Herbst looking to future of Trumbull and state GOP

First Selectman Tim Herbst won’t be leaving his office in Town Hall just yet, after narrowly losing his bid for state treasurer last week. Herbst said he is focusing on budgets, capital projects, sewer fees, and other local issues, though he admits running a statewide campaign changed his outlook on a few things and his standing in state politics.

“I’m not upset at all,” Herbst said Monday. “I left it all on the field. As I told people on the campaign trail, I run the best town in America.”

In the end, Herbst lost his bid for state treasurer to incumbent Denise Nappier by roughly 9,000 votes. He won in 114 municipalities, he said, and in three of the state’s five congressional districts. He conceded around 4 p.m. last Wednesday, after an extremely tight race. Herbst said he went to sleep for a few hours around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning with results showing him well ahead of Nappier — a lead he would later lose as other results trickled in, including from cities like New Haven, where Nappier dominated.

Still, the close race was the result of a lot of work and a campaign that some are calling the best executed in the state, according to the first selectman.

“We knew how high of a hill we had to climb,” he said.

As he set out on the campaign trail months ago, his internal poll numbers showed him down by 20 points.

“Voters in Connecticut, in large measure, are a very sophisticated and engaged electorate,” he said. “They read the paper, they study the issues, they see when an opponent doesn’t show up for debate and doesn’t have a good excuse.”

Herbst publicly challenged Nappier to debate throughout the campaign. Nappier canceled one planned debate for personal reasons. The two eventually agreed to a televised debate that turned ugly at points, with both arguing over the state pensions and questioning the other’s ethics. Herbst attacked Nappier’s pension performance while Nappier accused him of distorting her record. The campaign made a lot of news, and Herbst was endorsed by major Connecticut newspapers, including The Hartford Courant and The Day of New London.

Herbst said he called Nappier, first to give his condolences on the death of her mother right before Election Day, and later to concede. He left voicemails.

In the last three days of his campaign, he stopped in 30 towns, and says he has not been getting a lot of sleep for the past few months.

“Last weekend, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said of the end of his campaign.

Statewide GOP

At 34 years old, running in a statewide campaign was an honor, Herbst said. The calls he has received since from members of his party, seeking advice on the GOP’s future, are “humbling,” he said.

His campaign staff were all in their 30s and Herbst said they are considered “young guns,” with a different perspective. Campaign manager J.R. Romano, his former classmate at Trinity College, is now being considered for chairmanship of the statewide GOP, according to websites like DailyRuctions.com and CTNewsJunkie.com.

Herbst said a generational shift is important to get the party thriving again, following Foley’s defeat.

“The Republican Party definitely needs to do some soul searching,” Herbst said of the state GOP. “We have to articulate a vision. It can’t just start six months before an election, it should have started four years ago.”

Herbst said the party has no one to blame but themselves.

“We are all to blame,” he said. “There is no excuse that a governor with the highest unfavorable rating in the nation gets re-elected. We underperformed in towns we won in 2010.

“We did something wrong,” Herbst said. “You can’t beat someone by saying, ‘I’m not that person.’ You have to tell them what you will do, and that’s what I did in my campaign.”

Herbst said he would welcome the opportunity to be part of that discussion in the future.

In Trumbull

Herbst said his experience around the state has put Trumbull politics, which can get nasty at times, in perspective.

The first selectman has publicly battled with local members of the Democratic Party and, at times, members of his own party on issues.

“I’m not going to put up with political nonsense,” he said. “If you do something wrong I will call you out on it.”

Herbst said he was appalled to see a negative mailer sent out by Trumbull Democrats against state Rep. Dave Rutigliano, who ended up winning re-election last week. He said Republicans outside of Trumbull were also shocked by the mailer.

The debate on negative mailers in town also popped up in the last municipal election, when local Democrats were angered by GOP mailers that had Photoshopped Democratic candidates in an unflattering way.

Herbst said running a statewide campaign helped him see a bigger picture.

“We’re so close to it here it becomes, unfortunately, accepted behavior,” he said of negative attacks. “But when you get out, it really puts it in perspective.”

He admits every party has “fringe elements” but for the most part, voters are tired or rhetoric and want results.

Herbst’s chief of staff, Lynn Arnow, is scheduling a series on civility in January that he hopes all officials will attend.

When it comes to Trumbull business, Herbst said he had hoped a charter revision to add pension language would have been passed by voters. The change was voted down. He said his administration will still fund the pension at the annually required contribution.

As budget season approaches, Herbst said he is working with Superintendent Gary Cialfi on ways to reduce Trumbull’s pay-to-participate fees. He also is looking into senior tax relief and a new senior center. The town will also have to hire a new police chief, as Chief Thomas Kiely retires soon.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said.

Messages from voters in his hometown have been encouraging.

“One thing that really makes me feel good is the emails from residents who say they are sorry I lost, but selfishly happy I’ll be sticking around,” he said. “It’s nice to know your hometown has your back.”