Donovan juggles roles as speaker and candidate

Chris Donovan’s formal entry into the 5th District congressional race got sidetracked: On the eve of his scheduled announcement last month, the labor concession deal on which the state budget depended was failing, and as leader of the House of Representatives, Donovan had some work ahead of him.

“My full-time job is still speaker of the House,” said Donovan, a Democrat of Meriden. “We need to work on the budget first.”

By the end of last week, Donovan’s fingerprints were on a compromise reached with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Instead of the broad budget-cutting authority sought by the governor, the House gave him limited powers, denying him permission to cut state aid to municipalities.

The House also stopped, for the moment, a bill proposed by Malloy and passed by the Senate to limit the collective-bargaining rights of state employees. But Donovan pointedly noted that the legislation remained alive on the House calendar if labor fails to salvage the concessions.

Donovan has by far the most political experience and responsibilities of the eight 5th District candidates so far. One rival referred to him as “the establishment candidate,” but Donovan said he just sees himself as established.

Chris Donovan

House Speaker Chris Donovan

By definition, the speaker is a political insider, but his start in politics came as an organizer with two liberal, activist groups: the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and a major union, the Service Employees International Union. If they choose, both groups could be important assets in a crowded Democratic primary.

“I guess I’ve established myself as a fighter for families,” Donovan said. “And that’s a good thing.”

With support from his old allies in the progressive movement, he was elected to the legislature as a state representative from Meriden in 1992. He served two terms as majority leader, beginning in 2004. He was sworn in as speaker of the House in 2009, moving up when his predecessor, James Amann, left the legislature for an ill-fated run for governor.

Though the failure of the concession package delayed Donovan’s formal announcement, it didn’t stop his campaigning. He said he knew he would run since U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate back in January, and campaigned during off-hours in the closing days of the session.

Donovan will need to balance his job as speaker and as a candidate through primary season, but he says the added responsibility will not stop him from running an aggressive campaign.

“It’s part of the job, and we manage to do it,” he said. He said he’s managed to balance 10 elections as state representative and a position as adjunct faculty member teaching political science and sociology at the University of Hartford for years.

Donovan erased whatever doubts existed about his congressional ambitions in mid-May at the Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner, the Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser and opportunity for socializing, politicking and intelligence gathering. His supporters handed out  guitar-shaped stickers that said “Chris Donovan for Congress.”

The guitar represents the band he’s played with for 10 years, “The Bad Reps.” He plays the guitar and practices in his basement, occasionally performing at political events, where it is unclear if the applause is a reflection of his muscianship or his political standing.

“My wife says she likes my music,” he said.

His leadership role is an asset and a liability. As somone who can influence the agenda of the House for the next 18 months, Donovan has a good perch from which to raise money. But he has a record to promote and defend far beyond Meriden.

The oddly shaped 5th District covers the western edge of the state, stretching along the New York border from Danbury to the Litchfield Hills, clawing east to take in older industrial cities like Meriden and New Britain the prosperous suburbs of the Farmington Valley. As a member of the legislature’s Reapportionment Committee, Donovan will have a say in how the district is redrawn this year to reflect the 2010 census.

Of his 20-year legislative track record, Donovan said he wants to emphasize his work for Connecticut’s families. He convened task forces on domestic violence, children affected by the recession and cost-saving initiatives for cities and municipalities. He said many of his legislative accomplishments came under two Republican governors, John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell.

“It shows I can work with people and fight to get things done,” he said.

His ability to work with Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, is likely to play a bigger role in his campaign for Congress. Donovan helped pass the governor’s first-year agenda, including a record tax increase of $1.5 billion. The deficit was left by Rell, but the Democratic legislature was complicit.

Malloy was an ally of Donovan’s on a controversial issue passed this year: the nation’s first state mandate on some private employers to offer paid sick days. The relatively limited mandate was applauded by labor, but it was decried by business groups as sending the wrong signal in a tough economic environment.

Donovan and Malloy defended the policy as providing minimal sick time to low-wage service employees.

Donovan also said he supports health care reform legislation and backed Murphy in the onslaught against “Obamacare.”

“I like Chris a lot and I’ve worked with him for years,” Donovan said of the incumbent, who served in the state House and Senate before unseating the delegation’s senior congresswoman, Republican Nancy Johnson, in 2006. “I texted him during the health care bill passage to thank him for his hard work.”

He said he watches out for families because he came from a big one with a strong work ethic.

“I grew up in a big family,” he said. “We all had our jobs cleaning the house, but we knew that if we all shared, we could get things done by working together.”

Donovan said he will make a formal campaign announcement once issues with the state budget settle down, although the drama of Malloy’s relationship with labor may cast a shadow well into the summer. If the unions cannot salvage the deal, Malloy is promising record layoffs of state employees, potentially putting the speaker in an awkward place between a Democratic governor and organized labor.

But he expressed confidence about the upcoming year, as he spends time on early, one-on-one campaigning.

“I’ve been to a lot of town committees and I seem to have a lot of support,” he said.