SOUTHINGTON — After the barbecue chicken was served and before the country and western band started playing, John McKinney squeezed himself on to a picnic bench under a wooden pavilion and began making small talk with Republican voters.
Then the topic turned to guns, as it often does when McKinney, a state senator and Republican candidate for governor, ventures out on the campaign trail.
"You know what I didn't quite get? Whether you were or not in favor of gun control," asked a woman seated next to him at the Southington Republican Town Committee's annual summer barbecue.
"I voted for the gun bill," McKinney responded, launching into his stock answer: that he represents Newtown and felt an enormous responsibility to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings. As he spoke, a green rubber wristband, a tribute to those victims, peeked out from the cuff of his striped shirt.
The woman wasn't persuaded. "I want to be able to defend myself,'' she said. "I'm just so tired of government in my face all the time."
McKinney, who is competing against Tom Foley in the Aug. 12 Republican primary, has made fixing the state's economy the centerpiece of his campaign. But the gun question shadows him everywhere.
"He supported the gun thing and that bothers me,'' said Brian Callahan, the Republican chairman in Southington. Though he hasn't fired a gun since leaving the military in 1962, Callahan got his pistol permit last year.
"I'm for the Second Amendment,'' he said, "and I think everyone should have the right to carry a gun.''
Gun control has become a wedge issue for some Republicans who view McKinney's support of tougher gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings as a profound violation of a core principle.
"He took a position on gun control and look where his candidacy is: He hasn't done very well, to put it mildly,'' said Gary Rose, chairman of the department of government and politics at Sacred Heart University.
McKinney's role as a defier of Republican orthodoxy evokes an earlier era. His father, former U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, was just a few months into his first term when he tangled with President Nixon over a proposal to offer amnesty for Vietnam-era draft resisters in 1972.
A decade later, the elder McKinney bucked President Reagan, a man he admired, over a defense authorization bill. And throughout his career, Stewart McKinney spoke out for the homeless, the poor and those who rely on the social safety net, causes that are not generally at the top of the Republican agenda.
"Those were not easy positions to take,'' John McKinney recalled. In his father, he saw "someone who was unafraid to do what he thought was right.''
McKinney's mother, Lucie Cunningham McKinney, also provided a lesson in political courage. After Stewart McKinney died of AIDS in 1987, Lucie McKinney decided not to hide the cause of her husband's death from public view.
"She knew the scrutiny that would come with that and the attacks on him that would come with that,'' McKinney said of his mother, who died in May. "She showed a strength that I had never seen before."
The Grown-Up In The Room
There's a certain wistfulness to McKinney's gubernatorial quest. At age 50, with 16 years in the state Senate, including eight as the chamber's Republican leader, he is the consummate political insider in an era that prizes outsiders.
Yet McKinney, the Yale-educated son of a congressman, finds himself largely shunted aside by Connecticut's Republican establishment. The party endorsed Foley, another well-off, politically connected, Ivy League graduate from Fairfield County, at its convention in May.
McKinney has not run away from his insider status; in fact, he has embraced it. He is selling himself to voters as the grown-up in the room, someone with an understanding of the complexities of the state budget and a willingness to make the tough choices needed to help Connecticut prosper.
"I have a unique understanding of our problems, and I have a plan to fix those problems,'' McKinney said.
His policy prescriptions include reopening collective bargaining agreements with state employees to obtain concessions, sharply reducing borrowing and shrinking state government.
In McKinney's view, his time at the Capitol is not a burden but a plus. "We need people who understand state government,'' he said. "Even my critics would agree that my experience in getting things done in Hartford, my ability to work with both sides of the aisle, is a positive."
McKinney is a smooth public speaker whose years as a legislator have sharpened his debating skills; he is a quick study who can delve into the weeds of the special transportation fund and other bits of state budget arcana.
And although he has been an unrelenting critic of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's economic policies, on non-budgetary matters McKinney is more of a pragmatic deal-maker than a partisan ideologue.
He is no liberal: McKinney voted against increasing the minimum wage, against abolishing the death penalty and against legalizing medical marijuana. But like his father, McKinney, an environmentalist who supports abortion rights, does not march in lockstep with his party on every issue.
"John has the DNA of his father,'' said Chris Shays, a former Republican congressman and one of McKinney's closest allies. "He understands what people are dealing with. ... He knows there have to be tough decisions ... but he realizes there's a human component he has to confront.''
Shays has known McKinney for years. When Shays ran for Congress, seeking to fill the 4th District seat left vacant by Stewart McKinney's death, a still-grieving John McKinney immediately signed on to help.
"His dad had just passed away and he was just starting college, but he came out and campaigned with me at a bookstore in Westport,'' Shays recalled. "He had a few weeks and he needed to sort out his dad's passing ... but I just remember what a sharp young man he was."
'A Political Gift'
In the wood-paneled confines of the state Senate, colleagues on both sides of the aisle view McKinney with respect and affection. Martin Looney, the leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, said McKinney has a "political gift." Senate President Donald Williams, another Democrat, called McKinney courageous in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this year.
But platitudes from Democrats don't win you many votes in a Republican primary. McKinney's supporters say his blend of fiscal conservatism and social moderation would appeal to the political independents who make up the majority of the Connecticut electorate. He was, for instance, an early and vocal supporter of a bill requiring that food made with genetically modified ingredients carry labels, a move that won him praise from suburban voters who predominate in his Fairfield County district. He would do well, his allies say, in a head-to-head match up with Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
He has to get there first. McKinney has waited his entire career for this moment, but his candidacy has failed to catch fire among Republicans, some of whom cannot forgive him for supporting the gun control legislation.
McKinney's poll numbers are in the cellar: A Quinnipiac University survey taken just before the GOP convention in May found only 8 percent of registered Republicans back him, compared with 39 percent for Foley.
"The irony is, if Republicans want to elect a Republican governor, they've got to elect him and give him that boost,'' Shays said.
Some Republicans privately grumble that McKinney's campaign got off to a late start. They also fault him for tactical mistakes such as launching attack ads against Foley before introducing himself to voters.
McKinney faces a deeper problem, said Rose, the Sacred Heart politics professor. "Like his father, he represents a viewpoint that was very popular back in time, but it's somewhat of a relic today,'' Rose said. "The old, country club, Eastern establishment Republican — that is a brand that really is ... a vanishing breed."
When Stewart McKinney died, the Los Angeles Times called him a "GOP liberal." That political species is now largely extinct in Connecticut, where no Republicans hold statewide office or a seat in Congress.
McKinney, the youngest of five children, was just 6 when his father ran for Congress. He was the kid walking alongside Stewart McKinney in a parade or licking envelopes at campaign headquarters.
"I would tag around with my dad a lot and watch how he interacted with people,'' McKinney recalled. "He had an amazing way of connecting with everybody."
Vying with tens of thousands of constituents for your father's time wasn't easy. "It was hard when your dad would leave on Monday morning and come back on Friday afternoon,'' McKinney said.
"Would I have liked to have seen more of my dad? Yes. Would I have liked it if he came to a few baseball games? Sure,'' McKinney said. "But look, I felt incredibly lucky that my dad was a congressman.''
That doesn't mean McKinney wants to follow his father's path to Congress. He believes he can get more done in Hartford. That's partly due to the political climate in Washington, where the genteel collegiality and moderate politics of Stewart McKinney's era has given way to intense partisanship and pervasive gridlock.
But McKinney, the divorced father of three who is planning to marry his longtime girlfriend, Kristen Fox, later this summer, has deeply personal reasons as well.
"I love public service but I love my kids more,'' McKinney said. "They're the most important responsibility I'll ever have."