There’s a real good reason for state House Speaker Chris Donovan to be worried about his chances of winning in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District race, and it has nothing to do with the FBI investigation into campaign fundraising.
Donovan’s biggest hurdle may in fact be history: Connecticut legislative leaders suck as candidates for higher office. And the reasons concern complicated stuff like ego and the willingness to compromise and who you’ve stroked or pissed off to get to that high-ranking legislative spot.
Think about it. None of our sitting U.S. Senators or U.S. Representatives went directly from being a top leader in the General Assembly to Congress.
(Yes, Joe Lieberman was a state Senate majority leader at one time, but he lost the year he ran for the 3rd Congressional District seat, later successfully ran for state attorney general, and then won his U.S. Senate election. John Larson was a top state Senate leader, but gave up that spot in 1995, lost his bid to be governor in 1996, and didn’t win his 1st Congressional District seat until two years later.)
Neither the governor nor lieutenant governor (Dannel Malloy, Nancy Wyman) used a top legislative leadership post as a launch pad.
Of the other four statewide elective officers, only one (former state House Majority Leader Denise Merrill) managed to overcome the leadership jinx. And she did it by winning election to the post of secretary of the state – a fairly minor position that has often been filled by someone from the General Assembly.
Our Democratic state attorney general, George Jepsen, was at one time state Senate majority leader, but he lost his attempt to run directly from that job for higher office (lieutenant governor). He then served as state Democratic Party chairman for a couple of years (2003-05) before finally winning his statewide office in 2010.
Donovan, a Democrat and long-time union dude from Meriden, first won election to the state House in 1994. He convinced his fellow House Democrats to give him the post of House majority leader in 2004 and was sworn in as Speaker (one of the top two leadership posts) in January 2009.
He’s been hungering for higher office for a while now, and was considered the front-runner to win the 5th CD Democratic primary. He still may be the guy to beat in that primary, but the federal fundraising investigation has called all that into question.
Donovan denies any wrong doing and says he had no knowledge of the alleged misdeeds of his top campaign fundraiser, Robert Braddock Jr.
Braddock was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation that involved thousands of dollars in campaign donations that federal officials say were linked to promises to kill a certain piece of legislation before the 2012 General Assembly.
Those federal troubles aside, Donovan is likely to have a tough time defeating history. People who become top legislative leaders tend to have very different skill sets from people who become successful candidates for statewide or congressional office.
Becoming one of the General Assembly’s bigwigs (Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem, House or Senate majority leader) is a total insider’s game.
The folks who elect you are other legislators in your party; they tend to have known you for years; owed you legislative favors; or maybe you helped them raise money for their campaigns. You need to stroke them, make insider promises of promotions to committee chairmanships or other perks, and be ready to put up with their crappy demands and foibles.
And once you get to be a top leader, you’re likely to have to sacrifice your own ego to get stuff through, and you’ll almost always need to compromise on stuff you find really hard to swallow.
Later on, you’ll have to justify it all.
A top-level candidate, on the other hand, is all about ego and connecting to people who don’t really know you. Support from legislative allies you (as a top General Assembly leader) have been cultivating for years might help you win a nomination or a primary, but it won’t mean diddly squat to voters in the general election.
It can also help a candidate if he or she hasn’t had to lead the fight in the recent past on all kinds of hot-button legislative issues like abortion or the death penalty or minimum wage or same-sex marriage. Taking stands on those sorts of things can really piss some people off, and voting records can become sweet targets for the opposition to use or distort.
You might think years of legislative debating would make a legislative leader a smooth-talking ace in candidate debates, but that’s rarely the case. Legislative debates are usually incredibly boring affairs that actually have little to do with changing people’s minds. Most of the time, the only thing a legislative leader does is stand up at the end of a debate and sum things up and remind his people whether they should push the green button (for yes) or the red (for no).
So being a successful legislative leader in this state is almost always the worst kind of training for a big-time candidate wannabe. Not many are able to readjust their egos, change their management styles, overhaul their public speaking and do it while still working a their old legislative job.
Historically speaking, Donovan has a lot more problems than just the FBI.
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