No Tolls CT: Crucial role or just another anti-tolls force?
As Gov. Ned Lamont approached the Senate Democrats’ caucus room one floor up from his office at the Capitol last week, he had to pass through a gantlet of two dozen protesters shouting and waving signs.
Bright TV lights showed the way. He stopped to shake a few of the protesters’ hands. In a few minutes, he would learn the doomed fate of tolls as part of his 10-year, $21 billion transportation infrastructure plan.
Nothing else was happening at the Capitol that day, yet the protesters — most of them retired or with part-time jobs that allow them to spend days on end in Hartford — had gathered under the gold dome for most of the day to again declare loudly their opposition to even one single toll on Connecticut’s roadways.
“I don’t care if it’s at the end of Ned Lamont’s driveway,” said Patrick Sasser, the group’s unofficial leader. “No tolls.”
By now, the small band of people from No Tolls CT has become familiar nearly anywhere Lamont travels, and the governor and his staff know several by name — faces like Sasser and Hilary Gunn, whose yellow-and-red No Tolls hat, which she made, has become the movement’s emblem.
Lamont’s CT2030 plan included 14 tolls on highway bridges and interchanges throughout the state, raising $320 million a year. By the end of that meeting, less than a week after he unveiled it, the tolls portion was effectively dead as Senate Democrats expressed their reluctance to bring it to a vote.
The fast result marks a win for the for the self-proclaimed grassroots organization, No Tolls CT. Now, as the state searches for answers on how to fund transportation, the question remains — how much influence did the group ultimately have?
Whatever credit No Tolls CT can or can’t take for blocking highway fees, its success points to the ability of a small, loosely organized protest movement to make itself heard in a state where political links bind tightly. Gunn, just elected to the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting, counts among her constituents a neighbor named Ned Lamont.
Last week’s events were the second time this year Lamont has had to pull back a tolls plan, after his first try, with three times more tolling, died at the end of the legislative session in June when the Senate couldn’t, or didn’t, muster enough support.
The forces against tolls have included every elected Republican who has spoken on the record; a sharply divided population buffeted by high taxes; liberal Democrats who say the tolls hurt the poor; Democrats in swing districts fearful of losing their seats; Lamont’s lack of political experience; and the governor’s unwillingness to use capital projects in towns as a way to buy votes.
Max Reiss, Lamont’s director of communications, downplayed the group’s impact.
“What led to altering the Governor's transportation plan was collaborative discussions with legislators,” Reiss said. “Input from our state's largest employers and feedback from the public at large — many of which sit in hours of traffic a week on our roads and bridges.”
Sasser, on the other hand takes full credit for killing tolls.
“I think 100 percent of it had to do with this movement,” he said. “I think it was clear people from all corners of the state got involved and I don’t think the lawmakers of the senate had any choice but to listen to their constituents.”
The group’s namesake message, “no tolls,” is simple and offers no other suggestion or alternate solution for solving the state’s transportation woes. It’s catchy and easy to remember and repeat.
Sasser organized the first No Tolls CT rally in 2017 after former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first came out in favor of tolls. A few dozen people showed up that day in front of the Government Center in Stamford, the city where Sasser has lived his entire life.
There, he works as a full time firefighter, and operates two small family businesses: Sasser Excavating and Sasser Trucking. With his twin brother, Mike, and their brother Shawn, they own and operate a pair of dump trucks, which they contract out for local construction projects.
The trucks, for the most part, don’t travel on roads that could potentially be tolled, he said.
“It’s not even that tolls would put us out of business or anything like that, it was just that, here’s government coming at us for more money again, and I thought, ‘How is that possible?’” Sasser said of his decision to organize that first rally.
A few small rallies followed during the 2018 statewide election, but it wasn’t until January 9, 2019, when Lamont was inaugurated, that any sort of coordinated campaign against tolls really took off. A small group of protesters showed up at the Capitol on the otherwise celebratory day, and later that month Sasser launched a GoFundMe page, website and Twitter account for the group.
Sasser, whose personal presence and persona on Twitter has become synonymous with the group itself, didn’t even create his own account on the social media website until February, when Lamont came out in favor of broad tolling instead of the trucks-only tolling he’d campaigned on.
“I never believed it would be trucks only,” Sasser said. “That’s why we were there on inauguration day.”
An organization without organization
In recent months, as they’ve claimed an effect on election results, many people — mostly targets of the group’s ire — have begun to question whether No Tolls CT is truly the small grassroots troupe of passionate volunteers they claim to be, or if there are larger, more organized and experienced political powers with deep pockets behind it.
Sasser insists it’s just a small band. After the legislative session ended in June, the group registered with the Office of State Ethics as a client lobbyist, a requirement for anyone planning to spend more than $3,000 on lobbying activities in a calendar year.
The group has only filed one financial report with the ethics office and did not report any spending at that time. Its next report is due in January and it will never be required to report where their money comes from or how much they have on hand.
Sasser said No Tolls CT is not registered in any other capacity such as a non-profit or business entity, and there is no record with the Secretary of the State’s office.
Sasser said the group has taken in more than $19,000 in donations. About $3,000 of that was given to Sasser in the form of personal checks, he said, and the rest was contributed through the online fundraiser.
Sasser said he spent about $4,000 on digital billboards, which started running along major highways during peak commute times in August, and another $3,500 on direct mail. He said he sent 6,000 postcard-style mailers in late October to active voters across 12 senate districts. Recipients were picked randomly, he said, in the districts of legislators he felt were on the fence about tolls.
Sasser didn’t share the list but voters in the district of Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, reported receiving mailers. Kushner, a first-term Democrat, has been a consistent opponent of tolls.
Sasser said he purchased 250 lawn signs, which have been sold and distributed throughout the state, and 200 T-shirts, which are also sold through the group’s website. No one has been paid a fee or salary, Sasser said.
Rallies, like the one organized that drew roughly 1,500 people to the Capitol on a May Saturday, were put together by multiple groups, including No Tolls CT, the Libertarian Party of Connecticut and the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, which has also been a vocal opponent of tolls. Most rallies were far smaller.
The Yankee Institute, a right-leaning not-for-profit think tank and advocacy group, touts the same message as No Tolls CT, but president Carol Platt Liebau said the Yankee Institute has never provided financial support nor coordinated efforts.
“They’re a strategic ally,” Liebau said.
Gunn, an avid crafter who works for a nonprofit she declined to name, crocheted the hat after she was told to wear yellow for a Greenwich rally. Her hat was particularly noticeable as she stood just over Lamont’s left shoulder behind the glass wall of the trendy office space where he unveiled CT2030 in Hartford Nov. 7.
Gunn arrived each day just outside the House chamber for the final weeks of the legislative session. “That’s when it became a very real thing in my life and became a part of my personal cause to really rage against tolls,” she said.
“At that big rally in May, [House Minority Leader] Themis Klarides said that we needed someone to go to Hartford every day until the end of session and stand there and remind them that we were watching and we were not going to go away or be silent,” said Gunn, who held a small No Tolls rally at Exit 5 on I-95 in Greenwich for her 30th birthday in May.
She didn’t plan to photo bomb the governor, she said. It just worked out that she could. Her ubiquity — she appeared in countless photos that day despite the best efforts of a pair of burly men who’d been ushered over to block the distraction — was a fitting metaphor for the movement as a whole.
As the camera lights dimmed outside the caucus room last week, so did the shouts. Protesters and Lamont staffers talked cordially of families and weekend plans as everyone milled about for nearly two hours outside the closed-door meeting.
Despite the pleasantries, Sasser has aggressively poked, prodded and attacked Lamont staff members online since February. He is often the loudest voice at a public rally.
Sasser recently took the words “vote for” out of the group’s slogan, amending it to “Support tolls, lose at the polls” signaling to lawmakers that even consideration of the Lamont proposal — as some Republicans appeared to say they might do — would elicit outrage.
He’s been called a bully by some toll supporters. Last week he shouted repeatedly at legislators as they arrived for the meeting with the governor, as well as Lamont and his staff, asking them when they’d hold town halls across the state, a promise Lamont made at an earlier press conference much to the chagrin of his staff.
“I’m careful not to be rude, and I tried to keep the movement at a certain level,” Sasser said in response. “I try to respect them. I’m not trying to be a bully.”
Liebau defended Sasser, calling him the victim of bullying.
“I very much admire Pat Sasser’s independence of thought despite having often been bullied by people that represent him,” she said. “It is not easy to stand up and take on the government establishment as a citizen. He has done that articulately and courageously and I salute him for that.”
No Tolls CT often says polls shows a majority of Connecticut residents oppose tolling, but polls appear to show sharply divided opinion when asked in a neutral way. One 2018 poll, conducted by Sacred Heart University, asserted 60 percent of Connecticut residents oppose tolls, but the question indicated the money would be used to balance the state budget, which was not part of any proposal.
A recent Sacred Heart poll showed a majority opposing the way Lamont has handled tolls and has been cited as a public opposition to tolls by Sacred Heart and others — even though it could include people who believe the governor is not forceful enough in pushing his agenda.
In another claim, the group — echoing a widespread talking point — says hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled from the state’s dedicated transportation fund back into general government. But state figures show ten times more has flowed from general government to the transportation fund since 2003.
The group takes credit for state Sen. Cathy Osten’s loss in her run for reelection as first selectman of the small town of Sprague in eastern Connecticut.
Osten rolled her eyes at the assertion. “I don’t think they had anything to do with it,” she said, citing instead a local school spending issue. “I knew as soon as the over-expenditure happened a year and a half ago that I was headed for a very difficult election. Attention from No Tolls and the Republican Party was just the icing on the cake ... maybe it would have been closer without them, but they didn’t cause it.”
Their vocal opposition to tolls may well have spawned fears in the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and gave Sasser a seat at the table, sometimes literally. Several people familiar with negotiations said Republican legislators often consulted Sasser for his opinion on aspects of the new plan before it was released, though Sasser himself says he is no transportation expert.
Sasser has met twice with Lamont Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz. The first time was on the day of Lamont’s inauguration, and the second was when Sasser and a group of volunteers delivered more than 100,000 petition signatures to the capitol.
As for whether the group will continue to be active, Sasser said yes. The group is still taking in money — one person donated $500 on Thursday.
“Obviously we want to make sure this is a dead issue,” Sasser said. “The governor hasn’t officially come out and said he’s moving on beyond tolls. Until then, I feel that tolls could still pop up...so we’re going to continue to stay vigilant and watch what comes down the road here.”
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