With a Democratic governor, the party looks to make gains

It was a Friday night, the end of a draining week of coping with Tropical Storm Irene and the beginning of an over-scheduled Labor Day weekend, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had one more commitment to keep: attending a mayoral fundraiser in New Britain.

His appearance on behalf of Rep. Tim O’Brien, who hopes to win a seat held by a Republican in an otherwise Democratic city, was an exercise in loyalty, party-building and enlightened self-interest: O’Brien was an early backer of Malloy’s candidacy for governor, and he could be an even more valuable asset as a mayor to Malloy’s re-election campaign in 2014.

Malloy has been a man in motion since taking office in January as the first Democratic governor in 20 years, crisscrossing the state to defend his budget in 17 town hall meetings and, more recently, to promote economic development.

Less publicized have been his efforts on behalf of the Democratic Party, such as lending his name and giving his time to O’Brien’s campaign for mayor.

“The governor has been traveling all over the state, and not just on business,” said Nancy DiNardo, the Democratic state chairwoman. “He’s going to Democratic events.”

Malloy was the keynote speaker and chief rainmaker this year at the party’s annual fundraiser, the Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner, ending its reliance on out-of-state VIPs, such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.

“I think the governor is very interested in party building, no question about it,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “The party was hamstrung for a long time. It had no money.”

And when your party controls the office of the governor, fundraising usually becomes easier.

“It’s the difference between going to war with an M-1 carbine or a Howitzer,” said Chris Healy, the former Republican state chairman.

As of August, the Connecticut Democratic Party raised $726,000 through its state and federal campaign committees, compared to $423,00 in August 2009, the last municipal election year.

The resources have allowed the party to add staff, notably full-time field and communication directors.

“I think he was frustrated over the years that the party wasn’t as able to provide as many resources as he would have liked,” Occhiogrosso said of Malloy, who was a mayor for 14 years. “He communicated that clearly to Nancy DiNardo.  She gets it.”

While a new governor often can mean a new party chair, Malloy made no effort to remove DiNardo, who has been the chairwoman since 2005. Instead, he’s focused on helping provide her with the resources to build a staff.

“It was smart of him to keep Nancy,” Healy said. “She has the ability to get along with a lot of people in her party. I think at this point in the game, it’s important for him to have that continuity.”

With a press staff, the state party has had a stronger voice, reinforcing messages from the governor’s office and also delivering early critiques of Linda McMahon and Chris Shays, the expected GOP contenders for U.S. Senate next year.

Its new executive director, Eric Hyers, was picked with input from the governor’s staff.

“Our goal is to make sure the Democrats are winning elections from dog catcher to governor. It doesn’t matter,” said Hyers, who came to Connecticut after running Providence Mayor David Cicilline’s successful campaign for Congress last year.

The party already holds every statewide constitutional office, every congressional seat and large majorities in the General Assembly, but Republicans hold their share of municipal offices.

“We are excited about this coming fall. We are going to wage a very aggressive campaign to take back some of these cities that are under Republican control,” Hyers said. “You are going to see a strong, coordinated effort.”

Malloy’s helped raise money for Dan Drew, a mayoral nominee in Middletown, another medium city with a GOP mayor. He’s also endorsed Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, who faces a primary for the nomination, as does O’Brien.

Sitting governors typically avoid getting involved in primaries.

“You just pick and choose. There is not some sort of formula he is following. He has endorsed people who supported him early on, when it made a big difference,” Occhiogrosso said.

But he also supported Segarra, who endorsed Ned Lamont over Malloy in the Democratic primary for governor last year, as did two other urban mayors facing primaries this year, John DeStefano of New Haven and Bill Finch of Bridgeport.

Malloy has not made endorsements in New Haven or Bridgeport.

“Where he thinks he can make a real difference and where he believes his input is welcome, then he’ll probably step in,” Occhiogrosso said. “He’s not going to step into primaries too often, because he respects the local party process.”

John McNamara, the New Britain Democratic chairman, said he sees Malloy’s support of O’Brien mainly as an expression of loyalty for O’Brien’s support, but he believes Malloy also recognizes that a strong Democratic organization in New Britain, led by a Democratic mayor, could be helpful to other Democrats next year, when there will be open seats for U.S. Senate and in the 5th Congressional District.

New Britain is part of the 5th Congressional District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who is running for the Senate seat held by the retiring Joseph I. Lieberman.

Healy said getting involved in primaries is risky, but Malloy’s other party activities are smart, especially for a governor with a low approval rating after raising taxes and forcing a concession deal on state employees.

“Look, he is going to need an excited base [in 2014], and he needs to be  building loyalties up and down the line,” Healy said. “There is honor in this profession, and a lot of people will stick by him if he was there today, raising money when it’s important, making robo calls when it’s important.”