With a softer voice, Malloy assesses the state of the state

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivers his third State of the State Address today, marking the midpoint of his first term, a time when a governor typically reinforces accomplishments and begins to lay the foundation for re-election.

A looming fiscal crisis dominated his first address, education reforms his second. Today, less than a month since Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown became a killing ground, Malloy intends to talk about the virtues of community and resilience.


Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talking about Newtown.

It is likely to be a softer speech from the 57-year-old governor, the former rugby player who enjoys contact and conflict, the always-confident chief executive who sees impatience as a virtue.

"Obviously, I'll be speaking to things that have transpired over the last few weeks and over the last few years, and where we need to go as a state or as a community," Malloy said last week.

It is too early to know precisely how Malloy and the arc of his first term have been changed by the murders of 26 children and educators in Newtown on Dec. 14, a day that President Obama calls the worst of his presidency.

Malloy is a governor grappling with the aftermath one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, trying to find something constructive without being exploitive.

He acknowledges the horror of 20 dead first graders, some of whose parents learned of their deaths from the governor, but also the bravery of six dead educators, the strength of their colleagues and resilience of the community.

He toured the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was quickly replicated in a surplus school provided by neighboring Monroe, renovated by volunteers and led by a principal who came out of retirement to take the job of a murdered successor.

"Pretty amazing stuff," Malloy said. "It's the stuff Connecticut is made of."

Other pressing issues

But the more prosaic concerns of the economy and state revenues, which Malloy discussed at length in an interview prior to the shooting, are certain to persist. He watches daily for signs of improvement.

Copper can be an early predictor of a strengthening economy, and Malloy watches the commodities market like a becalmed sailor, restlessly scanning the horizon for the first hopeful signs of a favorable wind.

"I watch the price of copper every single day," Malloy said. "Copper, in particular, is a commodity that in good times moves rapidly."

It is fluttering around $3.65 a pound, up since early November, yet still below its one-year high of $3.90 in February.

For a politician willing to take the long view -- his steps to control retiree health costs and stabilize the state's underfunded pension system won't fully pay off for more than a decade -- Malloy is a clock watcher.

In addition to watching commodities pricing, Malloy said he gets daily state revenue reports, an exercise that carries the same frustrations in a down economy as close monitoring of a 401(k). Still, he checks them daily.

Impatience as virtue

"What you are talking about is an indication of a fundamental impatience, which is a good thing when you are leading a state that has an immediate need," said Timothy Bannon, a former chief of staff.

Malloy insisted last month he was not yet focused on re-election, even though Tom Foley, his Republican opponent from 2010, already is trying to make the case that the Democratic governor has mishandled the budget.

"My focus on this job is this job and getting the job done. It's not on re-election," Malloy said. "Now, listen, I am not unmindful that at some future point I'll spend more time on politics than I'll spend on budgets in this particular biennium budget cycle. I understand that, but that's months away from now. I am now assiduously avoiding reading political articles, because I have a job to do."

Malloy paused when asked if there is any difference between him in campaign mode or not.

"I think it's a fair question, and I'm not sure that there is a whole lot of difference," he said. "I'm a pretty intense guy. I work really hard. I do my best to present the truth at all times."

In his first months as governor, he held 17 town-hall meetings on his first budget proposal, which protected state aid to cities at towns, but at the cost of a record $1.5 billion tax increase. In his second year, he did a second tour to defend his education reforms.

One element of the Malloy message is unchanged from the day he took office two years ago: He inherited a government with deep structural problems, such as one of the nation's biggest unfunded pension obligations, and an economy that went 20 years with no net increase in jobs.

The ongoing campaign

"What I am trying to do is really difficult, and that is to take 20 years-plus of Connecticut's modern government and change it," Malloy said. "That's a campaign in and of itself, separate and apart from whether you are running for office or not."

He talked about his aggressive personality, his tendency to be sharp, when it would be smart to be soft.

A case in point was his reaction during an appearance on a radio call-in show to a young man who urged the governor to steer more business to Connecticut companies.

Malloy could have told the man he had an obligation to get taxpayers the lowest price, regardless of the source. He might have gently reminded him that the commerce clause of the Constitution leaves him unable to refuse to do business with out-of-state firms.

Instead, he sharply asked the man, "Have you ever read the Constitution?"

During an interview in his office at the State Capitol, Malloy seemed flustered briefly when asked about the exchange.

"I was trained as a trial lawyer, and I specifically trained as a prosecutor for four years and, uh, uh, uh..."

The words didn't come, and Malloy fell silent.

Finally, he said, "I got edges. I got more edges than most people do. I'd be the first to admit it."

Since Dec. 14, the edges haven't been as sharp.

Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz