An inside look at town man in race for governor
Updated 6:00 pm, Monday, November 20, 2017
NEW CANAAN — Mike Handler wears many different hats.
Most days, he’s commuting from his New Canaan home to Stamford, where he acts as the city’s chief financial officer. He comes home each night to his wife, Sarah, and four daughters ranging in age from 17 to 1. And when an emergency strikes — and even before it does — he acts as New Canaan’s emergency management director, a volunteer position where he leads the town’s public safety agencies in a coordinated response to natural disasters and other emergencies.
Now Handler, 47, is throwing his hat in the ring in exchange for another role: governor. In July, the New Canaan resident announced his bid for the Republican nomination for the 2018 gubernatorial race.
“I love the state,” said the New Jersey native. “My wife and four daughters were born and raised in Connecticut. I refuse to live in a state where my daughter’s going to grow up, go to college and not come back and raise our grandkids here. I know the issues are fixable. I know I have the experience and the ability to solve the problem and I have the confidence to say that because I’ve just done the exact same thing in the city of Stamford.”
Handler comes from a diverse background. He holds a bachelor’s in political science from Emory University and a master’s in business administration from Columbia. He worked as a senior portfolio manager at SAC Capital Management and was executive vice president at Jefferies Asset Management before joining Stamford as its chief financial officer in 2012.
In addition to his financial work, Handler started working as EMT when he was in high school back in 1987 and has been riding ambulance ever since in Atlanta, New York City, and Connecticut. He began working with the New Canaan Emergency Medical Services when he moved to the town in 2000.
In 2012, then mayor of Stamford, Mike Pavia, approached Handler about a role working in public safety for Stamford. The year prior in 2011, Handler had become New Canaan’s Director of Emergency Management after serving as the chief of New Canaan’s Emergency Medical Services. However, taking the role meant Handler would’ve had to leave his new role in New Canaan which he wasn’t willing to do.
“I never wanted to give up the job I had here in New Canaan and both would conflict,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave a job in New Canaan that I loved to pursue another job in Stamford.”
Pavia eventually tapped Handler to serve as the city’s director of administration after consulting him for help with some of the city’s financial problems. When Handler took on the role, he was shocked by the state of the city’s affairs.
“Like most of us who have a sense taxpayer dollars are wasted by government employees, I had a very low expectation of what I’d find in terms of the financial integrity in Stamford and I was pretty shocked,” he said. “It was pretty bad. The things they’d been doing for the past 15 years were pretty dramatic and they all seemed to be suited toward benefiting today. Every decision they were making financially were geared toward robbing tomorrow to make us look better today. Everything they were doing was really short-sighted.”
Handler cited long-neglected employee contracts, unfunded employee benefits and ownership of inappropriate businesses as a few of the problems with the city’s budget. He worked with David Martin, the current mayor of Stamford who at the time was the chair of the financial policy committee for the city’s Board of Finance, to put policy changes in place so future leaders could not accumulate debt premiums to make up for budget deficiencies. Martin, a Democrat, kept Handler on when he became mayor of Stamford in 2013.
“I made absolutely certain he and I would legislate it so you could never do this again,” Handler said. “If I move on tomorrow and leave the city of Stamford, someone in my spot could not come in and do the same thing Dan Malloy was doing years ago. And that’s just one of several policies changed so they’d have to find more creative ways to screw the taxpayers.”
Handler also re-negotiated city labor contracts to be fully funded and fair to both the employees and city taxpayers. Now about 19 percent of the city’s operational budget goes toward “fixed structural costs,” including benefits that are actually being funded.
“The success I’ve had in the city of Stamford was in working with employees to appreciate what the word “unsustainable” actually looks like and what it means and how that affects them and their benefits the most,” he said.
Handler also helped save the city money by pulling it out of businesses like the Smith House. The Smith House was one of three publicly owned nursing homes in the northeast and was costing the city $6.5 million a year due to untouched and expensive contracts. Handler helped privatize the facility while keeping a space for its Medicaid-protected residents and keeping the jobs and helped save Stamford over $5 million a year.
Handler’s plan going into office is to mimic the changes he made in Stamford on a statewide level. Changing financial policies to prevent towns from getting themselves into debt, looking at where cuts can be made and seeing how funds can be used more efficiently.
“It’s not sexy, but we’ve got to make structural changes to the way we operate our government,” Handler said. “You can’t cut your way to prosperity, but you can provide predictive taxing structure to individuals and companies looking at business in the state. The reason why companies don’t want to be here is they have no idea what the tax rate’s going to look like in a year or two.”
Handler added that people don’t want to buy a home in Connecticut for two reasons: Job security and unknown tax rates.
Handler hopes he can combine his experience in the private and public sectors to help make these changes possible. With at least eight other candidates appealing for the Republican spot, Handler is expecting he’ll be competing for a spot in a primary before he gets the official nomination for the larger race. But he said his appeal to a range of political beliefs — only about 40 percent of donors who’ve given to his campaign are Republican — makes him a strong frontrunner.