Low-digit license plates always in political fashion

An amused Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declined Friday to involve himself in a flap over Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s awarding of low-digit license plates to herself, family and friends in the final days of her administration.

“Honestly, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it,” Malloy said of the appeal that the license plates have held for the political classes, something he says has always been part of “the Hartford culture.”

It’s not just Connecticut’s capital. The low-digit plates are political currency in many states, often to the grief of those with the power to give and take away the scarce markers.

In Massachusetts, to de-politicize the plates, they now are offered in a lottery. In Delaware, the plates are bought and sold in a deregulated market that yields some insane prices.

A real estate broker paid $675,000 in 2007 for plate number 11. His family now holds a portfolio of 20 plates with a collective value of $3 million.

A proposed bill would legalize the same practice in Connecticut.

The plates are in the news thanks to former state Sen. Kevin Rennie, a blogger and Courant columnist, who posted an item Thursday about plates going out the door in the last days of the administration.

Some veterans of the administration of William A. O’Neill, whose cars can be identified by their low-digit plates, reminisced that low-digit license plates became parting gifts as O’Neill left 20 years ago. David McQuade, his chief of staff, got one.

“They are a curiosity,” said Timothy F. Bannon, an O’Neill speech writer and adviser who now is Malloy’s chief of staff. “I think it’s a harmless ambition for some people to have.”

Bannon drives a car with a three-digit plate, but it’s more of a family heirloom than a political prize. Family lore is that the plate was handed down from generation to generation. He inherited it before he joined the O’Neill administration.

Every administration seems to have an issue with license plates.

Some governors were so generous as they exited that their successors had to be creative in plate prestige. When Thomas Meskill, a Republican, succeeded Democrat John Dempsey as governor, his staff discovered that the low-digit cupboard was bare.

So they issued a new series of plates that began with the prefix 00. They followed up with plates of single and double letters. If you see them today, you can guess the driver’s party affiliation.

Malloy said he already has been asked for a plate.

“I mean, it’s the wackiest thing, a woman who I had no idea who she was, at a reception. This happened last week,” Malloy said told reporters at a press conference to announce his new insurance commissioner. “Forgive me if she is watching.”

Malloy said the woman told him she had a four-digit plate and was looking to upgrade to a three. He assumes she obtained the four during the O’Neill administration and figured it was time to ask again, now that a Democrat was back in power.

The woman was out of luck.

“I have not formulated a three-digit license plate policy yet,” he said.

Malloy said that the Rell plates probably wouldn’t have been a story if the administration didn’t issue so many of them.

“For the life of me, I don’t quite understand what was going on around here in the final days of an administration in which the governor almost always comported herself with great dignity and honesty,” he said. “I can only imagine that people got caught up in the closing days of the administration and some how or some way their judgment left them”

Rell’s honesty is not at issue. Her administration appeared to follow the law, which gives discretion over the plates to the governor. Numbers 1 through 10,000 are under the control of the commissioner of motor vehicles and are not assigned at random.

Rell, her relatives, staffers and some VIPs, including Linda McMahon, got the plates. So did departing DMV Commissioner Robert Ward.

“I’ve driven by these folks on the road, and I always strain my neck to try to figure out who it is,” Malloy said. “I play the guessing game.”

If he passes by number 460, he should wave. It’s the Senate minority leader, John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. If it’s 972, it’s his chief of staff, Bannon.