The piling on has reached full force in the J.R. Romano-must-go show.
On Monday, 2018 Republican standard-bearer Bob Stefanowski issued word that he, too, thinks the GOP chairman should step down over the way he handled allegations of domestic violence against a candidate.
We’d really like to hear from Bob’s wife, Amy Stefanowski, a voting member of the state central committee and chair of the Madison GOP town committee, where the central figure in the scandal lives.
This gullywumper, to borrow a word from former longtime WFSB-TV meteorologist Hilton Kaderli, doesn’t look survivable by Romano. On the other hand, he told my colleague Kaitlyn Krasselt Monday he’s holding firm with no intention of quitting the chairmanship, which is also a paid job.
And we know he has a lot of support among the mostly unknown insiders who seal his paycheck.
What really matters, the deeper question here, isn’t the fate of J.R. Romano. It’s how and why the Connecticut GOP finds itself in need of a serious reckoning. Bad judgment lurks at the root of this crisis, as always. But it starts with lousy candidates — nowhere more than in the 2nd Congressional District this year.
Why does the party mount so many hopelessly inexperienced, fringe, extremist and generally unqualified candidates? Why are Republicans not a serious threat to most of the 11 first-term Democrats in the state Senate? That should be a GOP frenzy, but it’s not.
“We need to do some soul searching as Republicans in this state if we want to win elections,” said Jayme Stevenson, first selectman of Darien, who lost a primary bid for lieutenant governor in 2018. She called for Romano’s ouster in a written release Saturday night that minces zero words.
Let’s be clear here — all of us including liberal Democrats benefit from a healthy Republican party. One-party rule leads to bad legislation. Don’t make me give examples, you know what I’m talking about.
So let’s look at that soul that would be searched. Some flaws are in the state GOP’s control. Some — President Donald Trump comes to mind — are not.
Conservatives here must win battles in arguably the bluest state. The last statewide or congressional Republican to hold office was 12 years ago. The party can’t decide whether it wants to embrace Trumpian, anti-everything populism; old-style community values; or pro-business investment.
And it can’t shake its love affair with well-meaning multimillionaires lacking public service experience.
GOP primary elections tend to reward bombastic conservatives who can’t beat Democrats rather than moderates who have worked their way up.
“Over the course of 12 years, we’ve had some, I would consider, solid candidates that did not make it through the primary system. That is certainly an issue,” said state Rep. Vin Candelora, R-North Branford, the deputy House minority leader.
Take 2018: The ticket of Stefanowski, who never held public office and ran on tax cuts, and Joe Markley, a libertarian state senator, won 644,000 votes, a highly respectable total that fell short of the Democrats’ Ned Lamont-Susan Bysiewicz team. I like Stefanowski (the post-2018 version) and Markley personally. But moderate Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Stevenson would almost certainly have picked off some centrist Democrats in that election, and might have won.
Then there’s Trump. Who in his or her right mind would want to run for office, uphill to begin with, when the party has a guy at the top of the ticket who — by his own public statements — is using the U.S. Postal Service as a weapon against the Democrats, a weapon against the expansion of voting that he knows would end his presidency?
This is third-world dictator stuff, people. Whether you’re a Bernie bro, a Biden believer or a loyal Trump supporter, if you’re not afraid of a president slowing down the mail three months before his own reelection, then I’d strongly suggest you get out of bed and go watch the History Channel.
And that doesn’t even get to Trump’s personal behavior. “There’s a lot that’s cringeworthy,” Stevenson said. “It’s a deterrent and it’s exacerbated by our party’s inability to cultivate great candidates.”
She and Candelora both rue the loss of an era when, as Stevenson put it, “We agreed to disagree on policy ... But now if you agree with Donald Trump on policy, you’re personally attacked.”
Social media with its culture of instant expression and gratification is part of the issue, Candelora said. In the past after an outrage such as the killing of George Floyd, “There was a level of cooling off that occurred.”
That creates a political culture that bubbles up less prepared, less experienced, more activist candidates on both sides of the aisle, he said.
Which brings us to the sweepstakes in the 2nd Congressional District, for the right to be trounced by Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney. We’re not exactly looking at the clash of Bob Dole vs. George H.W. Bush among the two Republicans.
Thomas Gilmer, a political neophyte commercial construction guy charged in two felony counts related to an alleged 2017 domestic dispute on the eve of the Aug. 11 primary; and Justin Anderson, a lieutenant colonel in the Connecticut Army National Guard and retired prison officer, who obtained a security video of the alleged assault and apparently waved it around for a couple of months before alerting police.
How did these two characters wake up and decide they’d like to be United States congressmen? And so many party regulars, the gatekeepers, said, “Yeah, that works for us.”
These are tough times for the state party. But the Massachusetts GOP manages to elect governors and the Alabama Democrats eked out a win for a U.S. senator, who spoke Monday night at the Dems’ online convention.
Now we will see finger-pointing. Who knew what, when, about this video? And what did they do, exactly?
Notice that the calls for Romano to step down are very different. Some said it’s outrageous and an unacceptable affront to women that Romano would know about the video and not alert authorities. That includes two of the party’s most prominent women, Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the state House Republican leader and likely candidate for governor, and Stevenson.
Some, including former U.S. Rep Rob Simmons, the last Republican to hold the CT-2 seat, from 2001 to 2007, say — as The CT Mirror reported — that Romano should have quietly ousted Gilmer. Others, including Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, a retired police sergeant, say it’s a matter of law and order.
“You cannot build barriers to illegal activity and then claim plausible deniability,” Wikos said in a written statement over the weekend.
Stefanowski sees it as a management issue, a failure to communicate. “The chairman was put in a difficult position trying to balance the wishes of the victim to remain anonymous with doing the right thing to help her. But he should have disclosed all relevant information to the party leadership as soon as he knew about it so they could make an informed decision on the best candidate for the second district. This wasn’t done, and the leader of the party needs to take accountability for it and resign.”
All that criticism from different directions, over a scandal in a race with two candidates out of their depth, reflects the plight of the whole Republican Party.
Candelora joined the calls for Romano to resign, “for the good of the party.” For Democrat and Republicans alike, he said, “It’s gotten to the point of ugliness where people don’t want to run.”