Part of an occasional series on challengers for seats in the General Assembly
Chris Oliveira (R) of Old Lyme is betting that his opponent, State Sen. Andrea Stillman (D-Waterford), won’t see him coming. Incumbents like Stillman who don’t often face stiff competition, he believes, are so disconnected and certain of their strength, that they are vulnerable to a strong challenge from committed candidates. Oliveira believes he has what it takes to defeat Stillman this year, and he has the fundraising numbers to prove it. Oliveira was one of the few challengers to outraise his or her incumbent opponent (Stillman raised $5,825, Oliveira raised $16,415—the two have similar amounts on hand) during the second quarter, and that has raised a few eyebrows around the state. I sat down with Oliveira last week in Middletown.
This is Oliveira’s first race, although he is hardly a political newcomer, having worked on Republican races since Ed Munster’s 1996 run for Congress. He became a member of the Old Lyme RTC in 1997, and became town chair in 2002. He was elected to the state central committee in 2003, and has been running races, mostly successfully, in southeastern Connecticut ever since.
Sen. Andrea Stillman is seeking her second term after winning by an overwhelming margin (22.6%) in 2004. But Oliveira believes that she can be defeated despite the advantages of incumbency, for two main reasons. Firstly, he says that she hasn't had much of a presence in many of the towns she represents outside of New London and Waterford, and is therefore disconnected from her constituents. He believes that she is so disconnected from the people in these towns that he described the contest there as "…not an incumbency race and more of an open seat."
Secondly, he claims she has a very thin record of accomplishment on which to run. He points to two of Stillman's major accomplishments, work on a human trafficking report and a proposed bill banning cell phones at gas stations as evidence. Human trafficking is almost entirely unknown in Connecticut, and the show "Mythbusters" actually debunked the idea that cell phones could cause dangerous situations at gas stations—a direct contradiction of Stillman's testimony.
Oliveira was so fed up that he and others started a PAC called "Common Sense CT," which was intended to, according to their initial press release, "…combat the tendency of the members of our state legislative [sic] to introduce or support legislation that either flies in the face of common sense, the will of the majority of their constituents, or both." The group had some success for a while in 2005, running radio ads against Democratic attempts to break the spending cap, joining in the fight to save the Sub Base and working successfully against Stillman's efforts to pass the ban on cell phones in gas stations, but folded shortly thereafter.
Cost of Living
Oliveira believes that many of the challenges facing the people of his district can be traced to the cost of living. He ties property taxes, the cost of education, the price of gas and home heating, health care and other problems to the overall increase in the cost of living, which he says is driving people and jobs out of southeastern Connecticut. To help remedy these problems, he wants to serve on the energy committee, sign on to proposals to reform the tax system, serve on the appropriations committee, find ways to get the state to shoulder more of the cost of education and, above all, help to "control the appetite for spending" in the legislature.
Running with Rell
He says that Governor Rell, along with his own frustration at what he considers to be the poor record of the incumbent senator, is largely responsible for his decision to actually run for office.
According to Oliveira, his run for office began last year, when he and other Republican town chairs met with the governor. Oliveira recalls that the governor encouraged the town chairs to “…go back to your district, get people to run or run yourselves.” Oliveira couldn’t find anyone in his district willing to face Stillman, so he decided to wait and see whether the political winds were right for a run. By April, the governor’s numbers hadn’t fallen and Rep. Rob Simmons was still doing well, so he decided that the time was right.
"If Rell wasn't running this year, I wouldn't be running," he admits. He also says that, instead of initially identifying himself as a Republican to people in the district, he says "I'm running with Gov. Rell." This usually prompts a positive response, he says.
He believes that Rell needs more support in the legislature, and that, with a little more balance, the governor could pick her battles more effectively. He does disagree with the governor on public financing of campaigns, saying that "I don't like the idea that taxpayer dollars will be given to candidates," but he does approve of the prohibition on certain kinds of money flowing into campaigns. He initially challenged Sen. Stillman to fund her campaign using only private donations instead of raising money through PACs and ad books. He himself began his fundraising that way, but abandoned the effort when it became clear that Stillman wasn't going to bite.
Focus of the Campaign
Oliveira says that the three main themes of his campaign are: "I am passionate and have energy: if you elect me, you'll see me working." Secondly, "I am focused on issues that matter, like cost of living," and lastly, "My opponent is not [focused on these issues] – she has the typical "incumbency disease."
Oliveira is a smart tactical thinker with a good line, and his focus on Rell seems wise in 2006. Whether or not Rell will help him, or anyone else, get to Hartford in 2007 is another story.
Are you a challenger for a seat in the General Assembly? Contact us!