GOP candidate Obsitnik pushes efficiency, digital innovation for state government

Waterford — Steve Obsitnik still remembers the Department of Motor Vehicles ticket number — D107 — during a trip last summer to help his father-in-law renew his car registration.

Obsitnik, one of five GOP gubernatorial candidates in an Aug. 14 primary, says about three hours into their wait, a woman came in and nearly stormed out after noticing the line. But the guy sitting next to Obsitnik told the woman he had plenty of time, and he swapped tickets with her in exchange for $100.

"I do this every day," the man later told Obsitnik. "I'm the entrepreneur of the DMV."

Obsitnik, 51, relayed the story in an interview next to his oversized recreational vehicle during a campaign stop at Jordan Brook Plaza on Thursday morning. The visit focused on veterans and drew about two dozen vets and residents eager to share ideas and hear out Obsitnik, a former U.S. Navy submarine officer from Westport. But the longtime tech entrepreneur also emphasized his business chops to try to convince voters he could help streamline state services like the DMV.

"We need to suck the whole DMV into the cloud," said Obsitnik, who in the mid-2000s helped commercialize and license artificial intelligence and speech recognition software, including Siri. "We need to deliver more services online and take the 169 towns in Connecticut and use them as retail outlets. You can go in there for a fishing license and a gun license — why can't you go into town hall for a car license? Put terminals in town halls, service it with municipal employees at a lower price point and get the state government smaller. Politicians don't think this way."

Obsitnik is one of three political outsiders vying for the GOP nomination, including Bob Stefanowski, a Madison business executive, and David Stemerman, a Greenwich investor. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who won the Republican endorsement in May, and Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst round out the five-way primary ballot.

Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont received the Democratic Party endorsement and faces Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in a primary. Hartford businessman Oz Griebel is waging an independent campaign.

After leaving the Navy in 1994, Obsitnik earned a master's degree in business administration at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to lead several tech firms that have developed software and mobile tools serving customers, governments and telecommunications companies. Obsitnik has served as an adjunct professor of business and entrepreneurship at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield since 2010.

'Looking for a straight shooter'

Some visitors Thursday said they decided to back Obsitnik after his debate performance at Mohegan Sun earlier this month. Others said they liked his plan to streamline government, reform taxes, create 300,000 jobs over the next eight years and stop the tide of people leaving the state.

"He doesn't sugar-coat things but he's not promising us the world," said Silvio Qualich, a Navy veteran from Mystic. "Changes have to be made, but it's going to take time before results happen."

Qualich said he's a few years from retirement from his job at Frontier Communications. Faced with high taxes and state government "in the red but borrowing money for a toll system nobody wants," Qualich said he and his wife may move to another state "if taxes or the cost of living don't change."

Jim Kichline, a retired Army veteran from Westbrook, said his top concerns were protecting the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, and the "overtaxation in the state, especially to seniors and retirees."

"My wife and I have lived here all our lives, and the only time we think about moving is when we have to pay our taxes, because it's absurd," he said.

Obsitnik says the state should apply some of the discipline he learned during his Navy years.

"It's not what you expect, it's what you inspect," he said. "We haven't been doing enough inspecting in Connecticut. Why does it cost us $450,000 to build a mile of road and the rest of the nation only $180,000? Why do we have a Department of Early Childhood Education, K-12 education, and higher education? Why don't we have one Department of Education?"

Obsitnik says the state could save about $1 billion by putting new state employees on 401(k) plans and increasing their health care contributions.

He says a middle-class tax cut, business tax reductions and the elimination of taxes on Social Security and pensions would help make the state more affordable. He also pushes for reducing unfunded mandates and nuisance taxes and fees.

John Martin, an Army veteran who teaches government, economics and criminal justice at New London High School, said he came to meet Obsitnik as part of his "due diligence" to learn about the crowded GOP field.

"I'm just looking for a straight shooter," Martin said. "Be consistent and be open about it."

Martin urged Obsitnik to streamline the Department of Education and to support an emphasis on trades. Martin noted his father had a "fifth-grade education, became a plumber and made more than any superintendent."

b.kail@theday.com

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