Several weeks ago I spoke to the West Hartford Rotary Club about good governance, i.e., the importance of improving the rules and procedures that control the way our state government makes and implements decisions. While chatting with a few Rotarians after the meeting ended, one asked whether I was thinking about running for public office. The answer was (and is) yes.
I explained that I am not a declared candidate for any office, nor have I formed an exploratory committee which, under state law, allows a person considering running for office to “test the waters” without formally declaring their candidacy for a particular office. If I ever decide to take either of those formal steps, it won’t be until sometime well after the election this November, most likely not until 2017. But it is never too early to informally consider the possibility of running for office. Looking ahead to 2018, there is a chance that one or more of several statewide offices in Connecticut, such as Comptroller or Secretary of the State, will have an open seat. I am interested in one of those positions, but only if there is an open seat.
Of course, the next question one of the Rotarian’s asked was, “Why are you interested in running for office?” What follows is a less garbled and more thoughtful version of the answer I gave several weeks ago on the sidewalk outside the Pond House at Elizabeth Park in West Hartford.
First, although I make my living as an appellate and First Amendment attorney, I have also spent the better part of the past twenty years as an advocate for good government. I have served for many years on the boards of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (of which I am currently the president) and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government (of which I am the immediate past president). I have been a vocal advocate for legislation to improve the way government operates and makes decisions, and a vocal critic of legislation and other government actions that prioritize secrecy and political expediency over transparency and the public good. For example, in 2003, I was one of the lawyers who sued the Judicial Branch over its practice of “super-secret” files. That lawsuit resulted in fundamental changes in the Judicial Branch’s attitude toward openness and transparency. Similarly, in 2015, after a Connecticut Supreme Court decision reversed two decades of settled law concerning public access to arrest records, I worked closely with the Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney to negotiate a bill that restored public access to such records.
It has been said that history is made by those who show up. I am no longer content to advocate for good government from the sidelines; I want to be one of the people who show up and participate directly in the process of governing our state. I want to bring my experience as a good government advocate to public office.
Second, although the Comptroller and Secretary of the State are part of the Executive Branch of state government, they are also independent constitutional officers. As such, they have the ability to serve as a check on the other branches of our government. Thus, beyond their statutory missions, these offices all serve as important watchdogs for the rest of our state and local governments. For example, Comptroller Kevin Lembo describes his office as serving as “Connecticut’s fiscal guardian — committed to help eliminate wasteful spending, strengthen budget transparency, deliver government services more efficiently and address the state’s growing health care crisis.”
As a long-time good government advocate, I believe watchdog offices and agencies are critical to maintaining integrity and ethics in government. I want to bring my experience as a leader of non-governmental watchdog organizations to public office.
Third, unlike the Office of Governor, for which the candidate runs on a platform to promote a particular set of policies and programs, the constitutional offices I am considering each have distinct statutory responsibilities that are not inherently “Democratic” or “Republican,” “liberal” or “conservative.” Regardless of his or her political party affiliation, the person who holds these offices should have one objective only: to fulfill those non-partisan responsibilities in a non-partisan manner. Although I am a lifelong Democrat, I am independent and have not been afraid to challenge (or praise) the actions of public officials, regardless of their political affiliation. These personal qualities are particularly suited to the constitutional offices of Comptroller and Secretary of the State.
Fourth, I recently read an article that described the USA as the “United States of Anxiety.” I think the title accurately describes the feeling shared by millions of people in our nation, Connecticut residents included.
Many people believe that the way to reduce, if not eliminate, that anxiety is to “throw the bums out” and elect different people. I empathize with that feeling and agree that electing good people is essential to government’s ability to successfully address the serious challenges we face as a nation and a state. But I am convinced that we also need to examine systemic weaknesses in the structure and design of our state government, including the formal rules and informal conventions that control the way our government makes and implements decisions.
Talking to voters about the need to reform the process of government decision-making is risky; the topic isn’t very sexy. However, as I wrote in the Hartford Business Journal recently, “we ignore the rules concerning decision-making processes at our peril. Good decision-making processes do not guarantee good policy outcomes, but bad processes surely do, no matter the quality of the persons we elect, appoint and hire to run the government. If we put “better” people into a dysfunctional system of governance, there is no reason to expect any meaningful improvement in government’s ability to address the difficult problems we face as a society.”
A public official holding one of the statewide offices I am exploring cannot single-handedly change the decision-making process in state government. But running for, and possibly holding, one of those offices would provide a bully pulpit from which the candidate or office-holder could advocate for positive changes.
Fifth, I believe in public service. I was honored to serve as pro bono legal counsel to the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission for nearly two years. I have served as special counsel to the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Office of State Ethics. I have represented the State of Connecticut and its agencies before the state and federal courts in cases where the Office of the Attorney General had a conflict and outside counsel was required. Serving the people of Connecticut as an elected official would be a natural evolution in my commitment to public service.
These are the reasons why I am thinking seriously about the 2018 statewide elections. Why mention this now? Because 2018 is not that far away. As a relatively unknown private citizen thinking about public office for the first time, there is much to be done over the next 24+ months to introduce myself to voters. I look forward to meeting with and speaking to people and organizations across the state and learning whether my reasons for considering public office are consistent with what they want, and deserve, in an elected official.