Many people aren't happy to find still another taxpayer-funded constituent newsletter from their state legislator in the mailbox. That's because there's often less news than self-promotion in the brochures, some of which could double as campaign leaflets if printed with only three more words: "Vote for me!"
The millions of tax dollars spent on these legislative mailings have been mentioned so many times in this column that it's hard to say anything new about them. But now the state House Republican caucus has taken care of that -- by printing a "2014 Legislative Review" with a highly partisan, election-year edge rarely seen in Connecticut outside of campaign-funded leaflets and advertisements.
"Democrats: More spending, more gimmicks," says the bold-faced subhead in the constituent mailing by Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton. Below the subhead is a photo of incumbent Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, gesturing with his hand in a familiar political-speech posture (not the most flattering portrait, but not the worst, either).
Superimposed across Malloy's chest is the headline of an editorial that appeared on The Courant's website, courant.com, this past May 5: "Gimmicks Needed to Make State Budget Balance." There's also a quote from the editorial: "Gimmick Exhibit A is the miraculous discovery in the waning hours of budget debate of an increase of $75 million in 'miscellaneous' tax receipts."
Perillo's newsletter is similar in content to most of the other mailings sent by the 53-member Republican House caucus, although there are some variations in language and use of photos.
This new brand of tax-payer funded newsletter doesn't happen in a vacuum. Malloy is in a political fight for his life in the upcoming Nov. 4 election, with recent polls showing him stuck in a tie at 43 percentage points with the Republican front-runner for governor, Tom Foley, whom he barely defeated in 2010.
Malloy is unpopular with many voters, so it makes good political sense for any Republican to target him with a negative focus.
…Except for one thing: These legislative newsletters have always been touted – and defended from criticism – on the grounds that they provide useful news and information for constituent.
The main regulations affecting them – under rules adopted by the General Assembly – are that they're not allowed to include a direct appeal for political support and votes, and that they can't be sent after July 15 in an even-numbered year by legislators seeking re-election. Some critics say even with that buffer period before the election, the taxpayer-funded mailings are an unfair electoral advantage to incumbents.
This year, the legislative election is amplified by the gubernatorial contest – and the Republican "Legislative Report," as exemplified by Perillo's newsletter, not only says Malloy and the Democrats use budget "gimmicks," but it also contrasts that alleged Democratic gimmickry with Republican goodness.
""Republicans: Spend less, protect funding," says the subhead in the next page of Perillo's three-fold newsletter. Above those words is a genuinely charming photo of Perillo, his wife and their baby daughter in the hall of the House of Representatives at the state Capitol in Hartford. An American flag peeps out from behind the heads of Perillo and the baby.
New Political Level?
What's going on this year? Is this new "Legislative Report" going to become a campaign issue? Will Democrats brand it as something that the late Hartford 1950s Mayor Dominick J. DeLucco might have described as "a new height of lowness," in one of his inimitable malapropisms?
The House Republican caucus' spokesman, Pat O'Neil, disagreed with that proposition completely. "I think it's a fair and honest depiction of what took place in the legislative session," he said in an interview Friday. "These mailers capture that…. The use of Gov. Malloy's photo depicts and defines what Democrats did in 2014 in the short session."
"I wouldn't say [the mailers} are more pointed" in their criticism – and if they seem to be, it's probably a reflection of the "one-party rule" of the state Capitol by a Democratic governor and Democrat-controlled legislature for the first time in two decades, O'Neil said.
O'Neil said he recently received a mailer from his local Democratic state representative, Phil Miller of Essex, and it was "total Pablum." By that he said the Democrat was saying, "Here is my view of the world" rather than stating "what took place" in the legislative session. O'Neil added: "I would argue that it may be more political to say, 'Go on home, there's nothing here to see, guys,' than us saying, "Here's what the governor did and here's what we did.'"
Perillo also defended the message in the newsletter. He said the mailings, "to me…are about transparency. I don't want there to be any doubt or question in my constituents' minds about where I stand on these issues."
But isn't it unusual to use the mailings that are said to be informative as a means of criticizing Democratic opponents in an election year? "It's less about criticism and more about drawing a clear distinction between what I believe and what I do not," Perillo answered.
Perillo – who has been mentioned as a potential contender for House minority leader when Rep. Larry Cafero, the current GOP leader leaves the legislature in January – said he wants people to know he did not support the Democratic legislative majority's state budget in the 2014, and instead advocated workable Republican alternatives.
Asked how much of the material in his newsletter was written by Republican caucus staff members, he said some of it was, but he wrote other parts in a "collaborative" process.
Much of the newsletter displays the standard, tried-and-true fare of these taxpayer-funded mailings in the form of little bulletins about legislation that's been passed with significance to his district. "Aerospace Investment for UTC," says one heading, and another: "Fighting Domestic Violence.
Based on an incomplete sampling of Republican representatives' brochures, GOP lawmakers whose newsletters use the same or similar language about Democrats' alleged budget gimmicks (and about Republicans' claimed fiscal responsibility) include DebraLee Hovey of Monroe, Arthur O'Neill of Southbury, and Tim LeGeyt of Canton. None of them used Malloy's photo.
The mailings by Republicans in the state Senate are tamer. They feature the standard self-promotional, non-critical style that's become familiar over the years. Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, is depicted as "Fighting to Protect Our Wallets" in his "2014 Report." One of the pictures shows him "Listening to Roxbury Taxpayers." He doesn't criticize any Democrats.
It's the same with House and Senate Democrats. For example, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, is shown in a bike shop as an advocate for "Safer Streets," and as a supporter of "Raising the Minimum Wage." Looney included a "Clip & Save" section with phone numbers for his office and other agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, INFOLINE, and the Renter's Rebate Hotline.
Both parties' brochures use some identical content from legislator to legislator, and some language that's different. It depends on whether the district is on the shoreline, where storm issues are important, or in the city where safe streets are a priority. It's like the legislative caucus staffs put on a buffet of legislative issues that they've written snippets about, and the lawmakers can pick what they want from the menu for mailing to their constituents.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.