In Connecticut politics, losing can be winning

The life raft has arrived for state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, who gave up her safe seat in the House of Representative to enter a key state Senate contest, only to lose in excruciatingly close fashion.

With her loss to Democrat Norm Needleman in the 33rd District, Ziobron looked to soon be out of a political job. That was until last week when Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, announced her hiring as the Senate Republican Office’s budget director.

“As we look ahead to tackling bigger financial issues on the horizon, Melissa is the perfect candidate to assist our caucus in our efforts to move Connecticut in a new direction and bring confidence to our state,” Fasano said.

What he could have said but didn't: “And, anyway, after Melissa stuck her neck out trying to win us a Senate seat the least we could do was find her a good paying government job paid for with tax dollars.”

Some things are left unsaid in these situations.

Republicans wanted badly to hang on to the 33rd District seat after Sen. Art Linares announced his intent not to seek re-election. Instead Linares ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for treasurer. The district includes Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Portland and Westbrook.

The party needed a strong candidate and Ziobron delivered. Though Needleman, a successful businessman and the first selectman of Essex, spent $500,000 on the campaign, about $400,000 of it his own money, the race was so close it required a recount. Ziobron was restricted to the $95,000 she received under the state’s public campaign finance program in which she participated, though some outside PAC money was spent on advertising opposing Needleman

The recount results showed “Landslide” Needleman winning by 85 votes.

Financially, losing turned out to be not such a bad deal. Ziobron, who received a $38,689 salary as a state representative, will start with a salary of $90,000 in her new job, according to Fasano’s office. Having served six years in the House, if Ziobron can stick around for four more years she qualifies for a state pension and retirement health insurance after her age — she is now 47 — and years of service equal about 67.

Pension payments are based on the highest three years of pay, something Ziobron criticized when state workers would fatten up their top three years with overtime.

As for Fasano’s characterization of Ziobron as the “perfect candidate,” that’s debatable. Yes, she was the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and knows her way around a state budget and the working of the legislature. But Ziobron is not trained in finances and does not have a college degree. A search would have produced other candidates with more educational and professional experience.

But this wasn’t about that.

It is reminiscent of 2014 when former Democratic state Rep. Betsy Ritter of Waterford left her safe House seat to also compete for an open Senate seat, in that case the 20th District of Waterford, East Lyme, Salem, Old Lyme, Bozrah and portions of Montville and Old Saybrook. She lost to Republican Paul Formica, who remains the district’s senator.

After she fought the good fight, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated Ritter as the commissioner of the Department of Aging with a $124,500 salary, a roughly $100,000 raise over her House pay.

Alas, the legislature eliminated the agency effective July 1. But, amazingly, it turns out that Ritter not only had the expertise to address the needs of the old, but also the very young. She landed a job as an executive assistant in the Office of Early Childhood with a salary of about $120,000.

Created in 2013, the OEC has as its stated mission coordinating and improving the various early childhood programs and components in the state to create a cohesive high-quality early childhood system. It has a staff of 124 employees and an $8.5 million budget to do this.

As for Ziobron and Ritter, it appears providing patronage for candidates who stepped up, only to be knocked down, is one thing on which there is bipartisan agreement.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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