Malloy names Capitol outsider as OPM chief

Governor-elect Dan Malloy today named one of the top aides from his mayoral administration in Stamford for the pivotal role of overseeing the budget and contract negotiations with state employees.

Malloy introducing Ben Barnes

Gov.-elect Dan Malloy introduces his OPM choice, Ben Barnes, as Lt. Gov-elect Nancy Wyman looks on (Mark Pazniokas)

Ben Barnes, 42, who held three top jobs in Stamford, brings an outsider’s perspective to the post of secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, a job that in recent administrations often has gone to former legislators.

Along with the chief of staff, the OPM secretary tends to have one of the closest and most important relationships with a governor, especially one who will be confronted with a deficit of as much as $3.7 billion.

“He knows how I work,” Malloy said with a smile, talking about some of Barnes’ qualifications. “I think ultimately in my choosing an individual to move forward with, I had to feel confident the person fully understood what it is I am trying to accomplish.”

He introduced Barnes at a press conference at the Legislative Office Building by joking that his latest appointee should not expect a vacation before August.

Barnes was a government finance expert at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities when Malloy, then mayor of Stamford, hired him away nearly 10 years ago. Of the three posts that reported directly to Malloy, Barnes held three of them.

“I am terribly honored by the selection and the trust Dan has shown in me,” Barnes said. “I am looking forward to facing some rather enormous challenges the state of Connecticut faces.”

Barnes, who lives in Stratford with his wife and three sons, is now a facilities manager for the Bridgeport schools. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and has a graduate degree in urban planning from New York University.

Friends describe Barnes as smart, even-tempered and detail-oriented, all traits that will be tested in the first months of the new administration. Andrew J. McDonald, a state senator from Stamford who was Malloy’s legal counsel, says Barnes can be a “little geeky,” with a wickedly dry sense of humor.

“There is no doubt that Ben understands the rhythms of Dan Malloy’s style of leadership,” McDonald said.

When asked if he felt a special affinity for cities and towns, which rely heavily on state aid to balance their own budgets, Barnes nodded and deadpanned, “I wouldn’t live anywhere but in a city or town.”

Advisers to the governor-elect say Barnes enjoyed Malloy’s complete confidence while overseeing, at different times, such diverse areas as finance, administration and operations.

“Dan Malloy has offered me some extraordinary opportunities in my career, and in accepting them and working with him I have prospered, and I hope that communities we served together have prospered,” Barnes said.

Barnes will get his first briefing at OPM on Wednesday.

He said there is no “silver bullet” that will erase the state’s fiscal challenges.

Malloy’s decision to reach outside of legislative circles for a strategist to solve what effectively equals to largest budget deficit in Connecticut history was applauded by fellow Democrats.

“Sure, a former legislator can come in to the job knowing more people,” state Auditor Kevin P. Johnston, himself a former legislator, said after the announcement. “But somebody can be colored by having been here so long. We need to have someone who is open to new ideas.”

“They should have the best people around, be they from the legislature, municipal government, the business world or academia,” said Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, adding that a legislative background is not essential for a budget office to have a good relationship with the General Assembly.

“Ben is going to be part of a larger team and there probably will be others who can provide that background,” Geragosian added.

Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, the subject of some speculation that he might have been under consideration for the job, said Barnes can be brought up to speed on the budget.

“The number one consideration is whether the governor is confident” in the OPM secretary, DeFronzo said. With Barnes, he added, “There is a confidence level that doesn’t have to be created. This, by all accounts, is a relationship that is intense and well-established.”

Malloy’s running mate, Nancy Wyman, said the new administration wanted someone who wouldn’t be dissuaded by politics from examining any solution to the state’s fiscal problems. The new team faces a built-in shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that ranges from $3.4 billion to $3.7 billion, based on estimates from the Rell administration and nonpartisan legislative analysts.

But both projections represent nearly one-fifth of current spending, and more than half of all annual receipts from the state income tax.

“With what we’re facing, a fresh look is what we need,” said Wyman, a former legislator who has been state comptroller since 1995. “Maybe an idea didn’t work out before, but it could now. Ben has the experience and he understands how budgets work.”

Johnston added that legislative experience, though valuable in many instances, isn’t always an advantage.

“People can come out of the legislature with a lot of baggage,” he said. “You can have a former legislator that nobody cared for.”