Fedele has to run with restraint

Other candidates get to run for governor. Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele must walk a tightrope.

Like the rest of the pack, he distances himself from the $18.9 billion budget that Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed last week, but he does so politely, almost apologetically.

“In the new budget, I probably would have gone more on the cutting side,” Fedele said Wednesday.

It is not much of a quote, nothing like Tom Foley’s biting line, “Hartford is broke and broken.” But Foley isn’t Jodi Rell’s loyal lieutenant.

rell and fedele at SOTS3

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele watches Gov. M. Jodi Rell deliver her State-of-the-State speech

” ‘Broke and broken.’ He can’t say that now,” Richard Foley, a former legislator and Republican state chairman, said of Fedele.

“You don’t get the opportunity to define yourself as lieutenant governor,” said Kevin B. Sullivan, who briefly held the job as a Democrat. “Yet, when you become a candidate, you have to – and risk crossing the line of disloyalty.”

So Fedele walks a line as he competes with Foley and a growing list of candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

He tries to be loyal, yet independent.

“Do we agree all the time? No, no different from any other relationship,” Fedele said of Rell, who plucked him from political retirement to be her running mate in 2006. “Do we agree sometimes? Absolutely.”

Fedele said he is free to disagree with the governor, but he is careful about sharing details. He can offer counsel, but he cannot shape policy.

“There’s one governor,” he said.

On two high-profile social issues, Fedele said he would have acted as did Rell, vetoing a bill abolishing the death penalty and signing a bill that codifies into state law a court decision legalizing gay marriage.

But the next election will revolve exclusively around the economy and the budget, and Fedele tries to separate himself from Rell on those pivotal issues.

Fedele spoke by telephone Wednesday, snowbound in Stamford, where he lives and still has an office at the computer company he founded in his late 20s after dropping out of college and working for two major corporations, Bristol-Meyers and Duracell.

He was a state representative for 10 years, then lost an election for an open state Senate seat to Democrat Andrew McDonald in 2002. After four years out of the public eye, Rell put him back in the game.

Rell was a lieutenant who became governor after John G. Rowland’s resignation in July 2004, then won a term in her own right in 2006. She has shared the spotlight with Fedele.

Fedele stands with Rell when she faces the press for her monthly press conferences in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building, occasionally interjecting an answer. From their first days in office together, she has included him in budget meetings.

But on the day that Rell announced in December that she would not seek re-election, Fedele offered an answer to a scrum of reporters outside her office that has proven embarrassing: He asserted he had her endorsement.

It has not been forthcoming.

Not that day or the next or even after Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk announced they would not be challenging Fedele for the nomination.

What happened?

“I don’t know,” Fedele replied. “If you ask Gov. Rell, I think she’ll tell you I’ve been a good lieutenant governor, a friend and I’ve done a good job. Logically, why wouldn’t she endorse me?”

Sullivan said the dynamic of a lieutenant seeking the boss’s job always is complex. It is a step that few successfully make in Connecticut or other states, he said.

“The role of the lieutenant governor to a seated governor is a very special relationship. And it is a very short leash,” Sullivan said. “When that person runs for office, as Mike has discovered, that leash is easily pulled back. You have to be very careful.”

“He made one misstep early on. You don’t state the seated governor’s intentions for her,” he said. “That’s not your place.”

Connecticut is one of 24 states that elect the governor and lieutenant governor as a team, meaning that voters have little reason to closely examine the lieutenant. He is part of the package, pulled along for the ride.

So Fedele is in the unusual position of having been elected with 63 percent of the vote, yet a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 78 percent of voters had no opinion of him.

“You’ve been the caboose on the train,” Sullivan said. “You’re the only person overwhelmingly elected to state office that nobody knows.”

Sullivan was with Fedele recently at the ribbon-cutting for a new mental health center in Hartford.

“He was warmly welcomed, gave a good speech, heart-felt,” Sullivan said. “But he was introduced as Lt. Gov. Fa-DEEL-y.”

Fedele’s name is pronounced Fa-DELL-y.

His boss still is hugely popular, though her approval rating temporarily dipped last year after she allowed a Democratic budget to become law without her signature after a summer-long stalemate. It had minimal cuts and an income-tax increase on high earners.

Legislative Republicans were dismayed.

On Wednesday, Fedele said he “probably” would have vetoed that budget.

“I understand why she didn’t and the reasons behind it, but based on my sense of where we were and where we needed to be, I would have probably vetoed that budget,” he said. “Who knows when it would have been resolved? We could have been still discussing it today.”

Fedele said that budget was based on false revenue assumptions. According to the Democratic comptroller, the state is now projected to have a $500 million deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30.

“Today, we have the reality: We are $500 million upside down,” Fedele said.

As part of her budget Rell proposed a special commission to review government and recommend changes by December. Fedele said he would have probably opted for a quicker review to begin structural changes that reflect dwindling revenues.

“I think a lot of the information that committee is going to come up with is already out there,” Fedele said. “I wouldn’t do it through a committee process.”

The governor’s proposed $18.9 billion budget relies on $2.7 billion in non-recurring revenue, meaning that her successor can count on inheriting a fiscal crisis next January.

Fedele said the crisis will be so bad that the next governor should plan on a short stay in Hartford. As a role model, he offers a man hardly beloved in the GOP: Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

Weicker, a former Republican U.S. senator, was elected as an independent in 1990, inheriting a $1 billion deficit. He did what had not been attempted in two decades – impose a tax on wages.

Then he left after one term.

“That kind of thinking, not a tax, but that kind of dramatic decision-making by a chief executive has to occur,” Fedele said. “You can’t go in there and think ‘I’m going to be loved by everyone,’ because you are not.”

The next governor will face a bigger shortfall than Weicker and must dramatically downsize government, Fedele said.

By how much must government shrink, Fedele doesn’t say.

Surprisingly little of the state budget is easily touched, Fedele said. Deep cuts would have to be done through negotiation and with care not to abridge the state’s obligations under labor contracts, court decrees or the conditions under which it accepted federal dollars.

He rules out new taxes, even though even some Republican legislators say privately that balancing the budget without new revenue next year likely is impossible.

“Our problem today isn’t that we don’t tax enough,” Fedele said. “Our problem today is that we have 100,000 people out of work.”

As a small-business owner — his company employs 60 nationally and eight in Connecticut – Fedele said he is attuned to the needs of business, yet has an understanding of the political process lacking in his chief rival, Greenwich businessman Tom Foley.

“You need someone who’s been there,” Fedele said. “Of the candidates on both sides of the aisle, I’ve been there. I’ve been in the executive office. I know what it takes to get these budgets done. I know what the negotiations are like. I know what’s required.”

He said the only revenue growth the state can expect will come through adding jobs to the economy, but no one is predicting that will happen in the next two years.

A new report by the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut offered a grim outlook on jobs:

“The state’s economy has undergone a critical structural change as the degree of outsourcing – whether to other states or abroad – has grown quickly for more than a decade; the result is that even strong growth in total output may not translate into rapid improvement in employment.”

The center said the New York job market, which influences Fairfield County, is not expected to recover until 2012 and the Hartford market could languish until 2015.

The next governor cannot wait that long. Rell’s successor will take office in January 2011. A month later, he or she will have to explain how the state can replace or live without at least $2.7 billion.