With his administration complete, Malloy feels ‘liberated’

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reached a milestone this week: With another in a series of “outside-the-box” appointments–an education commissioner from outside the ranks of educators–his administration essentially is complete.

And after a series of crises, ranging from tackling the nation’s worst per-capita deficit on day one to the natural disaster of Tropical Storm Irene last week, the Malloy Administration hopes to begin a new phase.

“I feel liberated,” Malloy said. “Now, we’re liberated in the sense we can turn to other subjects, as well as performing on the agenda we’ve laid out and enacted.”

The governor is preparing for a special session on jobs and economic development next month, and he already has settled on education reform as a priority of the regular session in 2012.

But he and his team also face the challenge of delivering on the broader, thematic promise of change implicit every time Malloy has come up with a surprising pick to fill key positions in government.

“He is getting people who have been successful in other areas of life. He’s convinced them to come into government,” said Joseph J. McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “Now, they have to perform.”

As a candidate and as a governor assembling an administration, Malloy repeatedly has made the case that Hartford has been broken, unable to manage its finances or promote economic growth.

Malloy has picked outsiders for key jobs, disregarding specialized credentials and placing a premium on smarts and fresh eyes. If there is a unifying theme, it is a willingness to make changes in government.

Beginning with his first choices in November of a municipal official, Benjamin Barnes, to oversee the budget and a Supreme Court justice, Joette Katz, to take over the perennially troubled Department of Children and Families, Malloy has reveled in flouting convention.

“They really weren’t traditional choices made, because I didn’t feel bound by any tradition,” said Malloy, the first governor in decades without previous service in state government. “I never served up here.”

Stefan Pryor, the man introduced Wednesday as education commissioner, is the latest and, perhaps, most dramatic of those choices.

Pryor is a Yale-educated lawyer who co-founded a successful charter school in New Haven, helped managed the post-9-11 reconstruction of lower Manhattan and then served as a deputy mayor of Newark.

“Stefan, he will be a change agent,” McGee said. “Those who don’t want change in education will have a big problem, but who in their right mind does not feel the need for change in education?”

“Clearly, the governor is not intending to be comfortable with the status quo,” said Christopher Phelps, the program director of Environment Connecticut, a statewide advocacy group.

But before Pryor, there was Barnes and Katz, Dan Esty and Catherine Smith. He hired Esty, an accomplished policy expert on energy and environmental policy at Yale, to run a new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Esty is charged with protecting the environment while bringing down the nation’s highest electric rates outside Hawaii.

Smith, the chief executive officer of ING U.S. Retirement Services, was recruited to take over the Department of Economic and Community Development, a key agency in a state that has failed to achieve job growth for two decades.

To overhaul the Department of Social Services, Malloy found Roderick Bremby, who had run the Kansas Department of Health and Environment under Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If unconventional in many of his choices, Malloy says he is doing what he did as the mayor of Stamford and what he promised to do as a candidate.

“That was to seek to surround myself with people who are substantially smarter than me and empower them to do their jobs,” Malloy said. That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing exactly what I told people I would do.”

In November, the governor’s chief of staff, Timothy Bannon, said the emphasis in certain jobs would be on “energy and an aggressive intellect.”

As his first department head, Barnes was a template.

Nearly 10 earlier, Barnes was then-Mayor Malloy’s unconventional choice to oversee a wide swath of government in Stamford. Malloy found Barnes at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, scouting more for talent than specific credentials.

Barnes was then a young, highly touted expert in government finance, but without direct experience as an administrator with line responsibilities. Malloy hired him as the director of public health, safety and welfare in Stamford.

As a mayor and as a governor, Malloy said, he’s looked for talent, not necessarily the perfect resume.

“I was looking for the best and the brightest and skill sets that were transferable,” Malloy said. “So, Catherine Smith, who had not done economic development in a traditional sense, but had developed and led a great company, or at least a division of a great company, was that kind of out of the box pick.”

His appointees, “a team of stars” in McGee’s view, still represent more potential than accomplishment, but Malloy generally gets good reviews for his key appointments, especially from business groups that had reason to be wary of the first Democratic governor in 20 years.

“We’ve been high on the governor’s appointments since the beginning,” said Joseph Brennan, a senior vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “We felt in almost every agency, at least the ones our members deal with, they are high-quality people.”

“He’s gone out of his way to keep business happy,” said Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. “Time will tell how that works for the state.”

Swan said he wants to see performance. Much has been promised, especially in the appointment of Esty, which came with the governor’s backing of sweeping legislation meant to change how the state procures energy.

At noon on Friday, Malloy will have been governor for an eventful 250 days. He coaxed a record tax increase from legislators and concessions from labor to erase an inherited deficit of more than $3 billion.

He won legislative approval for a new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the reorganization of higher education, and a major expansion of the UConn Health Center.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” said Lori Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

With all the reorganizing, Pelletier says the administration will have to get through its growing pains before it can be fully assessed. She said labor is satisfied he can get a fair hearing from the administration.

She praised Malloy’s choice of Glenn Marshall, a trade-union official who was one of the administration’s more traditional picks, as the commissioner of labor. On others, she was more circumspect.

“Would I have picked somebody different for other spots? Possibly,” she said.

McGee, who was economic development commissioner under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in the early 1990s, said one thing comes through in Malloy’s choices.

“It shows Malloy is willing to have a team of peers, people who have skills beyond his,” McGee said. “This isn’t Dan and the midgets. This is Dan and the equals. That is a nice thing to see in a politician, in a leader.”

Phelps said the talent is impressive.

“Now,” he said, “the challenge is to implement the changes and the direction the governor has charted.”