HARTFORD – You might think the support of a statewide group that boasts more than 15,000 passionate and engaged members would be a political plum for Republican candidate for governor Tom Foley.
Yet Democrats are determined to use Foley's alliance with the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, an increasingly powerful gun rights group, as a tool to portray the candidate as an extremist who would roll back gun control measures enacted after the Newtown school shootings.
"It's unconscionable to me that Tom Foley would sell his soul to the devil," East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said Tuesday, during a telephone press conference hosted by the Connecticut Democratic party.
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Foley does not have the formal endorsement of the CCDL; the group's executive board was slated to discuss the gubernatorial candidates at a meeting in New Britain Tuesday night.
President Scott Wilson said the group will not back Joe Visconti, the pistol-permit holding former town council member from West Hartford who is waging an independent run for governor. Nor will it back Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a chief architect of the gun control laws who is much reviled by CCDL members.
"Foley's not Clint Eastwood and we don't expect him to be Clint Eastwood,'' Wilson said. "We want someone who is better with respecting our constitutional rights than Dan Malloy."
However, Wilson said the group might opt to skip an endorsement altogether.
Foley has addressed CCDL members and met privately with its leaders. And he purchased a $1,000 ticket to a CCDL fundraising event held to raise money for its litigation fund, to help pay for the lawsuit the group has filed against the state's post-Newtown gun restrictions.
None of the money raised at that event will go towards campaigning for pro-Second Amendment candidates, Wilson said. Dave Walker, a Republican lieutenant governor candidate who lost a primary challenge to former Groton mayor Heather Somers, also attended. "We presented the opportunity to Tom...he offered to come and he came," Wilson said.
Wilson cringes when he hears Democrats demonize gun owners on the campaign trail and in a series of passionate posts on Facebook. He called Leclerc's devil comment "a horrible insinuation" and accused Malloy of focusing on guns to distract the public from economic issues.
"They're trying to puff their chests and motivate their base because they want firearms to be the centerpiece of the election,'' Wilson said. "Dan Malloy is trying to focus on the gun issue and trying to hide his other failures. Why isn't he talking about all the people fleeing the state?"
Foley coy about gun stance?
Democrats say Foley has been coy about where he stands in an effort to hide his real agenda: repealing the gun control law.
Leclerc, the East Hartford mayor, cited news reports that the CCDL would endorse Foley because he supports repealing the gun laws. "If he's making these type of promises, I can't imagine what kind of promises he'd make [if] he has the keys to the governor's mansion," Leclerc said. "For Tom Foley to say he would veto the gun law….[that] should make every single person think about what else he would do."
Chris Cooper, a spokesman for the Foley campaign disputes Leclerc's assertions. "Tom Foley has never said he would seek to repeal the gun bill," he said.
However Foley told CCDL members in January that he would sign a bill repealing the law should the legislature pass one, something he characterized as remote at best.
Leclerc was one of a half dozen Democratic local leaders who participated in the conference call Tuesday. The speakers, who included Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson and Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, were effusive in their praise of Malloy, a Democrat seeking a second term.
Rilling said Malloy had the courage to take stand, in contrast with what he said were vague comments on gun control by Foley.
The new laws enacted in 2013 after the Newtown shootings, which include new restrictions on certain types of semi-automatic weapons and limits on ammunition magazines, remain popular with much of the Connecticut electorate.
A Quinnipiac University poll in May showed 56 percent the state's voters back the laws, while 38 oppose them. Support is 81 - 14 percent among Democrats and 54 - 40 percent among unaffiliated voters, with Republicans opposed 69 - 25 percent. There is also a sharp gender divide, with men oppose stricter gun laws 51 - 45 percent, while women back these laws 66 - 27 percent.
But in a close election, gun rights advocates and members of the CCDL could have significant influence.
Wilson said the group represents a broad swath of the state's population. "We're family people. We have jobs. We pay taxes. There are gay people in our organization, women in our organization, libertarians and Democrats in our organization," he said. "Our organization is open to anyone who believes in protecting Second Amendment rights."
Visconti, who has made gun owners' rights the centerpiece of his long-shot quest, shrugged when asked how he feels about being passed over for the CCDL's endorsement. "It's irrelevant to me,'' he said. "I own the gun vote because of who I am."