Former Connecticut state Representative Jonathan Pelto is running for governor, but he says he isn’t interested in getting back into politics full time.
“I see this as an effort to make a run for governor, really try to shake things up, try to change the debate,” he said. “If that doesn’t work then I’ll go back to the private sector and make enough money to pay my bills.”
Paying those bills is just one of the reasons Pelto entered the race. Tax and education reform top the list of other reasons why the former legislator is petitioning to appear on the November ballot under the banner of the Education and Democracy Party. Creating the party is sort of an about face for a man who once stuffed envelopes for George McGovern and served as a Democrat in the state legislature for nine years, three of those spent as the party’s political director.
Pelto resigned mid-term from his seat in 1993, and not at the urging of his party, or because of his age, or amid scandal. He had just welcomed his daughter, Mara, into the world and wanted to not only focus on being a father, but also focus on how he would provide for her in the future.
“$27,000 wasn’t enough to raise a family,” he said. “Secondly, politics and family life often clash.”
Pelto explains that it was a conversation with a colleague — who told him that he had missed five of his own daughters’ dance recitals — that helped him make the decision to resign at 32 years old.
Since resigning, Pelto has worked in the private sector, more specifically in public and government relations. He also owned a retail store with his wife, Nicole. Mara is now in college and his younger daughter is in high school. Pelto said since leaving the legislature he has experienced the struggle as a middle-class parent trying to make ends meet, while ensuring that his children get a quality education.
Via his blog “Wait What?” he began airing his grievances. Since its launch in January 2011, the site has had almost 1.5 million visitors and, he says, is the most widely read politics commentary site in the state.
It was writing about politics that brought him back onto the campaign trail.
“I realized that just writing about it was not enough to change the policies,” Pelto explained. “I found myself moving back into the political fray as a way to talk about the problems that I saw — the things the government wasn’t doing.”
Pelto says that education reform was the “primary focus” of the blog when he first launched it three years ago, but it has evolved its focus on broader issues — tax reform, transparency, corporate welfare — while becoming the popular stop for Connecticut constituents.
Although he has identified as a Democrat since he first registered to vote at 18, he has made ousting Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, the goal in his return to politics. He sees Malloy as a fragment of a larger issue, a problem he identifies as an “incumbency party”– one of the two parties are always in control and the differences in the party philosophies are becoming harder to differentiate.
Pelto says that the national ideals of liberalism and conservatism are changing throughout the U.S. and efforts to repeal Common Core — a keystone in his campaign — are being carried out by activists on both sides of the aisle, which is partly the reason why he started his own party.
“People say, ‘Well, you walked away from the Democratic Party,’” he said. “Well, the Democratic Party walked away from us.”
Malloy, Pelto says, has turned the tax screws on the middle class and adopted what he calls “absurd, unfair, expensive … and wasteful” education policies in the Common Core and teacher evaluation programs.
“Malloy, in my mind, earns the title of the most anti-teacher, anti-public education,” Pelto says. “[He] is the only Democratic governor in the country to propose doing away with teacher tenure and repealing collective bargaining in ‘turnaround schools.’”
In addition to Malloy’s failing policies, Pelto says the governor is ignoring the state’s $1.4 billion budget deficit. What he should be doing, according to Pelto, is taking an “everything is on the table” approach to closing the gap. The $1.5 billion tax increase implemented by Malloy in 2011 – the largest in the state’s history – was aimed at the wages of the middle class, Pelto says. He accuses Malloy, the former Stamford mayor from affluent Fairfield County, of protecting his millionaire buddies during the tax increase. He says that in Connecticut the middle class pays about 10 percent of their wages in income taxes, the poor pay about 12 percent and millionaires pay between about five and six percent.
“We have, in essence, a perfectly regressive tax structure,” he says. “His tax bill was especially hard on the middle class, while coddling the rich.”
Pelto says this “coddling” is best exemplified in Malloy’s relationship with the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, headed by billionaire Ray Dalio. The company, according to Pelto, was paid $120 million in tax incentives by Malloy to move their headquarters 12 miles from Westport to Stamford. The company spent “at least $16 million in public funds” just to find out that the move didn’t make sense, Pelto said.
The incumbent legislature is also to blame for these failed policies, and Pelto says many of the voters he has spoken to say his views are “refreshing.” His detractors, however, have labeled him a “spoiler” in the race; meaning that his name on the ballot will only take votes away from the GOP challenger, likely Tom Foley, and help Malloy get reelected.
Pelto says he has already obtained enough signatures to appear on the ballot and that his candidacy will be official prior to the Aug. 6 petition filing deadline. He said his support is coming, mostly, from Democrats, unaffiliated voters, constituencies that feel left out and teachers.
“I can see a pathway to winning,” he said. “We’re definitely benefiting from this underlying frustration and anger with the electoral process that has been hijacked by people who don’t want to be challenged.”
(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)