Free of campaign, Malloy tries a new narrative

Dannel P. Malloy says he's righted the ship and is ready to set a new course.

Dannel P. Malloy says he’s righted the ship and is ready to set a new course.

Cromwell – Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a politician who’s never gone long in reminding voters of the weak economy and fiscal crisis he inherited, seemed to turn a page Tuesday morning with a speech focusing on the new term that begins Jan. 7.

In end-of-year remarks to the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, whose December meeting often has been an important venue for Connecticut governors, Malloy shed campaign talking points to take ownership of what he bluntly conceded is a high-cost, high-tax state.

“Listen, at this point, four years into this, I own this stuff,” said Malloy, who won re-election last month with 51 percent of the vote, a small miracle for a governor whose approval rating languished in the 40s.  “What’s good, I deserve some credit for. What’s bad, I’ll get all the blame for anyway. I may as well claim I own it.”

Malloy, 59, whose youngest son graduated Monday from Boston College, struck a tone that was by turns playful, upbeat and, briefly, wistful. Unless he seeks a third term, Malloy is done with campaigns, and he knows how fast a four-year term can pass.

“I was thinking how much I wish I was Sam Malloy at 22 rather than Dan Malloy at 59,” Malloy said. He fell silent for a moment, then softly added, “You know, we’re getting it right.”

His task over the next three weeks is to reframe his administration as he enters a second term, to try to recapture the energy that came easily to his first term, one in which he won passage of a huge tax increase, a major investment in bio-science and a sweeping jobs program.

His administration is making a few changes. His chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, and chief budget adviser, Ben Barnes, are staying. His top legal counsel, Luke Bronin, and communication director, Andrew Doba, are departing.

Mark Bergman, the top communication adviser on Malloy’s re-election campaign, is expected to be named today as Doba’s successor. Doba, a young father with what has been an all-consuming job, will remain for a transitional period in a different role.

It was at the same event a year ago that Malloy began to outline his re-election message. It also was here that the spouse of a struggling predecessor, Gov. John G. Rowland, famously challenged the press with a mocking Christmas poem that made light of a growing scandal that eventually would drive him from office.

Malloy’s speech Tuesday was looser and more casual than a year ago, when his re-election was in question, though it hardly was confessional. Even as he directed his audience to the future, he briefly touched on the past, recalling the state had no net job growth over the 22 years before he took office.

As the public sector, which includes the two casinos operated by tribal governments, has shrunk, the private sector has added 70,000 jobs, Malloy said. His administration’s economic development agency has extended aid to 1,600 companies, mostly small businesses, compared to 118 in the previous nine years.

“Let us take some pride: Unemployment is down,” he said.

But his focus was on what comes next. After broadly hinting at a major transportation initiative in recent weeks, Malloy left no doubt Tuesday that it will be a second-term priority.

In a preview of the State of the State address he will deliver on Jan. 7, Malloy said he will engage the public and General Assembly in a discussion of how Connecticut needs to improve its highway and mass-transit infrastructure for the economy to grow.

“We need to open up this front on transportation. I want to be very clear about it. Nobody’s had an honest conversation with the people of Connecticut about transportation.”

In previewing the initiative, Malloy also began work on transforming the public image of the much-maligned Hartford-to-New Britain busway, which opens in the spring. He noted that there are signs that developers are ready to invest along the busway in transit-oriented projects.

“I got a kick out of this now,” he said, referring with a bit of exaggeration to stories about “what a great idea” the busway was.

Malloy said he was tardy in tackling transportation, but he archly referred to other challenges in his first term, notably the budget and economy.

The busway, which opens in four months, will provide a one-seat express ride, on highways and the busway, from Waterbury to Hartford, bypassing crowded I-84 to deliver commuters to jobs and connect into an expanding Springfield-to-Hartford-to-New Haven rail service, due to open in 2016.

“As you build them, they are in fact used, and they drive economic activity,” Malloy said. “It’s going to pay large-scale dividends.”

Malloy said the state didn’t have a bold enough vision.

“That’s what the next four years has to be about,” Malloy said, before acknowledging fiscal challenges remain. “Sure it has be about the right tax policy. But tax policy has to be driven by what we need to do to have a great state that we all desire.”

Malloy conceded that his audience was well aware of the taxes he imposed. How could they not be, given the millions spent on ads attacking him for it? he added.

“But we did that to right the ship, and the ship has been righted,” he said. “And now it’s about where do we take it?”

After the speech, Malloy was asked if he weren’t running the risk of raising expectations, given that the “righted ship” still faces unsettled seas in the form of another projected deficit.

“Not now that the election is over, no,” Malloy said, his face deadpan. Then he laughed.

It was a joke, colored by the reality that one political challenge has been met, even if plenty remain. With a 28,000-vote win, Malloy has four more years.

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