Dannel P. Malloy, Connecticut’s governor in a hurry

The question asked by an exasperated state legislator at an informational hearing last week was the one posed frequently, if not publicly, at the state Capitol about Connecticut’s always-in-a-hurry governor: “Why can’t this wait?”

The query by Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, concerned Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s fast-track plan to remake the UConn Health Center, but it could have applied to any major initiative, beginning with the budget.

In five months in office, Malloy has recalibrated life at the Capitol: Bigger is better, and the only acceptable speeds are fast, faster and fastest.  That’s left legislators and lobbyists struggling to adjust to new rhythms and habits, including seeing a governor directly, restlessly lobby bills.

Malloy insisted on the legislature passing his record $1.4 billion tax increase a month before the session’s June 8 adjournment. His $864 million UConn plan is speeding along with only an informational hearing by the legislature.

“The governor’s managed to turn the building upside down,” said Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “He’s got a vision for where he wants to take Connecticut and how he wants to get there. He is driving this policy, and he’s doing it at 85 miles per hour.”

With a Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, who inherited the office after a corruption investigation forced the resignation of John G. Rowland, and a Democratic legislature, stasis had been the normal state of affairs in Hartford.

But Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, has convinced the Democratic majority to come along on his wild ride, backing his call for higher taxes and labor concessions, and acceding to his wish for two expensive construction projects, the controversial Hartford-New Britain busway and the UConn expansion.

“You inherit the biggest per-capita deficit in the country, you’ve got to do something about it,” Malloy said, relaxing in his office last week. “I inherit the governorship of a state that lost jobs for 22 years, I feel compelled to do something about that. I have 25 to 30 percent unemployment in the construction trades, why wouldn’t I want to put people back to work?”

When asked about his hyperactive brand of governing, Malloy, who has been open about growing up with learning disabilities, answered in a clinical sense: “I’ve never been diagnosed as hyperactive.”

Active, yes.

Malloy, 55, who was mayor for 14 years in Stamford, out of the Hartford-New Haven television market that dominates two-thirds of Connecticut, said he is the same chief executive as he was in Stamford, something Hartford is struggling to learn. He likes to make decisions, and move on.

“I can tell you that I’m not acting at a speed that I’m uncomfortable with. I think to some extent, following an administration or two that tended to be ponderous and slow in making decisions and commitments, that perhaps what I’m doing looks unusually rapid,” Malloy said. “But it’s my pace. I told everybody I love to work. I love to study issues. I love to reach conclusions. I love to get things going.”

The Republican view: Malloy moves too fast and with too little regard for the legislature.

“I get the need for action and the desire to get things done,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “The risk you run is you make a terrible mistake.”

“He feels like this is his world, and we’re just living in it,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “What he has to realize is there is a process, and it’s laid out in the Constitution. It has to take its course.”

“Members of his own party are starting to get a little uncomfortable with his ‘I’m a new governor in a hurry routine,” Cafero said. “Because they take their jobs seriously, too.”

But even Democrats who have opposed Malloy’s initiatives find his energy refreshing. One of them is Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who opposes the busway, and is concerned that UConn expansion will harm Hartford’s three regional hospitals.

“I’ll still take Dan Malloy over what we had for the six previous years,” Fonfara said. “He embraces the big picture. He wants to be a catalyst for change.”

Willis, the co-chair of the legislature’s higher education committee, clashed with the administration over a higher-education reorganization and questioned Malloy’s push for quick approval of the UConn Health plan.

“It’s unsettling for those of us who like to be a little more deliberative,” Willis said, She laughed and added, “But I’m not running the railroad.”

Malloy said he took a UConn plan negotiated by Rell and approved by the legislature and revised it.  The original plan to modernize the health center and establish a new relationship with the region’s hospitals counted on $100 million in federal funds that never materialized.

The governor said he left intact UConn’s deal for shared services with the other hospitals, but he insisted the plan be bigger and bolder, with a beefed-up research capacity to give the medical school a role in economic development. Even if the federal funds had been forthcoming, Malloy said he would have insisted on the changes.

In that vision, Malloy had an ally in the incoming UConn president, Susan Herbst, who strongly backed the governor’s idea publicly at last week’s hearing and, according to one legislator, in private conversations with key legislators.

“She made a very compelling case,” Willis said. “Other states are moving on this now.”

Malloy said his demand for revisions was hardly radical.

The governor’s activist style has been evident on other issues.

Where Rell had a tendency to deliver proposals and sit back, Malloy has directly engaged legislators, appearing at the door of the Senate Democratic caucus room recently to lobby for a bill mandating paid sick days.

“I knocked on the door,” Malloy said of his visit to the Senate. “And when I went into the House, I made sure they weren’t in session. Those were the rules I understood. I would never go into either chamber without being invited if they were in session. I know that protocol.”

Duff, who voted for Malloy’s tax increase but declined to back him on paid sick days, said he welcome having a governor who roams the building, even when he shows up at the door of the Senate caucus room.

“I never saw that happen before. You see him around the Capitol. You see him in the cafeteria. You can go up to him and talk about stuff,” Duff said. “Having a governor who is an activist, who has a direction he want to take the state, to me it’s a great time to be up here.”

Cafero and McKinney embraced the idea of a more activist governor at the start of his term, when Malloy expressed openness to working with Republicans if necessary to get his program passed. But Malloy’s ability to find all the votes he needs in the Democratic majority left them on the outside, as critics.

Roy Occhiogrosso, the senior adviser to Malloy, said their increasing criticism grows from frustration, a word that Cafero was happy to throw back at Malloy over what he calls the governor’s impatient style.

“I think the governor is frustrated, based on the first time in his political career he truly has to deal with two or more equal branches of government,” Cafero said. “The governor is used to have things his way, when he wants them.”

Malloy smiled at the suggestion.

“I’m not frustrated at all,” he said.

With the expected passage this week of secondary budget bills, known as implementers, his budget will be complete – unless state employees refuse to ratify a labor savings deal negotiated by union leaders.

The governor said his pace will continue.

“I talk fast. I think fast. I push people hard. And I do that within a context that I understand I have four years to accomplish a lot in the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “I move fast. It’s not arrogance. It never was. We have a job to do. Let’s get it done.”