Not so long ago, most mainstream Democrats shunned progressive proposals such as paid family and medical leave, universal health care, legal recreational marijuana and the $15 minimum wage.
But in Connecticut, those once-fringe policies are gaining traction within the Democratic Party as it coalesces around a ticket of Ned Lamont for governor and Susan Bysiewicz for lieutenant governor.
Lamont, a wealthy businessman from Greenwich who rose to prominence with his insurgent U.S. Senate campaign against Joe Lieberman in 2006, says he is uniquely positioned to advocate for liberal ideals.
“Ironically as a strong progressive, I would be the first governor that’s actually started a business and has created jobs. I think I can argue our progressive agenda much more compellingly than maybe others,’’ Lamont said, adding that “a $15 minimum wage is good for business as well as good for families.’’
Democrats will meet in Hartford this weekend, where delegates are expected to endorse Lamont, although two other Democrats — Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and retired business executive Guy Smith — are collecting signatures to appear on the Aug. 14 primary ballot.
The triumph of the progressive agenda over the political centrism of “New Democrats” such as Bill Clinton is partly a legacy of the 2016 election, said Gwendoline Alphonso, an associate professor of politics at Fairfield University who studies the ideology of political parties.
“Donald Trump’s push was toward more economic nationalism and the Democratic Party is responding to that,’’ Alphonso said. “Progressive politicians are saying ‘these are our issues, he stole them from us.’’’
The rift between mainstream Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton and progressives who supported Bernie Sanders has yet to fully heal. But the new muscle of the Sanders wing is evident in key races in blue states across the country as candidates seek to galvanize newly energized members of the Trump resistance.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a challenge on the left from Cynthia Nixon, an actress known for her role as Miranda on the HBO series, “Sex and the City.” In California, four-term U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein lost the Democratic endorsement to her liberal primary challenger, state Senate leader Kevin de León.
Progressives have even made inroads in less hospitable territory: On Tuesday in Nebraska, community organizer Kara Eastman beat a more moderate former congressman to win a Democratic primary for a House seat, and in western Pennsylvania, two Socialist candidates won Democratic primaries for legislative seats.
Almost all of the leading contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Connecticut this year embraced a liberal policy agenda. Jonathan Harris, who served as executive director of the state Democratic Party as well as mayor of West Hartford, called himself a “proven progressive problem-solver,” before he withdrew from the race and endorsed Lamont.
Guy Smith, who advised President Bill Clinton during an impeachment process, says he believes in “traditional Democratic, progressive values,” including equal pay for women, reproductive rights, a $15 minimum wage and “more — and more sensible — gun control.” He plans to collect signatures to qualify for a primary in August.
Bysiewicz, a former state legislator who served three terms as secretary of the state, says she also has strong progressive credentials. She withdrew as a candidate for governor this week to unite with Lamont as his lieutenant governor.
“For me, none of those things are new issues,” Bysiewicz said. “I’ve been advocating for all of them since I was secretary of the state.”
Bysiewicz raised money for Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election and said she encouraged Clinton to adopt a more progressive stance.
“I had a conversation with Hillary Clinton and her people and I told them that she should go from supporting the $12 an hour [minimum wage] to $15 an hour and she ultimately did,’’ Bysiewicz said. “I did support her but I liked a lot of Bernie Sanders’ positions.’’
Lamont was propelled to the front of the Democratic pack in early April following his victory in a straw poll at the AFL-CIO political convention. His platform includes a number of core progressive principles, including support for higher taxes on corporations and top earners.
“The wealthy are going to pay more, companies are going to pay more, but they’ll only do it if it’s part of a real, honestly balanced budget,’’ Lamont said during a campaign stop in February.
Lamont’s liberal tone differs sharply from the more middle-of-the-road positions he took in his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor. At that time, the one-time liberal darling who took on Lieberman over the Iraq War drew the wrath of labor unions for his reservations about a bill mandating employers provide paid sick leave. He also weathered criticism from others on the left for not participating in the state’s first public campaign financing program
Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, said the gubernatorial field’s collective move to the left is more than a backlash against Trump.
“Bernie Sanders did much better than anybody anticipated he would do by championing these kinds of values,’’ Farrell said. “On the other side, a lot of Democrats lost races they shouldn’t have lost because they were fearful of these issues. Establishment Democrats and consultants who advise Democrats went after this mysterious elusive center.”
The labor-backed Working Families Party, which generally doesn’t field its own slate but cross-endorses candidates who support progressive policies, has played an outsized role in nudging the Democratic Party to the left. Both Lamont and Bysiewicz have conducted interviews with the party and are seeking its endorsement.
“That’s one of the traditional roles of third parties,’’ Farrell said. “They push for outside ideas that then become mainstream. That’s been true of a lot of issues from abolition of slavery to establishment of the minimum wage to paid sick leave.’’
Among the once crowded field of Democratic gubernatorial aspirants, there was one candidate who did not fly the liberal flag. Former state veterans affairs commissioner Sean Connolly staked out centerist positions on several key economic issues, including raising the minimum wage and paid family and medical leave.
“I’m different than just about every other candidate,’’ he said in an interview last month. “I’m the candidate that can draw in people from diverse backgrounds, that includes independents and that includes Republicans.”
The son of a landscaper and a public school secretary, Connolly got his first taste of politics when he came back home to East Hartford while on break from Bryant College in 1994. He was 20 and spent his days answering phones for John Larson, who was running for governor at the time.
A lifelong Democrat, Connolly believes there’s still room for a moderate like him in a party that has moved to the left.
But not this election cycle: On Thursday, Connolly is expected to drop his bid and endorse Lamont.