Final Say: Tom Dudchik

 

Peter Hvzdak

Tom Dudchik, 52, is the founder of CTCapitolReport.com, a website dedicated to aggregating stories on state politics, and host of "This Week in Connecticut Politics" on FOX CT. A former GOP state representative from Ansonia, he was also deputy chief of staff for Gov. Lowell Weicker. He resides in East Haddam.
 

Is there such a thing as too much politics?
No, come on—you can’t ask me that question! Of course not! [laughs] Politics has kind of become entertainment—“infotainment.” Here we are, a few weeks after the 2012 election and everyone is already talking about 2014. Politics is getting bigger, not smaller. There is no break between cycles. Elizabeth Esty has an election in 24 months and everyone knows, so the fundraising and the search for who’s going to challenge her has already begun. It’s nonstop, for better or for worse.

What do you miss about public office?
It’s good to be on the sidelines now. You can have a great effect on the public, but the game has changed. When I worked for Gov. Weicker in the early ’90s, the internet had just kind of started, there was no email—I had a pager, and if an inmate went over the wall or there was a big train wreck, the state police would call me, but you could basically have a life of your own. Nowadays, it’s seven days, 24 hours, with Twitter and Facebook, and things like my site that change hourly. People are always watching and you’re always on.

Can you better affect communities from your current position?
I provide a unique service of aggregating links for people to stay in touch with politics. There is an occasional editorializing, and I can steer where the news is going. I can drive an issue that I think is important for people to take notice of. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that someone like me can actually influence anything. I just aggregate links, I don’t operate on people’s brains. It’s not rocket science, what I do. [laughs]

Why do you think CTCapitolreport.com has done so well?
Well, I think in the day and age of a lot of clutter out there—pop-up ads, video—I think that people want a simplistic site. I looked at the Drudge Report model when I first started, and just having a clean site where it aggregates the news of the day or things that I find interesting, other people will find interesting, too. People know it’s me, they know that I’ve been in politics all my life, and they know I’ve been on the inside. I pick out stuff that people need to know, and they know if I’m finding it and it’s on my site, they don’t have to go looking for it. If it’s interesting and has to do with politics in the state of Connecticut, whether it’s in the New London Day or Hartford Courant or some obscure national blog, it’s on my site. So I just save people a lot of work.

How do you toe the line between aggregating the news and shaping a narrative by the headlines you choose or don’t choose?
I think that most people who read my site are smart enough to understand when at certain times I’m trying to bring something to their attention. For instance, I got an email on a Friday from my friend Steve Collins who writes for The Bristol Press, and he emailed me that he had put on his blog about somebody who had gotten snubbed by mayor about wearing those pink breast-cancer-awareness t-shirts, saying “I think this is going to be big.” It was just a letter, not even a story. A letter from this woman complaining that mayor Art Ward wouldn’t let firefighters wear pink t-shirts. So when I saw that, I said, “Well, that’s a big story.” So I blazed it across the top of Capitol Report, I drove it all weekend and I kept the thing going, and by Monday, it’d gotten national legs—there were satellite trucks outside of his office. He dug in, and then the story grew and grew and grew, and then he finally had to acquiesce and say, “Yes, they can wear them.” That kind of stuff, it gets amplified on my site, and most of the time, it’s for the good.

Does the site’s popularity surprise you?
Yes, because I always say to people that I’m just one guy, in my house in East Haddam in my L.L. Bean wicked good slippers aggregating the news while throwing in a couple of loads in the washing machine. But it does come with responsibility—I have to travel with my laptop, and sometimes people with call me with something or say, “Did you see this?” and I’ll have to pull over, find a McDonald’s or Starbuck and then have to update my site. People keep coming back to it hourly to see what’s changed, so I have to make sure it changes. And it’s kind of 7 by 24 job for me now, which is funny since I was just complaining that politics is now 7 by 24 and here I am, doing my site 7 by 24 to keep up with that never-ending news cycle. A lot of things are sent to me, a lot of comes from reporters who know that their work on my site sort of amplifies what they do. I’ve always thought there’s been great reporting in the state of Connecticut—all these reporters to great, great work. The problem is that if you live in Fairfield County, you’re not necessarily going to be reading the New London Day. If you live in Litchfield, you may not be reading The Day, right? Or the Bulletin or the Journal-Inquirer or what have you? So I figured that if I could have a website that aggregates all of those reporters in one place so you don’t have to go looking for it, then their work gets seen on a larger basis. Neil Vigdor, who’s a reporter for the Greenwich Time, may not get read by someone in Hartford. It gives what they do a larger audience.

Are headlines the ultimate sound bite?
Yes. And I think you can have fun with them. Invariably, the reporters do the heavy lifting and I do the easy work—I just link to the stories. I try to come up with catchy, pithy headlines that make people want to read the link. “Oh, that sounds good, let me click on that.”

Has the concept of public service been lost in the political shuffle?
There are talented men and women who give of themselves, and a lot of work of politics isn’t so much governor, senator or congressman, it’s the people who leave their homes at 7 o’clock at night to sit in a drafty town hall or gymnasium and give up their time to sit on planning and zoning, or inland wetlands or board of selectmen—the real nitty-gritty of politics, which really is what drives our state. It really doesn’t get covered because there’s not a lot of glamour or news that comes out of it. But it’s just what you have to do to move politics and make government work.

Is there too much focus on the big issues?
No, I think you have to focus on the big stuff. The big stuff is what people have come to identify with. That being said, newspapers do, by and large, cover the mundane works of local politics, but again, it’s not as glamorous, and thank god, they don’t make as many headlines as the big guys do!

What have you learned about politics from covering it vs. being a representative?
That there’s always something to write about. When I started my website, I had lunch with a good friend, and he said, “If you use the Drudge model, Drudge has the world to pick from, stories about Syria and Israel, and stuff that goes on in Pakistan and China, and the entire United States. Will there be enough in little old Connecticut to fill up your website every single day, multiple times a day with the changing of the news?” I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t have enough material. There’s always enough material, and it never surprises you the amount of stuff that goes on in Connecticut politics. Never. And every time that I think there may be a lull, a guy like Art Ward in Bristol will decide in breast-cancer-awareness month to stop firefighters from wearing t-shirts! [laughs] Every time you think that nobody can do something to make a headline, guess what? It always, always happens, and then you say to yourself, “Okay, this is going to dominate the headlines for another couple of days,” and it goes on.

Does politics operate in a bubble different from everyday life?
No, because people follow politics much like they follow sports. People fervently believe in it, and if you read their Facebook profiles and what they argue about, it’s invariably about politics—they hate President Obama, they don’t like this governor, they do like Linda McMahon . . . I would venture to say that many conversations around the holidays centered around politics.

You started out your career working closely with Lowell Weicker—what did he teach you?
Well, I think a guy like Weicker—a larger-than-life figure who I spent a lot of time working for—he was a unique politician in the sense that he had a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” kind of attitude, to just charge forward and do what he believed was right, regardless of the political consequence. I think that’s the biggest lesson he taught me from a political sense. He always said, “Take care of the people first, and politics will take care of itself.” That’s an enduring lesson, not only for me, but for everyone to learn.  

Anyone else give you good political advice?
Pretty much just Lowell. When you work for him for so many years . . . politics is something that’s unlike any other business in life. You fervently believe in what you do as an editor at Connecticut Magazine, but you’re not spending your weekends traveling around in a bus talking about Connecticut Magazine. With politics, through elections and late-night events, you’re with someone an awful lot. And you’re with a group of people who work for those people an awful lot, and so you become family. So it is unlike any other business in that it consumes your life, your family life and everything that you do.

Are you still close with Gov. Weicker?
Oh yes, I see him at least once a month, talk to him a couple of times a week. He lives close to me—he lives in Old Lyme and I live in East Haddam, so I see quite a bit of him. I also see quite a bit of former staff—everyone keeps in touch. For his last big birthday, I had a big celebration for him at Carbone’s with his family and old staff. We keep in touch.

What’s your take on the current state of the Connecticut GOP?
What GOP? [long pause] No, I think there’s some soul-searching that the Connecticut Republicans need to do. It’s something that Gov. Weicker has said, that the people are best served if we have vigorous parties on both ends to compete in the arena of ideas. Right now, it’s all Democratic. Hopefully, the Republicans will see what’s broken and fix it so we have competition in the state.

What’s about people who would say that we’ve had Republican governors for a long stretch, up until two years ago?
Yes, but when you control both houses of the legislature, then it becomes one of those things where they pretty much do what they want still. I think that’s kind of checks and balances you need. Connecticut has shown a propensity to elect Republican governors for whatever reason. I like the fact that it does provide some kind of check. [Governors] Rell and Rowland had the ability to veto stuff that they didn’t like. The legislature could come back and override it, but that’s still a difficult proposition, at best.

Do you take political sides, or try to stay down the middle?
I have to stay down the middle. The problem that Capitol Report has is that because it is a Democratic state, the news is not made necessarily when the Democrats say “Things are going swimmingly,” but when the Republicans attack the Democrats. That’s the kind of where the news is. So because the state is such a blue state, sometimes my site does tend to trend [Republican] red. But by and large, I try to shoot down the middle. I’m an equal-opportunity offender. If you kill the Democrats, you kill the Republicans. That’s just the way it is, and my site reflects the news cycle, so if the news cycle is that the Democrats are being killed by the Republicans, well, that’s what trends on Capitol Report, and vice versa. If the Democrats sweep the elections and Gov. Malloy says, “This is a great day for Democrats,” then Capitol Report trends to be a Democrat site. That’s just the way it is. The Democrats complain and the Republicans complain. It’s down the middle. That’s part of what people thought when I first started the site because it looked like [The Drudge Report], would it be Drudge-leaning? So my headline was always “Drudge-looking, not Drudge-leaning.”

Is it a challenge working from home to stay in the loop?
Surprising not. Many people work out of their homes these days. It is a balancing act, but I do manage to get out and meet friends. I think with email and with cell phones, you can stay in touch. That’s the way it works. As a political reporter, how often do you need to be in an office or walking the corridors of the Capitol? I just aggregate links, I don’t operate on people’s brains. It’s not rocket science, what I do. [laughs]

Let’s do some word association: Dannel Malloy.
Strong-willed. Intelligent. Sometimes stubborn.

Lawrence Cafero.
The same.

Martin Looney.
Kind, compassionate. A leader.

John Rowland.
Coming back.

Really? Care to elaborate?
I think that he has an incredibly popular radio program, a lot of people listen to him and I think a lot of people look up to his opinions still to this day.

Jodi Rell.
Motherly.

Susan Bysiewicz.
A public servant.

Linda McMahon.
Do you know what? I don’t know what I’d say about her.

Really? Do you think she might run again for another office?
I would suspect she would probably be done, but this is politics, man. You never say never! [laughs] The main thing that I’ve learned is that nothing—nothing—surprises me.

Okay, let’s finish up with your friend, Lowell Weicker.
Legendary.

You have your finger on the pulse of Connecticut politics—what should we watch for in 2013?
There’s going to be a contentious race in New Haven for mayor, and you should be watching the legislature and the budget process, and how that affects state politics. You have to look for Gov. Malloy to start messaging re-election issues, and we’ll have to look to see which Republicans are going to come out—we can’t just flip a switch on in January 2014 and expect someone to start running for governor. It’s a two-year process.

Who should we be watching in the race for governor?
Some of the names we talked about before. [House Republican leader] Larry Cafero has mentioned it, [Danbury mayor] Mark Boughton has talked about it. You can’t rule [former gubernatorial candidate] Tom Foley out, I know [State Senator] John McKinney has spoken to people about running. And there will be more—that’s the great thing about politics. There are people who you and I don’t know or haven’t come to mind, that are thinking about it.

If god isn’t an Ansonia chargers fan, then why is the sky blue?
[laughs] Ansonia football, right? Talk about a great program. For a gazillion years, it’s been all about the Valley and Anonsia football, and to this day, it remains king. From the days of Pop Shortell—one of the greatest football fans to ever grace this planet—football is a special part of Ansonia. As is the Valley. I was just having a discussion with someone up in East Hartford about how East Hartford people and Valley people are the same kind of breed of just good stock, salt-of-the-earth people.
 

Final Say: Tom Dudchik

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