Mal­loy, elect­ed in 2010.

The idea of a credible candidate is one that can have an impact, and I believe that we are and we will have a significant impact on the race.

On his high­ly traf­ficked blog Wait What?” Pel­to reg­u­lar­ly serves up acer­bic columns inter­ro­gat­ing Malloy’s stances on a vari­ety of sub­jects, includ­ing edu­ca­tion reform, tax­es, labor rela­tions and bud­get cuts. Jon Pel­to,” the anti-cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform cru­sad­er Diane Rav­itch recent­ly pro­claimed on her own blog, is stand­ing up for teach­ers and par­ents and every­one else who is not in the 1%.”

On June 12, Pel­to announced he was run­ning for gov­er­nor under the self-cre­at­ed Edu­ca­tion and Democ­ra­cy Par­ty tick­et. He and his run­ning mate Ebony Mur­phy need to col­lect a min­i­mum of 7,500 sig­na­tures by August 6 in order to appear on the bal­lot; they expect to reach that goal.

The major unions — the state AFL-CIO, Connecticut’s SEIU locals, even the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers-Con­necti­cut—have all endorsed the incum­bent Demo­c­rat. (“I love Jon Pel­to and am sup­port­ing Gov. Mal­loy,” tweet­ed AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten last month.) The Con­necti­cut Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty is expect­ed to fol­low suit when the state com­mit­tee makes its final deci­sion, which like­ly won’t be until August.

Speak­ing to In These Times on the phone last week, Pel­to says he’s frus­trat­ed by the lack of offi­cial endorse­ments, but insists he’s com­mit­ted to the cam­paign. This inter­view has been abridged and edited.

Why are you mount­ing a chal­lenge to Dan Malloy?

I sup­port­ed Dan Mal­loy. I worked with Dan Mal­loy. But when he was sworn in as Dan­nel Mal­loy, he reversed course on a lot of policies.

In Malloy’s first year, for exam­ple, he real­ly went after state employ­ees. What real­ly changed my mind about his work, though, was when he became a huge advo­cate of the cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform indus­try. He is the only Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor to intro­duce a plan to do away with teacher tenure, which he did in Feb­ru­ary 2012. At that point, my blog real­ly shift­ed to focus­ing on edu­ca­tion issues and the edu­ca­tion reform effort.

That was a key top­ic, although there were many oth­ers. What was clear was that Mal­loy had no inten­tion of piv­ot­ing left­ward on a vari­ety of things I per­ceived to be major issues.

What are those issues?

The pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion was num­ber one.

Num­ber two is tax pol­i­cy. When Gov­er­nor Mal­loy intro­duced a $1.5 bil­lion tax pack­age to bal­ance the bud­get in 2011, he said to a joint ses­sion of the House and Sen­ate that he didn’t want to raise tax­es more than 0.2 per­cent on those mak­ing over $1 mil­lion because he didn’t want to pun­ish suc­cess.” The tax­es he have issued have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed the mid­dle class. We have the high­est gas tax in his­to­ry; the sales tax is fair­ly nar­row and hits a lot of peo­ple in the mid­dle-class and work­ing fam­i­lies. We’ve cre­at­ed a per­fect­ly regres­sive tax structure.

Num­ber three is that Mal­loy has pushed through the biggest cuts in Con­necti­cut his­to­ry to our pub­lic col­leges and universities.

Num­ber four, he is — for lack of a bet­ter term — a fan of these cor­po­rate wel­fare pro­grams that give near­ly $1 bil­lion in state funds, either in tax breaks or low-inter­est loans, to major com­pa­nies. The most famous of these is Bridge­wa­ter, the largest hedge fund in the world. Its CEO, Ray Dalio, was paid $3.9 bil­lion three years ago, and made $3 bil­lion last year. Mal­loy offered Bridge­wa­ter $115 mil­lion in incen­tives if it agreed to move to down­town Stam­ford. He gave ESPN $25 mil­lion for a new stu­dio, even though the stu­dio had already been built. He gave more than $50 mil­lion to CIGNA Corp. to move their head­quar­ters from Penn­syl­va­nia back to Con­necti­cut. Mal­loy has been a real afi­ciona­do of giv­ing mon­ey to com­pa­nies with the promise that they cre­ate jobs over the course of 10 years.

And final­ly, Con­necti­cut used to have the best cam­paign finance law in the coun­try. But Mal­loy and the Democ­rats have real­ly cut back its effec­tive­ness by cre­at­ing mas­sive loop­holes that allow for lob­by­ists and PACs — and even state con­trac­tors — to give mon­ey to candidates.

Why not run as a Demo­c­rat like Zephyr Tea­chout in New York?

In Con­necti­cut, it would have been, in my mind, impos­si­ble to win a Demo­c­ra­t­ic primary.

My fear was that Mal­loy would win and claim that those issues were not as impor­tant, because he won by 70 – 30 to win the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. Run­ning as a third par­ty ensures that once you get on the bal­lot, you get to be heard all the way through the process.

In cam­paign man­age­ment, we look at the per­cent­age of peo­ple who want to reelect the incum­bent. The high­est that Malloy’s ever got­ten was 46 per­cent. Com­pare that to Andrew Cuo­mo, who has a 54 to 60 per­cent, depend­ing on the can­di­date: Mal­loy is on the ropes anyway.

In the polls that have been con­duct­ed so far, you’re not show­ing up. They’ve shown a very small per­cent­age of peo­ple chose the option of some­body oth­er than Mal­loy or Foley. Do you real­ly think you have a chance of win­ning this elec­tion? And if you don’t, what’s the point of running?

These ques­tions weigh heav­i­ly on me as I’ve thought about the issues, and I have to say my answer has changed a lit­tle bit over time. I stuck with the line — I would only run if I was a cred­i­ble can­di­date. I wouldn’t run sim­ply if I was a spoil­er.” But cred­i­ble is a rel­a­tive term. The goal is to win, but it’s also to impact the debate on what it means to be a Demo­c­rat and the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of gov­ern­ment. And the best way to do that was to run as a third-par­ty candidate.

I think I am already hav­ing an impact on the debate. I was an oppo­nent of the Com­mon Core, for exam­ple. The only one left in the field [of poten­tial can­di­dates] who still sup­ports Com­mon Core is Mal­loy. All the oth­er can­di­dates have pledged to do away with Com­mon Core if they’re elect­ed and that has hap­pened, in part, because of my posi­tion­ing in the debate.

The idea of a cred­i­ble can­di­date is one that can have an impact, and I believe that we are and we will have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the race.

Do you think you can win this race?

I think there is a sce­nario, an out­side chance, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a four-way race. This guy Joe Vis­con­ti is also col­lect­ing peti­tions [to run for gov­er­nor]. [In 1990], Low­ell Weick­er won with 40 per­cent of the vote as an inde­pen­dent can­di­date for gov­er­nor. It was dif­fer­ent; he was well-known and well-financed. And com­ing from the Repub­li­can side, John Row­land became gov­er­nor in 1994 with 36 per­cent of the vote. Is there a sce­nario where I can get 35 or 36 per­cent of the vote? Yes, I think there is.

You’re regard­ed as some­thing of a spoil­er can­di­date. The for­mer Sen­a­tor Joseph Lieber­man has com­pared you to Ralph Nad­er. The polit­i­cal direc­tor of the east­ern states con­fer­ence of Machin­ists made the same case—that you’re a spoil­er siphon­ing off votes from the Democ­rats. The alter­na­tive to Dan Mal­loy is Tom Foley, who is this vicious­ly right-wing hedge fund guy, who’s made no secret of his admi­ra­tion for the poli­cies of Wis­con­sin Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er. What do you make of those spoil­er charges?

I have two dif­fer­ent but par­al­lel respons­es, the first is that this is not Wisconsin.

So Tom Foley famous­ly said Con­necti­cut needs a Wis­con­sin moment.”

Yeah, we don’t know much about Foley. He’s not a Teabag­ger. On the oth­er hand, he said that.

But more impor­tant­ly, thanks to ger­ry­man­der­ing in 1990, 2000, and 2010, Con­necti­cut will remain Demo­c­ra­t­ic for gen­er­a­tions to come, so there will be a Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­ture — unlike in Wis­con­sin where you had a [Tea Par­ty] gov­er­nor and [Tea Party]-controlled House and Sen­ate. Here we will have a Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­ture. And it did its job. For exam­ple, when Mal­loy intro­duced a bill that did away with tenure, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­ture stripped it of that pro­vi­sion. The idea that Foley would make Con­necti­cut the next Wis­con­sin is just fear­mon­ger­ing and just not true.

Now, would Foley be worse than Mal­loy on some issues? Undoubt­ed­ly he would. But on edu­ca­tion, I don’t think we could get much worse than Mal­loy. He is anath­e­ma to every­thing we Democ­rats, lib­er­als, and pro­gres­sives [stand for].

The fact is that Dan Mal­loy, at any point, could have addressed the con­cerns of edu­ca­tors and the mid­dle-class peo­ple who are against cor­po­rate wel­fare and he chose not to. It’s not like these are issues that they would agree with him on — it’s just that the union lead­er­ship has said, Suck it up and vote for him because the alter­na­tive is worse.” My feel­ing is that if there is a spoil­er in this, it’s Dan Mal­loy for not being will­ing to come to the base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the peo­ple of Con­necti­cut and address their concerns.

The Edu­ca­tion and Democ­ra­cy Par­ty you are run­ning with, is that a vehi­cle that will last beyond this cam­paign? Do you see this as build­ing any long-term polit­i­cal pow­er or is it just focused on this one campaign?

I think that’s yet to be seen. Watch­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, I’m con­vinced that big seg­ments of it have moved away from its base. Here in Con­necti­cut, the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is not speak­ing out about rep­re­sent­ing the mid­dle class, it’s not speak­ing out for teach­ers and high­er edu­ca­tion; it’s so aligned with cor­po­rate interests.

If this bat­tle ends up with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty retrench­ing into its own cor­po­rate approach, then I’d see the Edu­ca­tion and Democ­ra­cy Par­ty as a long-term effort to pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty or to ele­ments with­in it. I’m not opposed at all to using this as a vehi­cle towards long-term change.

Let’s say you get 5 per­cent of the vote, or some­thing that’s greater than the mar­gin of vic­to­ry for Tom Foley and Mal­loy los­es. Is there a cer­tain amount of suc­cess in some­thing like that, where you’re send­ing a mes­sage to Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship? Do you see that as a pos­i­tive thing?

I wouldn’t be run­ning if I wasn’t com­fort­able with the fact that that might be an out­come. I feel strong­ly enough about these issues. After cam­paign­ing and talk­ing to many peo­ple, lots of oth­er peo­ple feel strong­ly as well.

While I’d like to do more than that — get more than 4 or 5 per­cent of the vote — and I cer­tain­ly do not want to throw the elec­tion to a Repub­li­can, I feel com­fort­able with that out­come. I feel com­fort­able that I will be able to impact the sys­tem and impact the debate in a pos­i­tive way, regard­less of whether I win or not.

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
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