Here are 2 of Westport’s best-kept secrets:
- There’s a primary election for governor on August 14.
- And there’s a Westporter on the ballot.
Steve Obsitnik is that candidate. A Connecticut native, Naval Academy graduate, entrepreneur and CEO, he got enough votes at the state Republican convention to battle the party’s endorsed candidate, Danbury mayor Mark Boughton.
Obsitnik’s name might be tough to remember (and spell), but he’s familiar to local residents. He was president of the Westport Weston YMCA, served on the Republican Town Committee, is involved with the Saugatuck Rowing Club — and in 2012 he ran his first political campaign, against incumbent Congressman Jim Himes.
Obsitnik’s RV — covered with signatures and words of encouragement — is familiar around town too. The other day it was parked in the Imperial Avenue lot. The candidate pulled out 2 lawn chairs, invited me to sit down, and chatted about himself and his campaign.
He’s a Stamford High School graduate and soccer player who still has nightmares of Mike Clifford leading Staples to an 8-0 drubbing. Obsitnik was recruited by top schools, and won an appointment to Annapolis. Vision issues limited his collegiate career, so he concentrated on engineering (and graduated with honors).
He spent 5 years as a nuclear submarine officer, earning 8 medals for distinguished service. He served in Groton and South Carolina, and the Mediterranean during the first Gulf War. He also chased Russian subs under the North Pole.
His next stop was Wharton, for an MBA. On his first day of classes he met Suzy Tager, a 1986 Staples graduate. “We walked for hours through Philadelphia,” Obsitnik says. “We’ve been walking together ever since.”
She got a job with Bain Capital (and now heads their retail consumer products practice). He joined the Stanford Research Institute, helping create technology for the government.
Moving on to Sarnoff Labs and Qinetiq, Obsitnik helped create products like video on demand, artificial intelligence — and Siri.
In 2005 — after 4 years in Minnesota — he and his wife felt it was time to “come home.” They moved in with her parents on Imperial Avenue. When he started Quintel, which manufactures smart antennas, he realized that despite all Connecticut offered, it lacked the ecosystem to develop and sustain companies like his.
In 2011, after a 2-day trip to India, he suffered a pulmonary embolism. His 2 daughters were young. He reassessed his work-life balance, while wondering how he could put his entrepreneur and engineering skills to work to help his state.
After his Congressional defeat the next year to Himes, Obsitnik started Imagine Connecticut, a non-profit whose goal was to make this a Top 10 job-creation state within 10 years.
His travels took him to every corner of Connecticut. He listened and learned about economic, infrastructure, transportation and education concerns. Having lived in 4 state zip codes — and looking at the field of gubernatorial candidates — he threw his hat in the ring.
“For the past 40 years there’s been a lot of self-interest” in Hartford, he says — “both Republican and Democratic. We need a big vision to keep people together. That’s one of the lessons I learned from my leadership positions.”
Obsitnik’s big vision: create 300,000 jobs in 5 years.
A primary election is very different from the general. Republicans make up just 23% of voters statewide, Obsitnik says — and only 100,000 generally vote in primaries.
Advertising in this area — the New York market — is prohibitively expensive. So he’s organized a ground game. He’ll knock on as many doors as possible. He will follow the Mitchells model: find your customers, “hug them” and hold them.
If he wins the primary, he says, he will not change his message for the general election. He’ll continue to emphasize job creation. “I don’t want to win the battle, and lose the war.”
Obsitnik is unfazed by his party affiliation. He points to the job creation efforts of Massachusetts’ Republican Governor (and former businessman) Charlie Baker as a model.
“I’m a military veteran. I support our commander-in-chief, whether it’s Barack Obama or Donald Trump,” the Westporter says.
“I’m running for governor of the state. Trump didn’t create Connecticut’s problems, and he won’t solve them. This election isn’t about Donald Trump. It’s about housing prices, the amount of time every day I lose to my wife on the train, and jobs.”
It’s a message Steve Obsitnik will repeat all around the state, every day through August 14.
And, he hopes, all the way to November 6.
FUN FACTS: Westport State Representative Julie Belaga won a Republican primary, and ran for governor in 1986. She lost to Democratic incumbent William O’Neill. Westport Republican John Davis Lodge served as Connecticut governor from 1951 to 1955.