For the governor’s flack, the campaign has just begun

The election is over, not the campaign. As Gov.-elect Dan Malloy prepares to raise taxes and cut spending to erase a staggering deficit, he is turning again to his uber-flack and alter ego, Roy Occhiogrosso, to shape and sell a message.

“It’s not about spin. It’s about telling your entire story,” Occhiogrosso said. “He has a very clear sense of what he wants to do. It will be my job to help shape the narrative that will allow him to tell the story on his own terms.”

Occhiogrosso, 45, has been looking over Malloy’s shoulder for six years, framing a narrative for his friend and client through scandal and success, and losing and winning gubernatorial campaigns, each by heart-stopping margins.

Occhiogrosso, Malloy

Roy Occhiogrosso watching his candidate and the press.

In victory, the task gets harder. A candidate is free to persuade, seduce and inspire with a gauzy, soft-focus sense of the possible. As governor, Malloy will be judged on performance, primarily by how he erases a deficit of more than $3.5 billion, a sum equal to one-fifth of state spending.

“His refusal to take a tax increase off the table during the campaign, the blunt talk about the challenges ahead, I think has given him a lot of running room to govern,” Occhiogrosso said. “That said, if we don’t do a good job of shaping the narrative and selling his administration, we will run into problems.”

In prevailing on Occhiogrosso to give up a successful consulting practice to join the administration as a senior adviser, Malloy is acknowledging the challenge he will face convincing voters to accept some mix of higher taxes and fewer services.

“You still have to sell inspiration. You still are rallying people around what you want to do,” Occhiogrosso said. “He’s been very clear he wants a plan in place to help sell this package. There is going to be a lot of tough aspects that are going to have to be explained.”

And that job falls to Occhiogrosso.

“I would say he has the toughest job in Connecticut,” said George Gallo, a Republican campaign strategist and chief of staff of the House Republicans in Hartford. “The toughest job in Connecticut is going to be the public voice of the governor.”

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy said messaging is harder for an administration, with its dozens of personalities and priorities, than for a campaign.

“Look at Obama, how quickly they lost the narrative, almost immediately after the inauguration,” Healy said. “In Connecticut, Roy’s best at doing this on their side.”

Like his client, Occhiogrosso is smart, intense and prone to brusqueness. In the modern 24/7 news cycle, Occhiogrosso seldom is at a loss for words. Little goes unanswered in an Occhiogrosso campaign, and a pre-emptive strike always is better than playing defense. Malloy is on the same page.

“Sharp elbows, maybe. Truthfulness, always. Transparency is our standard,” Malloy told a business group last week. “And we’re going to get there. We’re going to straighten this thing out.”

Ned Lamont, who was Malloy’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, conceded that Occhiogrosso had put him on the defensive before he even entered the race over the issue of public financing.

Before he had hired a campaign staff, the wealthy Lamont faced sharp questions about why he wasn’t going to participate in a public financing system he had endorsed as good public policy. Lamont self-funded most of his campaign.

“He is very good. He is very quick,” Justine Sessions, who eventually was hired as Lamont’s communications director, said of Occhiogrosso. “It’s hard to keep up. He always seems to be a couple of steps ahead, which makes him a good flack and a good political operative.”

Occhiogrosso also was on the losing end of a fight with Lamont: He was Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s media adviser during the Democratic primary in 2006.

His day starts early, rising with his two-year-old twin sons, then firing off emails, poking, prodding, cajoling reporters. In a campaign, Occhiogrosso pursues the press like a coach working the referees, looking for an edge, trying to have that next call go his way.

A critique of a story in March arrives at 6:38 a.m. The story is about Malloy’s hard sell to the AFL-CIO, just as Lamont was about to starting airing commercials that Malloy could not yet afford. The piece is accurate, he says, but didn’t it seem to make Malloy sound a tad desperate? Had the reporter considered other angles?

Occhiogrosso was with Malloy in 2004 when Malloy, then the mayor of Stamford and a candidate for governor, came under criminal investigation for campaign contributions by city vendors and work on his home by city contractors.

Malloy survived the scandal with a textbook case of damage control. He invited reporters to examine his financial records, including canceled checks showing he paid for the renovations.

After the chief state’s attorney  exonerated him in May 2005, Malloy won the gubernatorial endorsement of the Democratic convention in 2006, only to  narrowly lose a primary to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano.

“You can’t work with someone as closely as I’ve work with over two campaign cycles and not form a bond,” Occhiogrosso said.

He is joining the Malloy administration as a senior adviser and will resign as the partner in charge of the Hartford office of the Global Strategy Group, a national polling and communication strategy group with a stable of political, corporate and non-profit clients.

Occhiogrosso occupies a unique place in Connecticut politics. He is the home-grown hired gun who has played major roles in five statewide campaigns, all involving Democratic primaries. The state has other talented political and communication strategists, but none with Occhiogrosso’s profile and experience.

Until this year, most of that experience included winning Democratic nominations and losing general elections. But one big win changes reputations.

Old conventional wisdom: Occhiogrosso was an overrated strategist who couldn’t win the big one. New conventional wisdom: He’s a freakin’ genius, praised by the Washington Post as one of the winners of the 2010 campaign cycle.

Occhiogrosso, Malloy

The consultant and his candidate.

“I think I was probably never that stupid, and I’m not that smart,” Occhiogrosso said.

Occhiogrosso started his political career in 1992 as a press aide for the state House Democrats.

“I made $50 a day with no benefits. I loved it,” he said.

Debbie Willhite, a top staffer in the House with connections to Bill Clinton, got Occhiogrosso a staff job at the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Then he came back to work on three state House races in Danbury.

He was hired to handle press on Bill Curry’s campaign for governor in 1994, when Curry won a Democratic primary against the state Senate leader, John B. Larson, then narrowly lost the general to John G. Rowland.

It was the first of four gubernatorial campaigns in which he would play a major role, working for Curry in 1994 and 2002, then Malloy in 2006 and 2010. He also briefly consulted on Democrat Barbara Kennelly’s disastrous campaign for governor in 1998.

In 1996, the last time Democrats were in the minority in the state Senate, Occhiogross was hired by the outgoing Senate Democratic leader, William A. DiBella, and kept on by his successor, Kevin Sullivan, to oversee communications strategy.

“The Senate Democrats at that time were still dominated by Larson people. They were no fans of mine. At the staff level, there were hard feelings from ’94,” Occhiogrosso said.

On the day his hiring became known, one staffer quit in protest. Others were suspicious.

“Maura Downes, Larson’s niece, was working there. She was horrified,” he said. “All became my friends. Maura ended up working for me at Global.”

Never afraid to cut up opposing candidates, Occhiogrosso remains on good terms with most of the political consultants he has faced.

“Despite going up against him in a pretty heated primary, I think the world of him and have kept in touch with him since,” said Sessions, now the press secretary for the U.S. Senate’s labor committee.

Healy and Gallo also are on friendly terms with him. Healy said Occhiogrosso is straight with his clients “and the people he goes up against.”

“Like a lot of people, the person underneath the reputation is somewhat different,” said Timothy Bannon, Malloy’s chief of staff. “Roy, probably to his great embarrassment, is a nice guy.”

He grew up in Queens, N.Y., a fan of the Jets, Mets and Rangers, three franchises that can teach their fans how to cope with decades of disappointment, whether in sports or politics.

The screen saver on his computer is a photo of the day in 1994 that that Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup, their first in 54 years. It shows a fan unfurling a banner that says, “Now I can die in peace.”

“On election night, I definitely felt a little bit of that,” he said.