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Jon Lender: Canceled legislative session doesn’t stem $900K tide of taxpayer-funded, self-promoting constituent mail

Cropped portions of constituent mail from state senators, a Democrat and Republican, which were part of the latest taxpayer-funded wave of 2,584,197 mailers sent out at a postage cost of $612,311. Printing costs are not yet compiled, but will bring the total taxpayer expense close to or above $900,000, based on past experience.
Cropped portions of constituent mail from state senators, a Democrat and Republican, which were part of the latest taxpayer-funded wave of 2,584,197 mailers sent out at a postage cost of $612,311. Printing costs are not yet compiled, but will bring the total taxpayer expense close to or above $900,000, based on past experience. (Connecticut State Senate, Democratic and Republican caucuses, photo layout by Jon Lender)

You might think that because the coronavirus pandemic canceled most of this year’s regular General Assembly session, state legislators might — just this once — cut back on the taxpayer-funded, fancy “legislative news” brochures that they love to mail to constituents.

But no.

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Even though only one bill was passed (the state bonding package) before 2020′s regular session was cut short in March by nearly two months, the four partisan caucuses at the Capitol in Hartford still spent $900,000 or so — yet again — on their annual “district-wide” mailings, in which lawmakers get to update their constituents on everything they got done during the legislative session.

Why, you may ask, would lawmakers send out such an expensive legislative update if they barely passed any legislation and now face projections of massive state budget deficits amid the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic?

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Hmmm, maybe it’s because these mass mailings amount to a free bonanza of self-promotion for any incumbent seeking reelection this fall.

The full-color, fold-out mailers don’t look much different from the candidate literature that these officeholders will be distributing during their campaigns for the Nov. 3 election. They’re generally crammed with a half-dozen or more photos of lawmakers smiling, or listening thoughtfully to constituents, sometimes wearing face masks.

There are always pronouncements about various public issues by legislators, who typically report that they have been “fighting for” or “combating” or “ensuring” or “strengthening” or “pushing for” or “building” things.

A number of these quotes clearly are scripted for them by caucus employees — with the result that the same words appear, verbatim, under the names of different lawmakers in multiple brochures. Both parties do it. Here’s an example from state Senate Democrats:

  • “After standing with the community in demonstrations and listening to the thoughts, concerns and pain of our neighbors, I pushed for a number of proposals to address long-standing inequities here in Connecticut,” four different Democratic senators — Mary Daugherty Abrams of Meriden, Dennis Bradley of Bridgeport, Marilyn Moore of Bridgeport and Gary Winfield of New Haven — all said in the same words but in separate mailers.
  • A fifth Democratic senator, Christine Cohen of Guilford, had the same quote in her mailer, except that she said she had “laid out a comprehensive proposal to address long-standing inquities,” rather than “pushed for a number of proposals,” as the other four did.

The main difference between these taxpayer-funded mailers and literature paid for by campaigns is that the legislative mailers cannot, by law, say “vote for me” or words to that effect.

An example of one side of a House Republican Caucus mailer, this one for Rep. John Piscopo of Thomaston
An example of one side of a House Republican Caucus mailer, this one for Rep. John Piscopo of Thomaston (Connecticut House Republican Caucus)

But, even without that direct appeal to voters, many say it’s a big and perhaps unfair advantage for an incumbent senator to send a state-funded brochure with flattering pictures of himself or herself to 30,000 or more district voters (or, in , in the case of state representatives. whose districts are smaller, 10,000 or more).

A mailing of that magnitude would cost a House campaign $3,000 or so, and a Senate campaign $12,000, or even more. But this way, it comes out of the pockets of the people they’re elected to serve.

It’s not that the mailings are completely devoid of actual informational material, such as telling people how to contact government agencies for help with their problems. But there’s so much else in their format that builds a politician’s image, and sends the message “I’m working hard for you,” that some critics call the summer’s big mailing a $900K pre-election perk that legislators don’t need or deserve.

‘That’s a lot of money'

“That’s a lot of money,” said Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, a first-term legislator who said during her 2018 campaign that the district-wide mailings were too expensive and she wouldn’t use them if elected. She’s one of only a few legislators who didn’t send out the mailers this time around.

Another side of a House Republican Caucus mailer for Rep. John Piscopo of Thomaston
Another side of a House Republican Caucus mailer for Rep. John Piscopo of Thomaston (Connecticut House Republican Caucus)

“The last two years have shown me that there’s often pushback when you suggest [budget] cuts that are less than $1 million,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “But if we could cut that, in addition to some other unnecessary expenses that we continue to do because we’ve always done them,” she said it could add up to substantial savings.

Gilchrest defeated a well-entrenched Democratic incumbent, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, in a 2018 primary, and said “my election showed that you don’t need those mailings” to reach constituents. “With new technologies and social media, there are just so many ways to communicate with people at no cost. I would hope we could move in that direction.”

Those hopes notwithstanding, the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state Senate (where Democrats hold 22 of 36 seats) and the House of Representatives (where Democrats hold a 91-60 majority) didn’t blink an eye before sending out 2,584,197 mailers by mid-July.

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The postage cost $612,311, and, while state officials say printing expenses have not been compiled, they typically amount to slightly less than half the mailing costs — which would put the total bill to taxpayers close to, or above, $900,000.

In 2018, the last time this column visited the issue, the mailing cost of the July mailings was $602,732, nearly $10,000 less than this year, and the printing cost was $276,516 for about 2.6 million brochures, bringing the overall cost to $879,248.

An example of one side of a state House Democratic caucus brochure for Rep. Jill Barry of Glastonbury
An example of one side of a state House Democratic caucus brochure for Rep. Jill Barry of Glastonbury (Connecticut House Democratic Caucus)

This latest wave of mailings went out by an official deadline of July 15, which applies to incumbent legislators who are seeking reelection. The longstanding deadline establishes a 3½-month separation between the incumbents’ mailings and the November election, to keep things fairer for challengers.

But not everyone is impressed by the supposed fairness created by the mailing deadline — including Bridgeport City Councilman Marcus Brown, who is facing Moore, the incumbent senator, in an Aug. 11 primary.

Brown said in a phone interview Thursday that Moore’s mailers have been landing in local mailboxes too close to the scheduled primary, now less than two weeks off.

He said he’s seen Moore’s mailings, which he called “her ‘constituent update mailer,‘ ” and he added: “Oh, it’s a campaign brochure, all right” — in effect, anyway. Brown said that in recent months, Moore also had recorded robocalls about the coronavirus crisis that played her voice on the phones of citizens in the district. They were paid for by the Senate Democratic Caucus as a government expense.

Brown said, “It’s crazy that I have to abide by a certain set of rules” — including living within a $107,000 candidate’s budget under the state’s public-financing campaign grant program — while Moore not only gets the same $107,000 state campaign grant, but also enjoys the state-funded benefits of the district-wide mass mailing and the robocalls.

At a May 19 nominating convention, Brown defeated Moore by a delegate vote of 43-10 for the endorsement to run as the local Democratic Party’s candidate for the 22nd Senate District seat in the Nov. 3 election. But Moore, the three-term incumbent in that seat, won enough delegates to qualify for the Aug. 11 primary, which will decide who the nominee will be.

Asked Thursday about Brown’s criticism, Moore said in a phone interview that “I have been in his place before,” in 2014, when she defeated then-Sen. Anthony Musto in a Democratic primary and went on to win the November election. “I appreciated, regardless of who sent [legislative mailings from the incumbent] that my legislator was communicating with me throughout the year,” she said.

Another side of a state House Democratic Caucus brochure for Rep. Jill Barry of Glastonbury
Another side of a state House Democratic Caucus brochure for Rep. Jill Barry of Glastonbury (Connecticut House Democratic Caucus)

She defended the state-funded mailers and robocalls, saying it would have been wrong of her as an elected state senator not to have communicated by phone and give coronavirus-related information to vulnerable residents, some of whom were afraid to touch any mail delivered to their homes.

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She said Brown has advantages as a candidate by virtue of his status as a city councilman, “and I think that one mailpiece won’t make a big difference between the two of us” by the time November rolls around.

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She said she stands by the content of her recent districtwide mailing, which displays the phrase “HONESTY & INTEGRITY” beneath her name in capital letters. Asked if that phrase could fairly be called informational, rather than promotional, she said: “I serve one of the most corrupt cities in Connecticut, and I want to hold onto that. I want them to know that they can trust me. ... I don’t do any of those shenanigans.”

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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