New Canaan’s Handler to run for governor
NEW CANAAN — The man who guides the town through the toughest of storms believes he can see the state through its tough times.
His voice is familiar to residents as the man who records guiding messages and status updates during hurricanes and blizzards that are blasted out to homes and businesses. He was the man who guided the town through Hurricane Sandy and has worked in emergency operations for the town for 15 years.
Handler also serves as the top financial officer in neighboring Stamford.
Citing his role in Stamford’s success in funding retirement benefit obligations and controlling costs associated with labor contracts, Handler, the city’s Director of Administration, has entered the 2018 governor’s race.
Financial experience is key for anyone seeking the state’s top seat, according to Handler, a Republican. Connecticut faces a fiscal crisis with deficits in the billions of dollars and revenues that have not kept pace with spending.
“Whoever takes this job next had better know what they’re doing,” said Handler, 47, who has formed a candidate’s committee. “There is much discussion about the ‘revenue problem’ the state faces. The revenue shortfall is a symptom of the massive expenditure problem. New tax revenue is not the answer.”
The biggest budget burdens are pensions and health benefits for retired state employees that are largely unfunded, and costs built into state labor contracts.
As the city’s chief financial officer, he has tackled those problems in Stamford, Handler said. But because the state has not resolved them, municipalities can’t count on the same funding from Hartford.
“My experience in Stamford has led me to conclude that most, if not all, of what truly holds us back as a city are the state’s overall fiscal challenges,” said Handler, who worked on Wall Street before he was appointed Stamford’s chief financial officer by former Republican Mayor Michael Pavia in 2012.
“There is a true loss of confidence, which is universally felt in every aspect of our state. Restoring confidence is best done by someone who has the experience and the skill to address our issues head-on.”
When Democrat David Martin became mayor in 2013, he asked Handler to stay on. Martin said Tuesday Handler “has done a fabulous job” as director of administration.
“Stamford is as financially sound as it is, due in large part to Mike’s expertise and knowledge in finance,” the mayor said in an email. “I have no doubt that Mike has been committed to doing what is best for Stamford. He now believes he can bring that same expertise and commitment to our state. I commend him for even considering such a step.”
Connecticut’s fiscal woes are immense — emergency reserves are depleted, job growth is slow and taxes are high. The state is losing population and corporations. Analysts say the budget hole over the next two years is more than $5 billion, and shortfalls are predicted well into the future.
In May, Fitch Ratings downgraded the state’s bond rating from AA- to A+ — the fourth drop in a year.
That’s not the case in Stamford. Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s just gave Stamford AAA bond ratings, with Fitch citing the city’s “steady revenue growth,” “prudent fiscal policies” and “conservative budgeting practices” that have resulted in “historically sound operating results.”
Handler has said the city has a rainy-day fund and other reserves totaling $41 million, which should be enough to cover expected cuts to the $20 million the city budgeted to come from the state this fiscal year.
During his tenure in Stamford, Handler said, the city quadrupled its cash reserves; fully funded the annual required contributions toward pensions and health benefits for retired city employees; sold Smith House — the city-owned nursing home that was losing $6 million a year — to a private operator; negotiated contracts that won concessions from labor unions; and funded a new police headquarters and school building.
Under his leadership, the long-troubled Water Pollution Control Authority is functioning properly and has a stable budget with reserves on hand, he said.
“That’s something I’m very proud of,” said Handler, whose job includes serving as chairman of the WPCA board.
But the state’s budget issues translate directly into trouble for municipalities, Handler said.
“Connecticut is a wonderful state that is unable to reach its true potential because we are mired in fixed structural costs,” he said. “Education, competitive jobs and a growing economy all start with fixing decades of fiscal mismanagement.”
In entering the 2018 race, Handler joins a dozen other Republicans and a similar number of Democrats who began testing the water after Gov. Dannel Malloy announced in April that he will not seek a third term.
Among the interested Republicans are Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury, First Selectman Tim Herbst of Trumbull and longtime Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti. Democrats include Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew and state Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
Many of the candidates are “career politicians,” Handler said. “What I bring is practical experience in solving fiscal problems,” he said.
Handler is a New Jersey native who has a master’s degree in business from Columbia University and a private-sector background in finance and investment management. He said he left a 15-year Wall Street career in 2007 to pursue public service.
He lives in New Canaan with his wife, Sarah, and four daughters.
Republicans are expected to battle Democratic candidates by linking them to Malloy, who was mayor of Stamford for 14 years. Malloy’s approval rating has dropped to 29 percent.
Despite the challenges, “Connecticut has a lot going for it,” Handler said.
“There are a lot of reasons this state should be very different from the way it is now,” he said. “We will get there. The question is when.”