An old-time political tradition in CT returns but Democrats largely skipped this year

Photo of Julia Bergman
Bob Stefanowski, Republican candidate for Governor

Bob Stefanowski, Republican candidate for Governor

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

BRISTOL — A long-running tradition of setting aside political differences for some comedic relief and a good cause - a dying art in today’s partisan political landscape - returned after a two-year hiatus with some notable guests missing.

No Democrat running for statewide office showed up Friday for the 139th annual Crocodile Club luncheon at the historic ballroom at Lake Compounce.

Almost the entire top of the Republican ticket - including candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, Secretary of the State, Comptroller and Attorney General - appeared on stage before a crowd of 200 politicos, who sat at long tables lined with American flag-themed tablecloths, to make gentle fun of themselves and their opponents.

The event featured a “few cancellations,” Brian Shactman, of WTIC News Talk 1080, who emceed the event, said at the start, noting the no-shows we’re all Democrats. “What are they afraid of?” Schactman said.

Among those not in attendance were U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who had to be in Washington, D.C. for a vote on his party’s flagship climate change and health care bill, and Attorney General William Tong and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who must’ve skipped the event because too few television cameras were there, Schactman joked of the men who are known for holding frequent press conferences.

Spokespeople for Blumenthal and Tong said they were invited but we’re not able to attend due to other commitments. Nancy DiNardo, chair of the state Democratic Party, said she wasn’t aware of this year’s event but has attended in the past. DiNardo added that there was no coordinated effort by members of her party to not attend. Her GOP counterpart, Ben Proto, chair of the state’s Republican party was there.

On stage, Bob Stefanowski, of Madison, the GOP candidate for governor, picked up on a rumor that Gov. Ned Lamont, who showed up in 2018, did not know about the event hence why he wasn’t there. Emails sent between staff at the New England Carousel Museum, which hosted the event, and Lamont’s office show the governor was invited to attend.

“I’m disappointed that my opponent, the governor, is not here today,” Stefanowski said, “and I know the excuse is that he didn’t give invited.”

But the real reason for the governor’s absence, Stefanowski quipped, was because he did not meet the height requirement to ride on the rollercoasters at the oldest amusement park in America.

Stefanowski, who is making a second run for governor, then ticked off five reasons he’s going to win the race in November with the biggest applause line coming from “number 1” on the list, which he joked his wife told him not to use. “Governor Lamont, he’s actually thinking about withdrawing from the race, moving to Nashville, Tennessee because it’s simply too hard to do business in Connecticut,” he said.

The line - said in jest this time - has been a frequent attack of Stefanowski’s in the rematch between him and Lamont. Last fall, after facing repeated criticism for investments by his wife’s venture capital firm in two companies doing business with the state, Lamont told his reporters, Annie Lamont was in Nashville “setting up companies there because Connecticut’s pretty complicated.” The governor has since said he made the offhand remark out of frustration over the political complications of his wife to do business in a state that he governs.

Anthony Anthony, Lamont’s director of communications, said after the event Friday afternoon that scheduling conflicts prevented the governor from attending. “Governor Lamont keeps a very busy schedule and unfortunately can’t make it to every event he’s invited to,” Anthony said.

When it was her turn on stage, Leora Levy, of Greenwich, who won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate earlier this week, played up Democratic attacks over her endorsement from former President Donald Trump. “A lot of people are trying to make me into President Trump,” Levy said. “Well, Donald Trump and I do have something in common, we both love red meat. However, he likes his well done with ketchup. I’ll take mine steak tartare.”

Dominic Rapini, of Fairfield, the winner of the Republican primary for Secretary of the State, has been quick to make accusations of election fraud in Connecticut, many of which have proven to be baseless - and wasted no time making those same claims Friday when it was his turn to speak. Rapini said primary ballots in Litchfield County Tuesday mistakenly had his name crossed out so he called Staples, “they sent over a box of white out, sharpies, problem solved,” he said - highlighting how he would be a problem if elected to the job.

Other Republican candidates to address the crowd included Jessica Kordas, who is running for Attorney General, the state’s top law enforcement official, and Mary Fay, who is vying to be Comptroller, the state’s fiscal guardian, paymaster and chief of health services to state employees and retirees. Mike Reiss, writer of the Simpsons and a Bristol native, headlined the event. The rules for the afternoon were simple: no politicking and no stump speeches.

Several Democratic state lawmakers in the audience said they were disappointed that party leaders nor candidates running at the top of the ticket could make it. Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, and Reps Kerry Wood, D-Rocky Hill, and Edwin Vargas, Jr., D-Hartford, all attended the luncheon.

“If I were running for statewide office I would’ve been there,” Vargas said. “You never give up an opportunity to have a good time, and let your hair loose a little, and not be so serious about politics every so often.”

Wood first came to the event several years ago, “an off-election year,” when Larson was the only Democrat on stage. “There was a lot of the Republicans and I said ‘When this is a (big) election year, this is going to be great because we’re going to have bipartisan (attendance), lots of laugh, it’ll be great,’” she said. “I was disappointed that a lot of people were cancelling.

Wood said she would make a more concerted effort to promote the event, which serves as a fundraiser for the carousel museum, to her colleagues ahead of next year.

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com