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Foley's Fusion fiasco may leave a mark

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published August 03. 2014 4:00AM

Tom Foley's intent in conducting a press conference last Tuesday in front of a Sprague paperboard manufacturing company that will soon close, costing 145 people their jobs, was not to come across as arrogant, ill informed, uncaring and an opportunist. Yet that is exactly what he accomplished.

The Foley debacle was the most ill-conceived, poorly executed and blundering attempt at political theater I have ever witnessed. No, I wasn't there, but the entire thing is available for watching on multiple videos, including one linked to this story if you read it on theday.com.

The optics were off from the start. Foley arrived late. He went to the wrong place - a former mill complex. And, as Connecticut Mirror reporter Matt Pazniokas noted, he "alighted from the back seat of a blue BMW sedan."

Foley, who is seeking the Republican nomination and rematch of his 2010 race against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, went to Sprague with the intent of blaming the governor's policies for the plant closing.

That was a dangerous gambit from the start, inviting charges of exploiting for political points the suffering of people who just learned they are losing their jobs. If a candidate is going to make a plant closing an issue, he had better know the specifics of the situation and make a clear connection showing his policies could have led to a different conclusion. Better yet is to come with an idea for reversing the situation and helping the workers.

Foley offered none of this. All he knew about the situation at Fusion Paperboard he had garnered from news coverage. He just wanted to hit his talking points. High taxation, too much regulation, and laws slanted heavily in favor of labor create an unfriendly business climate in the state. No wonder a manufacturer is closing, seemed to be the point.

The problem for Foley is that the closing of Fusion seems to have little if anything to do with any of that. OpenGate Capital, a private investment firm with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, owns Fusion. The Sprague plant focuses on food container production. Food companies are moving more to plastic. OpenGate made a business decision.

It sold off its production machinery, a rare piece of equipment in the industry, to competitor Paperworks of Indiana. This allows Paperworks to narrow production options for container buyers, helping hold up prices under the laws of supply and demand.

Cathy Osten, the first selectwoman of Sprague and a state senator, explained this to Foley when she crashed his press conference. She has been working closely with union members and management to try to save the Fusion plant. It was through her efforts that the Malloy administration provided the company a $2 million loan in September 2013 to upgrade equipment, partly forgivable if employment increased and the mill remained open for 10 years. Further expansion could have attracted another $1 million in assistance.

The company is now obligated to repay the outstanding balance of $1.8 million at 7.5 percent interest.

Foley is against such "corporate welfare."

One of the more embarrassing moments for Foley came when it was clear he did not know who Osten was. Talk about being unprepared. College students who wait until the night before class cram harder before giving a public speaking presentation than Foley did.

Osten, a Democrat and one of labor's greatest proponents in the Senate, is a retired state correction officer. She is assertive and was not about to let Foley get by with his talking points. She exposed the reality that he knew nothing about the details of what was going on in her town or with Fusion, and hadn't bothered to find out.

When he tried to shut her down, Osten fired back.

"This may be your press conference, but eastern Connecticut is extremely important to me," she said.

His response came across as nasty.

"You have failed at your effort to keep jobs here, haven't you? You've failed," Foley told her, repeatedly.

Foley seemed ready to blame everyone - Malloy, the union, the first selectwoman - except the people who closed the plant, criticizing any attempts to "malign management."

The candidate had no control of his own press conference, another political campaign no-no. He found himself arguing with not only Osten, but union workers who recently learned of their pending job losses. His response to his critics came through as rich-man superiority.

"You apparently don't have the business experience to understand," he said of their explanations about what happened at Fusion.

Most puzzling is why Foley would provide the opportunity to revive the topic of the Bibb Co.

Bibb was owned by NTC, an investment firm Foley founded in 1985 after leaving Citi Group. Bibb ended up in bankruptcy and Foley left as chief executive. It later closed.

In the 2010 Republican primary, former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele raised Bibb as an issue in a series of attack ads. Foley's lead shrunk from 35 percentage points to 8 points. Foley noted he was not there when Bibb closed, but Fidele countered that NTC Group squeezed $20 million in payments out of Bibb for such things as payroll and human services, further weakening a plant struggling in a troubled industry.

This time, Foley has Fidele's endorsement. But the union workers reminded Foley of Bibb at the press conference. Did he actually think it would not come up?

The disaster in Sprague will damage Foley; the question is how much. He remains a heavy favorite to win the Aug. 12 primary against Sen. John McKinney, but his victory margin could shrink. Expect Malloy's campaign to capitalize on the fiasco in the general election.

In politics, you just never know.

Paul Choiniere is The Day's editorial page editor.

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