Both are vying for the nomination of the Independent Party, which has become a popular vessel for Republicans to get a second line on the ballot in the general election. The party has yet to endorse a candidate.
For Stefanowski, winning the Independent Party endorsement is a tactical move to try to cancel out the perceived advantage that many Democrats — including Ned Lamont, Stefanowski’s general election opponent — get from receiving the cross-endorsement of the Connecticut Working Families Party.
The 2010 governor’s race was so close that the 26,308 votes of the Working Families Party was the difference-maker for Democrat Dannel P. Malloy.
Griebel, the former CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, rejected the premise that he and his running mate Monte Frank could play the role of spoiler in the November election.
“We get hit with a spoiler tag on both sides,” Griebel said. “If you really want bold structural change, you need to bring an independent ticket in. The two-party system is broken. We’re not beholden to the constituent groups of either party.”
In 2010, Griebel ran for governor as a Republican and finished third in a three-way primary against the party’s eventual nominee, Tom Foley, and then-Lt. Gov. Mike Fedele. Known for his work as the head of the Transportation Strategy Board, a blue-ribbon panel created by the state in 2001 and later dissolved, Griebel got 22,390 votes in the primary.
This year, he has two paths to the ballot, as a petition candidate or as the Independent Party nominee. He is still waiting for state and local officials to certify that he collected signatures of 7,500 registered voters. As of Friday, officials had certified 5,447 names.
As the nominee of the Independent Party, which has 25,539 members, Griebel would be assured of more prominent placement on the ballot than as a petition candidate.
Griebel picked up a key endorsement Monday from party stalwart John Mertens, a Trinity College professor from West Hartford who ran for governor in 2014 and the U.S. Senate in 2010. The two first discussed the race in February and Griebel has appeared multiple times on Mertens’ radio show.
“He blew me away,” Mertens said. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, you know a lot more than I do, and I consider myself a wonk.’ The Republicans and Democrats care about power rather than solving problems.”
In 2012, the Independent Party cross-endorsed Republican Linda McMahon in her unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Chris Murphy. In 2014, the minor party backed Foley in his failed rematch with Malloy for governor.
But for the past two years, the Independent Party’s Waterbury and Danbury factions have been embroiled in litigation over leadership, rules and candidate nominations, including the cross-endorsement of Republicans. They could not agree on a nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2016, so no one got the ballot line.
The Danbury faction had been expected to throw its support to the city’s longtime mayor, Republican Mark Boughton, for governor. Despite being the GOP’s endorsed candidate, Boughton lost the primary to Stefanowski, who met Monday night with the minor party’s Danbury wing.
Mertens said the party shouldn’t sell out to Republicans.
“Then we’re not a third party,” Mertens said. “We’re just the Republican Party.”
Michael Telesca, the head of the party’s Waterbury wing, echoed Mertens.
“I would prefer to have someone who is not on a major party line already, but the choice is up to members,” Telesca said. “The governor’s race is an extremely important race as far as party-building goes.”
Mertens is sour on both Stefanowski and Lamont.
“[Stefanowski’s] business record is really shadowy and Lamont is a doofus,” Mertens said.
Stefanowski, a former investment banking and payday lending company executive, has made repealing the state income tax the centerpiece of his candidacy. Both Griebel and Lamont say it’s a flawed plan, pointing out that the income tax accounts for 55 percent of all tax revenue in the state.
“I heard it — income tax repeal was impossible — a lot on the trail. Voters disagreed,” said Patrick Trueman, Stefanowski’s campaign manager. “I’m glad our opponents are talking taxes. That’s our message and it’s a nonpartisan message. Voters in Connecticut want lower taxes and Bob’s the guy that will deliver it.”
While Griebel said he supports reducing the state income tax and cutting government spending, he called it “bad public policy” to make the tax’s repeal a starting point of fiscal planning.
“How are you going to replace it?” Griebel said.
Lamont’s campaign sought to avoid getting drawn into the fray over the Independent Party nomination.
"Connecticut faces extraordinary fiscal challenges, and middle class families are being squeezed with high taxes and budgets being balanced on their backs,” Lamont said in a statement to The Courant. “While Bob Stefanowski promotes a pie-in-the-sky tax scheme that would crumble infrastructure, gut education funding, and jack up property taxes on everyone, we're talking about our plans to cut the property tax, invest in education, and build a 21st century Connecticut for the future."
Telesca said the Independent Party is determined to expand its influence over state elections and is tired of the spoiler moniker.
“It’s the same old line I hear in every election,” Telesca said. “Anybody else just messes up their rigged game that they have already. They keep pushing that all the time — you can’t waste your vote on someone we don’t think we can win. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”