Conflict and confidence: A year with Dannel Malloy

Two days before Sunday’s publication of a fly-on-the-wall look at a head-spinning first year in office, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was asked on the way to a press conference if he had last-minute jitters about opening himself to a close, public examination.


Conflict is part of the decor.

“Noooo,” Malloy said, theatrically drawing out his reply. Then he grinned and muttered something about getting some apologies ready, an acknowledgement that he is not always guarded in his public remarks, so lord knows what he’s uttered in private.

The thought did not seem to bother him.

Upsetting people rarely has been a concern of Dannel Patrick Malloy since his inauguration Jan. 5 as Connecticut’s 88th governor, the winner of the state’s closest gubernatorial election in 56 years, the first Democratic victor in 20.

He is the Sinatra governor. Regrets? Too few to mention.

Malloy opened his administration to writer Ted Mann for 11 months, with the result a three-week series to be published daily by the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers. Before a word was written, the project says much about Malloy.

It speaks to the confidence and cockiness that has imbued Malloy’s dealings with state employees and state legislators, the press and public, as he raised taxes, won labor concessions, reorganized higher education, overhauled energy regulation, consolidated agencies and pushed the state into a huge wager that bioscience is the economic future.

He took office promising to shake up Connecticut, the land of steady habits, a place with no net job growth in 22 years, an aging population, an alarming unfunded pension and health liability, and the nation’s largest per-capita budget deficit.

Sure, why not have a writer come along for the ride?

Mann’s pitch: Access to private meetings and conversations, on the condition that everything was off the record until nearly the end of his first year. It was left to his senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, to present the idea to Malloy.

“There was definitely a glint in his eye when I brought it to him,” Occhiogrosso said.

Malloy says the story of his first year is one of success, if marked by controversy and conflict and an anemic job rating. He suffered no significant legislative defeats, despite pushing what is likely to be remembered as one of the most ambitious first-year agendas by a Connecticut governor.

He erased a deficit of more than $3 billion, while maintaining state aid to municipalities, enacting an earned income tax credit, and investing $864 million in modernizing a UConn Health Center that he hopes will anchor a new research triangle.

“Listen, I thought we had an extraordinary legislative session, that no one at the outset would have reasonably predicted we could have made as much progress on all fronts as we did, and yet we did,” Malloy said.

Only the weather and Connecticut Light & Power seemed beyond his reach, and he hasn’t given up on CL&P.

The leaders of the Republican minorities in the General Assembly say Malloy’s wins were made easier by a Democratic majority that was eager to see the party’s first governor in a generation succeed. Democrats say no one can underestimate the force of his personality.

“I think it was both,” Malloy said. “I think I work hard. I do preparatory work. I don’t talk about issues that I haven’t developed an opinion on and I’m not prepared to invest in. And then, quite frankly, I pride myself on outworking everybody.”

The Joy of Battle

Conflict dominates the décor in Dan Malloy’s sun-splashed corner office at the state Capitol.

Where other governors gave prominent display to political mementos or family photos, the wall behind his desk is covered by an antique mural of a Revolutionary War battle. Lafayette stands waving a sword, leading the charge up a hill, men dying at his feet.

“Have you noticed, it’s the only one in here that has blood on it?” Occhiogrosso said.

“In the mayor’s office, it used to be a lion,” said Malloy, who was mayor of Stamford for 14 years.

Last week, Malloy’s major battle was with a heavy cold. Occhiogrosso and Andrew Doba, his new communication director, sat in on the governor’s interview with the Mirror.

Malloy got what he wanted out of the legislature and labor during his first year. His labor deal made some long-term structural changes to the state’s pension and retiree health systems that his actuaries say will save $21 billion over the next two decades.

His budget is in balance, if precariously. Halfway through the fiscal year, the state is reporting a surplus of about $100 million, which is just one-half of one percent of the $20 billion budget.

But a major element of his labor concession deal – a new health plan – is unlikely to yield promised first-year savings. It had two elements: an aggressive wellness plan to cut long-term costs, and higher premiums from those who stayed with the old plan.


Gov. Dannel P. Malloy


His administration greatly over-estimated the number of employees who would pay the higher premiums.

“We’ve already admitted we did not anticipate that as many people would sign up for year one, as did. There was always the chance. And I think that everybody, including the unions, were surprised how many people embraced that.

“So, in retrospect, we got more people to participate in a change that probably doesn’t produce as many early savings as we would like. I manage for the long haul, so I’m not disappointed. We’re going to have better long-term results than we are going to have short-term results. That’s bad?”

The health plan was a contentious element of the protracted drama of his initial demand Feb. 16, when he released his proposed budget, for $2 billion in labor savings over two years. The number shocked labor, souring his relations with state employee unions, which were key to his election.

Labor expected a friendlier stance from a Democrat. At the very least, they thought Malloy owed them a chance to negotiate before he publicly made a $2 billion demand during a budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

“They were destined to be disappointed, because they in many senses thought my election represented a panacea. It doesn’t,” Malloy said. “But what it represents is the best chance at having a structure that is financially viable. That’s all. That’s all I am delivering.”

Malloy said he could not have proposed $1.5 billion in higher taxes without making the demands for labor savings at the same time. He said his approach was blunt, but necessary.

“That’s how I communicate,” he said. “I tell you what I’m going to do, and then I work on it. Again, I don’t think I could have the negotiations or the discussions about any of those things without laying down that marker.”

The governor aggressively defended his budget and labor demands during a series of town-hall style meetings in each of the 17 cities and towns with a daily newspaper. He got points for showing up, not for congeniality.

“Soft and cuddly wasn’t going to do it,” he said.

Malloy said they only way to save the state employee’s wage-and-benefit structure was to force employees to work longer for their pensions and to curb health costs.

There was no betrayal in his dealings with labor, he said.

“I am not ungrateful for people who supported my candidacy. And what I owe them is to do the best job I can do as governor. That’s what I owe ’em.”

Occhiogrosso interrupted to say that the labor outrage was fueled, in part, by a comparison to his two Republican predecessors, whom he says demanded so little from labor.

“I should have said that,” Malloy said.

“You have a cold,” Occhiogrosso said.

There is little Malloy says he would have done differently. In an appearance July 1 on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough closed the segment by inviting the governor to confess his mistakes.

“Looking back at the beginning of the term, have you made any mistakes? Would you do certain things differently?” he asked.

“Have you evolved?” added the co-host, Mika Brzezinski.

“Sure, the maturation process takes place throughout one’s life,” Malloy replied. “You garner new experiences, and you take those experiences and you move forward. Listen, I’m 55 years old. I’m learning things every single day.  Listen, my elbows may have been sharp from time to time. I know people think that.”

Sharp elbows, that was it.

Last week, a governor known for his impatience said the biggest mistake of the year was being too patient: he let labor leaders sell a tentative concession agreement to their members, rather than taking on the job himself.

The agreement was voted down. After a minor change — and Malloy making clear that mass layoffs were the only option — it was approved.

“That cost me some time in the summer when I could have been working on my education agenda, or I could have been working on my jobs agenda or other things.”

So, that was his biggest screw-up?

“That’s it. That’s it,” Malloy replied. “That’s my biggest screw-up.”