Governor hopeful McKinney: 'I'm unafraid to talk the truth'

A state senator since 1999 and the body’s minority leader since 2007, State. Sen. John McKinney (R-Fairfield) isn’t accustomed to running from behind in elections. But he says he’s confident he can close the gap before next month’s Republican gubernatorial primary.

Listen to Republican John McKinney's interview with Hersam Acorn Newspapers:

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McKinney is challenging Greenwich resident Tom Foley in the Tuesday, Aug. 12, primary for the Republican nomination to face Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, this fall. Foley, who narrowly lost to Malloy in 2010, received the Republican party’s endorsement at the state’s convention in May and is considered to be a favorite in the primary. But McKinney said he’s not worried and that he only needs to look to 2010’s primary between Foley and former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele to see he can win.

“Polls are always a snapshot of name recognition and name recognition is a result of how much money you’ve spent,” McKinney said in an interview this week with Hersam Acorn Newspapers, carried live on “Ambassador Foley ran four years ago against Gov. Malloy and lost and spent somewhere around $15 million in the process. That gets you a lot of name recognition. I’ve spent about $15,000 statewide. I think we’re in a good position. If you look at the Republican primary from four years ago, with about a month to go Ambassador Foley had about a 38 point lead and he only won by two and a half points. So I would encourage people not to listen to polls.”

But while Fedele was able to significantly close the gap with Foley in 2010, he wasn’t able to win. McKinney will have to do better in convincing Republican primary voters that he is the one who can best represent the party and he said he is confident he can do that.

“Tom is a friend of mine but we do have some pretty significant differences on how we would handle the state budget and how we would turn the state around,” McKinney said. “I think ours is a message Republicans are going to listen to... I’ve said all across the state as I’ve met with Republicans that I’m not going to run a negative campaign in terms of running attack ads about what people did with their businesses and their lives because I think people are sick and tired of that and it doesn’t move our state forward. I’m going to run a positive campaign about how I believe we can grow jobs in Connecticut and turn our economy around. I believe more Republicans are going to say I have the message and ideas that they agree with. I’m unafraid to talk about the truth and unafraid to talk about the tough decisions we have to make to turn Connecticut around. People have been thirsting for that kind of honesty.”

Fixing the fiscal house

To McKinney that means “challenging the status quo” and having a conversation about shrinking the size of state government as he pegs the upcoming budget deficit at $2.8 billion. Stating that “Connecticut must fix its fiscal house,” McKinney said that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities are among some of the worst in the nation. Because of that, he believes business leaders are reluctant to invest in Connecticut and bring jobs here which would lead to further tax increases in the future.

And in order to deal with this problem, McKinney said it would be a “fundamental mistake” not to look at employee costs. Both Malloy and Foley have said they would not reopen contracts with state employees that last until 2022 to look at current health care and pension benefits, but McKinney pledged that he would because, “They are crippling our state.”

“I know the state spends too much,” McKinney said. “I think state government is too big and if we’re going to solve our problems we need to recognize that... I don’t have anything against state employees. It’s just a philosophical difference on what the role of government is. Government is here to provide public safety, education, fix roads and bridges and do the things government is there to do. It’s not there to be an employment agency for the state. That’s what the private sector can do.”

McKinney calls state government “too top heavy” due to the number of managers on the payroll and said that would be an area he would look to shrink to not only shed salaries but make state government more efficient. He calls the current health plan for state employees “unaffordable” and says there can be changes while still giving them a good health plan. Additionally, McKinney said with roughly 900 to 1,000 state employees leaving yearly through attrition, it makes sense to impose a hiring freeze to limit how many of those jobs are restaffed.

He also calls for a look at the state’s delivery of social services. McKinney said Connecticut is a “dual-delivery state” where both the state and non-profits provide social services and he claimed that for every dollar a non-profit spends, the state spends two to care for the same people, such as seniors or people with developmental disabilities. He calls that inefficient and pledged increased work with non-profits to “get the state out of that business.”

“We are not cutting services to anybody,” McKinney said. “In fact I think this would be improving services to people. It’s about how you deliver these services and I think we’re doing it inefficiently at too great an expense to taxpayers. That’s a dramatic shift in how we deliver services from a state and private function to an all non-profit function.”

Making those kinds of changes though are not something that a governor would be able to do just by saying so. It would require negotiations with unions and work with the state legislature. That’s why McKinney, a member of that legislature for 15 years, believes he is the right Republican for the job. He said by convincing the people that these are the right steps, you can convince the unions and the legislators.

“I know legislators,” McKinney said. “At the end of the day if they’re good and they’re doing their job, they’re trying to listen to their constituents. This is a message that people across Connecticut understand.”

Transportation woes

McKinney said that approaching how the state spends and adjusting taxes as a result of that is needed more than ever to attract business and jobs to the state.

“Connecticut has some real strengths,” McKinney said. “We have our close proximity to New York and an incredibly talented work force but we have some real weaknesses. Our taxes are too high and people look at moving because of our tax structure. People used to live in Fairfield County because of our tax structure and the difference between the taxes there and New York were dramatic... We’ve lost that competitive edge and we need to get it back.”

And doing that also requires a look at transportation infrastructure, according to McKinney. He criticized Malloy spending $500 million on the busway between Hartford and New Britain, a project that originated before he took office but was continued by Malloy, instead of focusing on the Walk Bridge in Norwalk — the rail bridge that has been stuck open more than once this year, delaying New Haven Line trains for hours — as well as other bridges more than 100 years old. McKinney said it takes longer to take the train from Fairfield to Manhattan than it did 30 years ago and that’s hurting the state.

“We have to recognize that there are around $3 billion worth of just maintenance fixes on our rail line from bridges to the rails before we can even talk about improving it,” McKinney said. “And by improving it I mean having a faster ride to New York. Imagine what could happen if you could get from Bridgeport to Manhattan 15 or 20 minutes faster. I think you open up Bridgeport as a very competitive market for office jobs that currently stop in Stamford because people can’t be too far away from New York.”

Gun laws

McKinney’s district includes Newtown, where the 2012 massacre took the lives of 27 people including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He was one of the top Republicans who worked with Malloy and the Democrats in the legislature on gun control reform considered to be some of the toughest in the nation.

That has opened him up for heavy criticism from the law’s opponents and has been cited as a factor in him running behind Foley in the primary. Because of that eyebrows were raised in April when a Democratic campaign tracker recorded McKinney speaking to the Quiet Corner Tea Party Patriots and saying, when asked hypothetically if he as governor would sign a repeal of the gun control laws that, “If the legislature repeals something I think the governor owes great deference to what the legislature does and I would.”

In discussing those comments, McKinney, who wears a bracelet every day to honor one of the kids, said that he had been speaking for more than two hours to the group answering “dozens and dozens of questions” before he made those comments. He said it was a mistake to answer a hypothetical question about a repeal but he wished more of the video had been released beyond just the 20-second soundbite.

“I did vote for Senate Bill 1160,” McKinney said. “I do not regret the vote. I wouldn’t take the vote back if it came before me again. I believed it was in the best interest of the people I represent. I am the only voice for the town of Newtown in the State Senate. I also said that as governor I will not introduce measures to change it or repeal it because I will be focused on the economy, the state budget and getting Connecticut moving again.”

The hypothetical question he was answering, McKinney said, imagined a scenario where Republicans had the majority in the General Assembly and had successfully voted to repeal the laws. If that were to happen, McKinney said he would step in early in the process.

“What I should have said is that it will never get to that point,” McKinney said. “A good governor is going to sit down and work with the leaders from their own party to negotiate things. If Republicans took over control of the House and the Senate and I’m governor, I understand I’m going to need them to support my budgets and my proposals to shrink spending and shrink the size of government. There may be priorities they have that I don’t have and that’s a general negotiation between two equal branches of government. I was very clear. I voted for it. I don’t regret it. I would vote for it again. As governor I am not going to introduce a measure to repeal it.”

McKinney ultimately says that his experience in Hartford is the edge Republicans need to win in November because he knows the legislative process and he knows the issue. And he can also point to something state Republicans are no doubt hungry for: wins.

“I’ve proven I can win races over eight elections for the State Senate,” McKinney said. “I’ve shown that on Election Day I get a higher percentage of unaffiliated voters and even some Democratic voters than other candidates can.”

The entire interview, which also focuses on the current state of Connecticut’s Republican Party, state’s First Five deal with Bridgewater to from Westport to Stamford (which fell apart last week), the state’s unfunded pension liability and whether there should be border tolls can be heard at the archives.