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Connecticut voters really like incumbent governors

If You Ask Me

Connecticut is awfully kind to incumbent governors. If they choose to run, they almost always win.   

It wasn’t always that way as different times and conditions inspired different results.

Every incumbent was reelected in the prosperous 1920s, but five lost during the Depression-ravaged 1930s.  Incumbents won and lost in the 1940s. Then incumbency became more secure.

No sitting governor seeking reelection has been beaten since 1954, the year John Davis Lodge lost to Abe Ribicoff, a mere 66 years ago and counting.

If you were old enough to vote in that election — 21 in 1954 — you’d be at least 88 or older for this one. I know because I was 21 then and am a bit older now.

But this column isn’t about me.  It’s about Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who announced his intention to run again months ago, and Republican Bob Stefanowski, who just announced he wants to run against Lamont for a second time.

It was also supposed to be about Republican Themis Klarides, a veteran legislator who was expected to challenge Stefanowski for the nomination, but on Sunday, Jan. 30, she went on Channel 8’s political talk show and told host Dennis House she’s going to skip the gubernatorial race and run instead against the hard to defeat Sen. Richard Blumenthal. She’s said to have spent $400,000 of her own money to explore a run for governor, but the exploration apparently pointed toward the Senate race.

Speaking of a candidate’s  own money, Stefanowski,  like Lamont, has plenty of it, and he quickly let it be known he intends to invest $10 million of his personal bankroll on his election effort. In fact, he’s already spent a million of it on a television ad.

The Klarides decision gives Stefanowski an open shot at the nomination, at least for now. If it’s Stefanowski, it means Republicans are continuing the heretofore horrendous practice of giving second chances to amateurs like Stefanowski, Tom Foley and Linda McMahon who spent a fortune losing twice to Blumenthal.

There isn’t much for today’s candidates to learn from 1954.  It was a different time and a different state.  But interesting.

Lodge was a member of the storied Lodge and Cabot families, the same Cabots who “spoke only to Lowells,” who, in turn, “spoke only to God.” A Harvard-educated lawyer, he had a fling at the movies before getting into politics, playing the lover of Marlene Dietrich’s Catherine the Great in “The Scarlet Empress” and Shirley Temple’s father in “The Little Colonel.”

Ribicoff’s background couldn’t have been more different.  The son of Russian Jews who fled czarist Russia shortly before he was born, Ribicoff grew up in New Britain tenements. “I never recall there ever being an extra dollar in the house,” he once told an interviewer. “We always lived on the third floor because the rents were always a couple of dollars less a month on the third floor.”

In 1954, Lodge was a successful, two term governor who was credited with transforming an inherited $11 million budget deficit into a $17 million surplus. (That’s million with an “M” — a different state indeed.)  He liked to say, “Connecticut is the best place in the United States to live and work, to raise a family or start a business.”  No one argued with him.

But the state was apparently ready for a change. Ironically, a major achievement of the Eisenhower years, the interstate highway system, apparently hurt Lodge as construction of the turnpike in Fairfield County disrupted the lives of thousands in that most Republican region of the state. A lot of them blamed Lodge.

And there was anti-Semitism.  Ribicoff was quick to say Lodge never mentioned his opponent’s religion but some of his supporters did and just before the election, Ribicoff felt he had to address an increasingly nasty whispering campaign.

He did it in a speech on the new medium of television, at Channel 6 in New Haven, then the state’s only TV station.

It would become known as Ribicoff’s American Dream speech, in which he recalled growing up poor but believing any American  could achieve any position he sought in private or public life. “A person was to be accepted for his character, his ability, his integrity” and  that was why he was saddened by “this ugly anti-Semitism creeping into the campaign.

“It wasn’t important whether I won or lost but what was important was that a man of the Jewish faith or a Catholic or any religion had a right to aspire to any office in this land.”

Ribicoff picked up about 50 more votes than Democrats usually get in dozens of small, Republican towns and defeated Lodge by only 3000 votes. Four years later, he was reelected by nearly a quarter of a million votes.

From that Election Day until now, many incumbents have chosen not to run after one or more terms because their popularity had clearly dropped with the voters. (Ribicoff resigned in his second term to join president-elect John Kennedy’s Cabinet and later represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. Lodge became an ambassador to Spain, then Argentina and Switzerland.)

For the past 66 years, nobody who wanted to keep the job has been denied reelection.  Lamont could follow that happy precedent or be the first losing incumbent since the aforementioned John Lodge.

But I wouldn’t put any cash on either of those outcomes just yet.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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