Comptroller Candidates Find Themselves with Dual Task

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By EVERTON BAILEY Jr., Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The candidates for Connecticut comptroller believe their race could be one to watch, if more state voters knew the job existed.

In an election year where high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor dominate the state’s political spotlight, Democrat Kevin Lembo and Republican Jack Orchulli must not only communicate to voters what their qualifications for state comptroller are, but what the job itself is.

“I guess it comes with the territory,” said Lembo, 47. “Do I get blank stares when I initially tell voters I’m running for state comptroller? Sometimes. Does it, at times, get confused with other constitutional offices? Of course. But people are generally very receptive when you get in front of them, talk about your credentials and explain the job responsibilities.”

In Connecticut, the comptroller is essentially the state’s accountant, in charge of state accounts, payroll and administering employee benefits. The office also compiles monthly and annual reports on the state’s finances.

“It’s not what you would call a sexy office,” said Nancy Wyman, who has been state comptroller since 1994 and is now the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. “I think now, more than ever, most people remember, ‘Oh, you’re the one with the state deficit numbers.'”

Lembo, of Guilford, is the state health care advocate, responsible for assisting consumers with medical care and insurance. Before that, he worked for about six years in the state comptroller’s office under Wyman. Lembo defeated Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura in the Democratic primary in August.

Orchulli, 64, is a former business partner of fashion designer Michael Kors and served for more than 20 years as Kors’s company’s chief executive officer. The Darien native unsuccessfully ran against U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd in 2004. Orchulli did not have a primary opponent.
In the last three general elections, the office of comptroller has garnered the lowest amount of votes among the Connecticut statewide constitutional offices, according to the secretary of the state’s website.

In 2006, the comptroller race trailed the governor’s race by more than 112,000 votes and the state treasurer’s race, the second lowest turnout, by about 3,700 votes.

Both Lembo and Orchulli said they’ve taken grassroots approaches to campaigning, mainly going to nonpolitical events and social networking to attract voters.

Orchulli said running in a lower-profile race can hurt fundraising efforts. He fell short of the threshold to qualify for matching public campaign financing.

“Raising contributions has been very difficult because so much attention is on the major campaigns,” he said. “My opponent has public funds so he will be at an advantage, but every vote counts.”

The candidates also said invitations to appear in forums or debates are almost nonexistent, further limiting voter knowledge on the state comptroller race.

Orchulli and Lembo said along with helping tackle the state’s projected multibillion dollar budget deficit, the state’s health care plan and increasing transparency will be the main priorities for the next comptroller.

Orchulli said he plans modify his role to better reflect his background in business.

“I intend to be the taxpayers’ advocate and more of an activist comptroller,” he said. “I will look at all the expenses and programs, just as I did in business, to analyze where there is waste and where there are inefficiencies and I won’t be afraid to call out politicians who are pulling shenanigans in Hartford.”

Lembo said his prior experience in the office, as well as a fondness for numbers and policies, makes the position a natural fit.

“I will gladly admit that I am a policy wonk and I think government would be better served to have more people in a similar mold,”  he said. “I’m a person who enjoys the numbers, enjoys the policies and I do the politics because that’s how you interview for the job.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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