Dan Haar: Lamont’s undiluted liberalism, respect for workers wins union support

April 9, 2018 GMT

“Good morning, brothers and sisters, I’m Ned Lamont and I’m running for governor. How are you? As your governor I’m going to follow the principles of FDR: Fairness, dignity and respect.”

That was the Greenwich entrepreneur’s opening line Friday at the AFL-CIO convention in Hartford, where he came away with a powerful show of support from delegates — too powerful to ignore, even though it fell short of a formal endorsement.

The “brothers and sisters” line is a typical union salutation that other candidates, including former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, also used. But the FDR bit, that says a lot about Lamont, and about the political economy of 2018 in Connecticut, where a Democrat can get away with such a reference.

Lamont trounced the field in a straw poll of union delegates, and he’s fast becoming a clear frontrunner. Why? He’s willing to fight for a wide spectrum of liberal economic policies and values without dancing around the flames, perhaps like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and also deliver a passionate show of respect for working people that transcends issues.

“Let’s start with respect,” he said after the FDR line. “The first thing I’d do is I’d thank our teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, tradespeople. ... We need to rebuild our state … taking care of the most vulnerable.”

The other Democrats all talk about their deep experience in government, walking the walk, as they all say — perhaps in a shot at Lamont, who’s served as a Greenwich selectman. Playing along, Lamont is fast to say what he doesn’t know, practically boasting about how he’s not the “central-casting” Democrat, as a business executive.

And he’s having a blast at the podium. When someone asked him a hard question, he snapped back, “That’s too complicated for me. Legalize marijuana,” before giving a serious answer.

His undiluted embrace of the causes of the left will help Lamont win the Democratic nomination.

But it could also hurt him if he’s the party’s standard-bearer in the fall. A Republican hoping to claim the center, say, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, will pounce on Lamont’s clear willingness to raise taxes, defend defined-benefit pensions and fight for universal health care, saying Connecticut can’t afford such folly.

Or it could help him if Lamont could charge up the base, starting with the union leaders at Friday’s convention, to do battle for him. Unions might be diminished from their past power, but AFL-CIO president Lori Pelletier made the point that 20 percent to 25 percent of general election voters are members of union families.

Lamont advances many of the same policies as his Democratic opponents. Jonathan Harris, the former West Hartford mayor, state senator and consumer affairs commissioner, for example, shouts to the heavens for a “robust earned-income-tax credit” for the working poor, and slams Republicans for saying the sky is falling so therefore we can’t raise revenues.

“You’ve got me all riled up,” the ever-more animated Harris said to the union crowd Friday.

So what should we make of Lamont’s showing? He polled 48 percent among the 216 delegates present, more than triple the 15 percent of Harris, the next-highest candidate in the poll.

Bysiewicz and Sean Connolly, the former Army officer and commissioner of veterans affairs, each garnered 11 percent of the straw poll, which was done from delegates’ phones, through a website.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim trailed at 6.6 percent, below the 9.5 percent who tallied for no candidate.

All five offered solid pro-worker bona fides, and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, the other serious contending Democrat, who was excluded from the union convention, sent a statement saying he fully respects workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain, and would have liked to address the union leaders.

Some delegates said they were worried whether Ganim could win, and so perhaps some of Lamont’s momentum is just that, momentum. His view is that it comes down to his embrace of new ways of looking at the economy and a respect for workers — despite his wealth and privileged background — that he shows as a candidate and private employer.

“I just find in government there’s not the same kind of respect,” he told me later Friday.

As for that FDR reference, get this: He wasn’t talking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although like the defining 20th century president, Lamont is an old-money (and new money, for that matter) Democrat who believes in financial security for workers and redistribution of wealth.

No, he was talking about fairness, dignity and respect. The FDR hook was a sort of non-coincidental, inside joke that came from Chris Donovan, the former House speaker.

“I’m not identifying myself as one of the three greatest presidents of the United States,” Lamont said.