Chris Powell: The ambiguous charms of self-funding 'political outsiders'

Meriden, Conn., a heavily Democratic city that just rejected a property-tax increase.

Meriden, Conn., a heavily Democratic city that just rejected a property-tax increase.

Connecticut doesn't know the two rich and self-funding candidates for the Republican nomination for governor, Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman, who are called "pop-up" candidates by the candidate endorsed by the Republican state convention, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton. So Stefanowski and Stemerman are impolitely introducing each other to Republican primary voters. It's not pretty but it's useful. 

Last week Stemerman broadcast a television commercial noting that Stefanowski enrolled as a Republican only a few weeks before becoming a candidate, long had donated to Democratic candidates, and hasn't been voting Republican. (As it turned out, Stefanowski hasn't been voting Republican because he hasn't been voting at all for 16 years.) 

Indeed, while Stefanowski seems to have been a Republican for a long time, he left the party and enrolled as a Democrat for less than a year before re-enrolling as a Republican again a year ago, apparently because he first considered running for governor as a Democrat. 

So much for core beliefs. 

Stefanowski concedes most of this, explaining weakly that he was working abroad and should have sought absentee ballots. He counters that Stemerman was once a Democrat, too, and donated to Barack Obama in 2007. But Stemerman left the Democratic Party 15 years ago and says his contribution to Obama was just the price of admission to a fundraiser sponsored by a friend and there were no additional donations. 

Indeed, for corporate executives like Stefanowski and Stemerman, politics is often not a matter of core beliefs but just business that requires cozy relations with both sides of the street. 

Stefanowski got his commercials on TV before the other Republican candidates and for a while was thought to have an advantage, but he may be badly damaged by exposure of his opportunism and dilettantism. Since Stemerman's connection with the other party is fairly remote, Republicans may take less offense from him. 

The exchange between the self-funders is a reminder that the mantle of "political outsider," seemingly much desired by some candidates for governor, can also mean unknown, untested, uninformed, and full of last-minute, unpleasant surprises, as state Republicans might have learned from their awful habit of nominating self-funding political neophytes for governor and U.S. senator in recent years. 

But there's nothing wrong with changing parties out of principle rather than opportunism, since people's views and parties evolve. Winston Churchill changed parties twice, from Conservative to Liberal and back again, because of policy differences before saving civilization from barbarism. Having gotten away with it all, he reflected: "Anyone can rat but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat." 

Stefanowski botched his "re-ratting," even as the next governor may need Churchillian ingenuity to save the state from parasitism. 

At least there was a hopeful sign last week from Meriden, a heavily Democratic city that held a referendum on its City Council's proposed budget, which carried a property tax increase of 5 percent. 

The budget was defeated by 5,999 to 260, a margin of 96 to 4 percent, and turnout was fairly representative — almost 6,300 voters. 

If even a Democratic city has had enough of raising taxes, how will ordinary Democrats view a candidate of their party for governor who plans to raise taxes again to appease the government and welfare classes? 

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.