Malloy plans forums on education — and messaging

A day after a compromise meant to neutralize liquor reforms as an issue, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will try today to further focus the press, public and legislature on education reforms that are his top priority in 2012.

Malloy has overcome his staff’s resistance and intends to announce a series of free-wheeling education forums modeled after last year’s 17 town-hall style budget meetings that took him to every community with a daily newspaper.

“He is his own best sales person,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, his senior adviser. “To not maximize that natural ability he has to engage with people is just insane.”

His announcement is a tacit admission that education reform, including changes in teacher tenure that are setting up a clash between a Democratic governor and unions, has not dominated the news the way the administration had hoped.

But even Occhiogrosso is unwilling to predict that the public will engage the governor in education forums the way it did over his prescription for erasing an inherited deficit: a massive tax increase, spending cuts and labor concessions.

Politics is about performance as well as policy, and Malloy’s staff expressed some of the same reservations about a new tour as would an actor or movie director contemplating a sequel. Is it necessary? Will it be as good?

“We’ve all be concerned about not trying to recreate those town halls,” Occhiogrosso said. “His thing was like, ‘Who cares about expectations? I want to go out there and go talk to people. I want to engage people directly – parents, students, teachers administrators.’ “

On Thursday at 7 p.m., Malloy will kick off the tour at the Village South Center for Community Life at 333 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford. Not all the education forums, which still are being scheduled, will be in the same 17 communities.

“We’re going to go back into the same mode. In the evening, for an hour, the governor is going to stand in front of a room full of people and talk about education reform,” Occhiogrosso said.

It’s not that Malloy has been playing the recluse. In fact, his schedule today is a whirl of six public events, including touring the Jumoke Academy Charter School in Hartford with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.

He testified recently at a public hearing of the legislature’s Education Committee, defending his proposals to make teacher tenure harder to achieve, set higher standards for entrance into the profession, increase funding for charter schools and provide supplemental aid for poorer districts.

But Malloy, who never stopped campaigning after winning Connecticut’s closest gubernatorial election in 56 years, often seems at his most comfortable at less formal events, taking question.

Scheduled recently to make introductory remarks at an affordable housing conference, Malloy stayed for 38 minutes, taking questions about the funding he has protected for housing, even in two difficult budgets.

“When he gets into the back and forth, that’s where he really shines,” Occhiogrosso said.

But even as the new tour is promoted as a showcase for a governor who likes to work without a script, it also reflects an opposite tendency: a desire by his administration to shape and control the untidy flow of news.

It is a reason why the administration recoiled from legislative proposals like raising the minimum wage or abolishing the death penalty, which will compete for time and attention in a short session.

“There was one night last week, a Wednesday or Thursday night, I was on line checking a bunch of new sites, and everyone had a different story up or the same story, but a different angle,” Occhiogrosso said.

Occhiogrosso acknowledged that news can erupt like the weather. It cannot always be shaped.

A case in point was the fact that Malloy felt compelled to issue a statement Monday on the arrest of Donald Vaccaro, the chief executive of TicketNetwork, a recipient of state aid under Malloy’s “First Five” economic development program.

Vaccaro was arrested at an Academy Award party in Hartford, accused of drunken and boorish behavior: groping women, then responding with a racial epithet when a black security guard intervened.

Today, public hearings on the minimum wage and alcohol reforms, including allowing Sunday liquor sales, are expected to dominate the news cycle. On Wednesday, opponents of the death penalty plan a press conference to put the issue back in the headlines.

“Yes, there’s always different threads to the news. That’s part of what makes news exciting,” Occhiogrosso said. “But if you are trying to do something big, which is what he’s trying to do, then the best way to help move that along through the process is by helping to focus people’s attention on it.

“And it just didn’t feel like the story line was out there that a Democratic govenror had proposed far-reaching education reforms.”