The many faces of Malloy
Recounting a Donald J. Trump rally may seem like an unconventional way to introduce a story about Connecticut politics.
But the scene in the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on April 15 was too good to pass up. In the midst of the businessman’s usual screed about the loss of American manufacturing jobs — often, but not always, to overseas — he took an opportunity to address the particular travails of the state in which he was speaking.
(Noah Daponte-Smith, Contributing Photographer)
“We lost General Electric!” Trump exclaimed incredulously, referring to the company’s January announcement that it would move its Fairfield headquarters to Boston. “How do you lose General Electric?”
From the crowd, shouts arose: “Malloy! Malloy!” And as Trump cited statistics about the hardships of northern Connecticut — rising numbers on the food-stamp rolls, a shrinking workforce, disappearing manufacturing jobs that once kept the region humming — Gov. Dannel Malloy’s name rose from the crowd again and again, shouted not as an explanation but as an accusation, a vituperative indictment of the governor’s tenure.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE NUTMEG STATE
The former mayor of Stamford, the state’s white-collar hub, has endured a stormy six years as Connecticut’s chief executive. Economic turmoil has come and left its mark in what appears to many a permanent stagnation. Connecticut, it seems, is being left behind while more vibrant, sunnier quarters — Cambridge, Massachusetts springs to mind — pull ahead. And since Malloy took office in early 2011, after a bitter and narrow victory against Greenwich Republican Tom Foley, he has bore the brunt of criticism for the state’s stagnation.
Malloy is deeply unpopular in Connecticut. Quinnipiac University opinion polling from October 2015 — the most recent data available — found Malloy had a 32 percent approval rating among the state’s residents. Just over a third of residents thought Malloy “[cared] about voters’ needs and problems.” A mere 19 percent approved of his handling of taxes and the state’s budget. Just under a quarter thought he was managing the economy and job creation well. And — most damningly — a scant 10 percent of residents said the economy was improving.
But these difficulties are nothing new. To put it frankly, Malloy, who could not be reached for an interview, has never enjoyed widespread popularity. His election in 2010 was won by the skin of his teeth, and without Malloy’s landslide margins in the inner cities of Bridgeport and Hartford, Foley would be sitting in the governor’s office today.
Malloy’s approval ratings hovered in the 30s and 40s throughout his first term, and have never exceeded 50 percent in Quinnipiac’s surveys. His re-election campaign in 2014, coming after he passed the largest tax increase in the history of Connecticut, was similarly tight. A smattering of polls throughout the race showed Foley with a slight lead, but by the end of the day, Malloy clinched victory by only 2.5 percentage points.
Malloy, for his part, has always maintained that he does not need to be liked. That said, he has acknowledged that it would have been preferable, naturally, to preside over an economic boom.
“I wish I was more popular, as I wish I had been governor in good times,” Malloy told reporters in his Hartford office earlier this month. “I’m really energized. I enjoy being the governor, I enjoy working, I enjoy taking on these issues … I’m happy. Don’t anyone think I’m unhappy.”
FROM CRISIS TO CRISIS
But why would anyone think Malloy is unhappy?
Traditionally, governors are judged by their financial acumen. But for Malloy, balancing the state’s budget has proved a near-impossible task, and the state has drifted from budget crisis to budget crisis with no end in sight. These crises have become the hallmark of Malloy’s tenure and public perceptions of his strength as a governor.
But now, the governor has deemed, these crises must stop. In his annual State of the State address to the General Assembly in February, Malloy declared that the previous era of fiscal largesse was over. No longer will the state use its current spending to determine its future spending, in which cutting spending is politically painful as state departments expect to maintain funding levels akin to the previous year.
No, now the state has entered “a new economic reality” that is forcing a change in the state’s fiscal policies.
(Phoebe Gould, Production & Design Staff)
“Connecticut is not going back to that pre-recession reality,” Malloy said. “It just doesn’t exist anymore. The people of Connecticut know it — they’ve accepted it — and so must their government.”
The practical implications of this declaration? Fiscal austerity. Whatever could be cut should be cut — nonprofits, labor contracts, even funding for funerals. Immense layoffs, numbering in the thousands. For Malloy, Connecticut’s “new economic reality” is not just economic. It required a radical rethinking of the role of government in citizens’ lives, a significant and unwelcome departure from the previous governing philosophy.
Malloy made that much clear in his State of the State address. Government, he said, would have to close ranks, protecting “core functions” while maintaining a critical eye on superfluous services.
“We must concentrate on the core functions of state government, namely: protecting the public, ensuring a social safety net, building a strong economy, safeguarding our environment, providing a public education and administering justice,” he said in the address on Feb. 3. “To that end, functions that fall outside of these core services must be considered on merit alone.”
In other words, state government can no longer be “everything to everyone,” a phrase Malloy has repeated throughout the town hall meetings that have taken him across the state, from New Haven to Enfield to Waterbury.
(Phoebe Gould, Production & Design Staff)
Malloy laid out five principles in that budget speech, all aimed at reining in the state’s finances and ushering in an era of more fiscally constrained government. Those proposals sat well with the state’s business community, which has long called for Connecticut to foster a more welcoming environment for economic development.
“Those five principles that he laid out resonated well with the business community, because there are things that we have been talking about, certain legislators have been talking about — probably more Republican than Democrat — for quite a while,” said Joe Brennan, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. “Live within means, focus on core services … those five principles combined were very well-received within the business community.”
But even the cuts Malloy proposed in February will not be enough. In fact, the estimated size of the budget deficit for fiscal year 2017 has grown in the last three months — from $560 million in February to somewhere in the region of $920 million today.
Since the February speech, Malloy has doubled down on his proposals. He declared two weeks ago that filling the deficit by raising taxes, borrowing money or dipping into the state’s rainy day fund was strictly off the table. The implication, of course, is that cuts are the only way out.
Malloy has gotten no help from his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly. The legislature’s Appropriations Committee typically passes a budget that represents an alternative to the governor’s proposal. That pattern repeated itself this year — but that budget passed by the Democrat-controlled committee only covered the original $560 million deficit, not the new $920 million one. That situation persisted until Thursday afternoon, when the legislative Democrats put forth a new budget that resolves the $920 million deficit, though its chances of passage in the General Assembly are slim and its chances of receiving Malloy’s signature even slimmer.
Malloy has responded in kind: Insisting the budget fill the $920 million gap — an insistence he shares with his Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano ’81, R-North Haven, who memorably described the Democrats’ budget as developed “in a time machine or a warp-place.” Malloy has proposed savage new cuts, the brunt of which would fall on the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account, a scheme championed by legislature Democrats to share sales-tax revenues with the state’s municipalities.
According to Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, those cuts could wreak havoc on the finances of many towns and cities. Most municipalities, she said, have already passed their budgets for the year, taking into account expected receipts from MRSA. But the governor’s new proposal would severely reduce those receipts.
If the cuts pass the General Assembly, towns will be forced to adjust their mill rates — that is, raise taxes — to cover the resulting gap. And in cities like New Haven, where property taxes already present heavy burdens on city residents, tax hikes could be disastrous.
“You’ll certainly understand that the governor and the legislature are facing a monumental task in trying to fix the deficit,” Gara said. “They’re trying to address the budget, but there’s just not a lot of options.”
THE END OF THE AFFAIR
It should come as no surprise that the right wing criticizes Malloy. What is unusual, though, is the degree of left-wing discontent with the governor. The October Quinnipiac poll found that nearly a third of self-identified Democrats disapprove of Malloy’s performance, along with 61 percent of independents and 86 percent of Republicans.
(Phoebe Gould, Production & Design Staff)
The sentiments expressed by Kimberly Rice, a New Haven resident, at a town hall with Malloy in New Haven in February are typical of the left’s attitudes toward the governor. Rice campaigned for Malloy in 2014; she spoke to thousands on his behalf, beseeching them to vote for the incumbent governor. But now, she said, Malloy seems to have betrayed the principles for which he once stood.
“I truly believed that you were the best man for the job,” Rice said to the governor. “You have a choice to make. I’m here tonight because I’m concerned. And that concern is that you appear to be abandoning your policies and adopting an austerity budget, and that concerns me, because what we’re doing in effect is abandoning the people who are most in need.”
Malloy, in response to Rice, denied any charge that he had abandoned his core principles, the principles for which the unions supported him in his re-election campaign. Instead, he said, material exigencies had forced him into his current quandary. And he insisted that, as governor, his job is not to focus on the short-term livelihood of the state, but its long-term vitality, stretching into the next two decades. Some sacrifices, he said, must be made today for the state’s fiscal health tomorrow.
Rice’s criticism has echoed across the left. The state’s employee unions, facing the specter of enormous layoffs under Malloy’s plans, have staged numerous protests in the state capitol over the last few weeks, calling for Malloy to raise taxes on the state’s highest earners instead of laying off middle-income state workers.
Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut branch of major labor union AFL-CIO, said budget struggles will likely continue until Malloy and his counterparts in the General Assembly realize that budget cuts, no matter how savage, offer no long-term answers. Instead, she said, the governor must consider new sources of additional revenue.
Citing the economic malaise in Greece, where many left-wing economists argue austerity policies have slowed economic growth for years, she criticized Malloy’s apparent willingness to “be austere for the point of being austere.”
Some of the harshest condemnation of Malloy’s proposed budget cuts has come from House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who declined to be interviewed for this piece. After Malloy insisted last week that his proposed budget, and not the legislature’s, be the starting point of negotiations, Sharkey viciously lashed out, terming Malloy’s budget a “public enemies list” and “personal hit list.”
Those remarks were a response to an op-ed Malloy wrote in the Hartford Courant the week before, in which he disparaged any proposals — like the legislature’s — that do not plug every gap in the state’s budget crisis.
“I won’t accept half-measures or Band-Aid solutions,” Malloy wrote, throwing down the gauntlet to legislative Democrats. “Anyone who wants to negotiate with my administration should either come ready with their own balanced plan, or be prepared to work off mine. We can’t negotiate off incomplete budgets or no budget at all.”
In other words: if the legislature has no proposals of its own to address the $920 million deficit, Malloy will expect that all negotiations proceed from his own proposals. The legislature has yet to offer any proposals that meet the governor’s expectations and Sharkey pulled out of bipartisan budget talks last Tuesday.
There is also a sense that Malloy, perhaps, is too much of a dictator. Sharkey has noted that Malloy’s proposals would grant the executive broad powers to make unilateral cuts as the governor sees fit, without the explicit assent of the legislature.
When reporters asked Malloy what he thought of Sharkey’s remarks at a press conference last week, he refrained from descending into ad hominem attacks. Everyone has a bad day, he said, and a “pressurized” situation gives rise to tension. He acknowledged, moreover, that doing what it takes to live within the state’s new fiscal constraints is difficult for any politician, let alone one who must answer to the party’s base.
“I don’t feel jilted,” Malloy said. “Listen, I feel it’s really hard — adjusting to a new economic reality of slow growth is very, very hard, and they have big constituencies. My constituency, in these negotiations, is largely six people … they have much larger constituencies. They have a lot of Democratic senators and a lot of Democratic representatives.”
But the sense that Malloy might harbor some sympathy for an iron-fisted method of politics still remains.
Fasano and Pelletier, though coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, offered the same criticism of Malloy: that he has too much of a one-track mind, unwilling to seriously consider alternatives to his own plans. Fasano said his experience with Malloy — before talks in December to resolve yet another budget deficit — was that negotiating with him is either “his way or the highway.”
Fasano noted, however, that Malloy appeared more open-minded in December, willing to promote discussion and foster compromise. And since then, Republicans have met with Malloy repeatedly in talks over the state’s budget crisis, a sign of cooling tensions between the sides.
“Listen, I feel it’s really hard — adjusting to a new economic reality of slow growth is very, very hard, and they have big constituencies. My constituency, in these negotiations, is largely six people … they have much larger constituencies. They have a lot of Democratic senators and a lot of Democratic representatives.”
—Gov. Dannel Malloy
Pelletier, meanwhile, called on Malloy to have an open discussion with the state’s unions.
“[What would restore relations] would be to sit down and be willing to have an honest conversation about how to fix the state, and listen to our suggestions. That hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “The governor seems to have made up his mind that this is the path he wants to take, and he’s not really willing to listen to other sides.”
The unions, for their part, have launched an assault on the governor’s fiscal policies, reflecting the extent of left-wing discontent. In video advertisements making their way across the internet, the American Federation of Teachers and Council 4 AFSCME demand that Malloy stop firing “everyday heroes” who “pay their dues in service and sacrifice” to balance the state’s budget deficit.
Instead, the narrator says, Malloy should force the “richest 1 percent” to “pay their fair share.” “Malloy’s budget problem is a fairness problem.”
Malloy refuses to raise taxes. Connecticut, he says, is already at a tax disadvantage relative to other states in the region; raising its exorbitantly high rate of income tax on the highest earners would risk pushing those earners to other states and depleting Connecticut’s tax base.
The current tax structure, Malloy has noted, is risky enough: those high earners mostly work on Wall Street, and as Wall Street’s fortunes slip, so do the state’s income tax receipts. Making the state’s tax system more dependent on those high earners would place the state more at the mercy of the capricious stock markets.
Despite his budget stance’s unpopularity on the left, Malloy has garnered praise from the editorial boards of the Connecticut Post, Journal Inquirer, Norwich Bulletin and New London Day, all of which have criticized the legislature Democrats’ plans.
“It is good … that Malloy took it upon himself to finish the job, in so doing defying the party,” the Norwich Bulletin wrote in an editorial. “Someone has to solve the problem. The legislature shows little inclination or ability to get it done and is no position to object to the exertions of the governor’s office in this regard.”
MALLOY THE LIONHEART
Despite the governor’s deep domestic unpopularity, his image throughout the country is glowing. On the national stage — one dominated by The New York Times, not the Hartford Courant — Malloy resembles a moral crusader for progressive causes.
When Indiana passed its version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibited the state government from “substantially [burdening] a person’s exercise of religion, Malloy banned nonessential state-funded travel to the Hoosier State. When North Carolina and Mississippi passed their much-maligned “bathroom bills” earlier this month, Malloy did the same.
And — in a continuation of the feud between Connecticut and Indiana — when Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana refused to allow Syrian refugees into his state after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Malloy was happy to accept them into Connecticut, and a family of three has settled in New Haven. Malloy relished in the national press coverage that action brought, and earlier this month, was declared the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his stance on refugees.
Malloy’s reasoning in all those instances was simple, and it had much to do with his background as a man of faith — a classic New England Irish Catholic. He presented his moral worldview in an essay in Time, and the world he portrayed was one of sharp, black-and-white delineations between friend and foe. Pence, in his account, fell firmly on the wrong side of history — the arc of which does indeed bend toward social justice, but only when individuals actively push it in that direction.
“If we stand idly by while states legalize bigotry, we are responsible for allowing it to happen,” Malloy wrote. “The [RFRA] law is disturbing, disgraceful and outright discriminatory. Governor Mike Pence knew what he was doing. He knew this legislation would allow discrimination against American citizens. He signed it anyway.”
Malloy elaborated on that moral stance in New Haven’s City Hall in November, where he held a press conference about the Syrian refugees he had welcomed to Connecticut. There, he expounded a theory of cosmopolitanism: As Americans, he said, we have an obligation to the nations of the world. And “If you believe in God, I think it’s the moral thing to do.”
(Phoebe Gould, Production & Design Staff)
The list of Malloy’s nationally recognized accomplishments goes on.
After President Barack Obama called on Congress to ban those on the federal no-fly list from purchasing firearms, Malloy was happy to circumvent Congress’ legislative inaction and issued an executive order prohibiting the issuance of gun permits to those on federal terrorist watch lists.
That stance — as well as extensive gun-control legislation passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre — was enough to garner Malloy a trip to the nation’s capital, where he sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama for the president’s last State of the Union. Between the two dignitaries was an empty seat, symbolizing the thousands who have died as a result of gun violence in recent years.
But Malloy’s national popularity has not provoked universal goodwill in the state. Pelletier worried Malloy’s national prominence might be distracting him from his duties to his constituents. She noted Malloy has touted his stance as a progressive to fundraise for the Democratic Governors Association.
“Listen, he’s done some amazing work around criminal justice reform. His response to Sandy Hook was what a governor should do,” she said. “But the fact that he’s got a tin ear when it comes to changing the tax structure is a problem. He’s still governor of this state.”
A HEARTBEAT AWAY
Given the screen time devoted to Trump’s bleached blonde hair, it should not be forgotten that this is an election year.
Malloy’s national popularity has fostered speculation about a possible vice-presidential pick if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 wins the Democratic nomination. Malloy, for his part, has denied the rumors, with his spokesman insisting that the governor is focused on his job in Connecticut.
In an appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC in January, the host confronted the governor with the simple question: Are you in the running to be the vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic Party this year?
Malloy said no — or, rather, that he hoped not.
Vice President Joe Biden, he said, should be given the nod for a third year running. Then, despite his public profession of disinterest in the role, Malloy offered a laundry list of his accomplishments as governor, amounting in Maddow’s eyes to a “pretty good audition reel.”
“We were the first to pass paid sick days. We did it in ’11. No other state did it until ’14, and now only four states have done it,” Malloy said on the show. “We were the first state to get behind $10.10 as a minimum wage. We were the best implementer of Obamacare. We have taken on the issue of education. We were the first state to be certified as having ended chronic homelessness amongst veterans, just this past summer. We’ve done a lot of good work.”
According to Brad Bannon, a Washington political analyst who founded Bannon Communications Research, wherever Malloy ends up after November’s election will be the result of the cards Malloy strategically played throughout the Democratic primary. Brannon referred to Malloy’s decision to support Clinton, the current frontrunner for the presidency. Malloy — a champion of gun control — has, at times, served as Clinton’s attack dog, slamming her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for his votes against the Brady Bill in the Senate.
In that respect, Malloy’s focus on gun control after the Sandy Hook massacre — and Connecticut’s unique place in the national gun-control debate — has paid off, giving him a platform on which to stand in the national spotlight and a vector through which to express his support for Clinton in what has become an increasingly vicious Democratic primary.
Political support is a two-way street, involving implicit deals and quid pro quos. Picking whom to support can make or break careers, and with Clinton the heavy favorite to win the presidency, Malloy’s support for the former secretary of state may reap generous rewards.
But the outcomes of presidential politics can be up in the air, and the fortunes of selection and appointment depend heavily on proper timing and placement — and plain old good luck. Malloy’s chances of ascending to a heartbeat away from the presidency will likely be hampered by the exigencies of presidential politics, Bannon said.
“There’s really no incentive for Sanders or for Clinton to pick someone from Connecticut [for vice president],” Bannon said. “The reality is, first you’re looking at someone from Ohio or Florida, for candidates. And on the Democratic side, I believe there would be a lot of pressure on both Clinton and Sanders to pick a Latino running mate.”
That Latino running mate could very well be Julian Castro — the current secretary of housing and urban development, a graduate of Harvard Law School and former mayor of San Antonio — who, incidentally, visited the Elm City in January to meet with a group of prominent Connecticut Latinos. Other names thrown around include Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Sen. Sherrod Brown ’74 of Ohio, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.
“We were the first to pass paid sick days. We did it in ’11. No other state did it until ’14, and now only four states have done it.”
—Gov. Dannel Malloy
But all those names are either ethnic minorities or from a crucial swing state. Malloy can boast neither of those attributes.
What Malloy could be in the running for, Brannon said, is a domestic position in the Cabinet of a potential President Hillary Clinton — secretary of housing and urban development or transportation, perhaps.
Or Malloy could take a different route, plunging deeper into partisan politics. Malloy currently serves as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, a role that mostly entails fundraising. Brannon said Malloy would be a strong candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee when current chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz steps down from the position after the November election. This summer, Malloy will serve as the co-chairman of the platform committee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, a position that could prove valuable in blocking the incorporation of some of Sanders’ more radical policy stances into the Democratic Party’s platform, regardless of who ultimately wins the Democratic nomination.
Wherever Malloy decides to go — or is tapped to go — one thing is clear: It will depend on the outcome of the presidential election. And with prediction markets estimating Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency at 73 percent, Malloy is in a very good position indeed.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
The General Assembly’s session ends May 6.
Talks between the governor and the legislative Democrats are non-existent, but Sharkey has now called for negotiations to begin again. The Republicans have put forth their budget plan, which the governor has acknowledged resembles his own in many respects, and the Democrats, as of Thursday night, have one too. But the possibility that the deadlock continues — that the session ends without a budget — remains very real.
Malloy will have none of it.
If the legislature fails to pass a budget before the expiration of the session, he has said, he will simply demand they return to Hartford.
“If they adjourn before they do it, we’ll call them back,” Malloy said. “They have a job to do, and we’ve got to get the job done. I don’t have a magic wand to make people do their jobs, but I can make it uncomfortable for them not to do their jobs, and that means being here all summer, if that’s what it means.”