It is a holiday week, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is relaxed, at least on the Malloy scale. He’s been to two movies and especially enjoyed Reese Witherspoon in “Wild,” an introspective tale of loss and redemption spilled across a punishing 1,100-mile hike.
The New Year marks a midpoint in Malloy’s own up-and-down journey as governor, a natural moment for introspection, to assess where he’s been and think about what lies ahead, starting Wednesday when he begins a second term with a small inaugural parade and an address to a joint session of the General Assembly.
“I think we ran a great campaign. I think we ran a better campaign than the Republican Party did and the Republican candidate did. And we won the election,” Malloy said, slouching at a table in his corner office. “That’s all worth a warm bucket of spit.”
So much for ringing out the old.
“What we get measured by is results over the next four years, just as we did over the last four years,” Malloy says.
The governor already has signaled his intention to sell Connecticut on a major effort to upgrade its transportation infrastructure, an undertaking long sought by business groups that fear traffic congestion and an overburdened Metro-North will stifle the economy.
“As we move forward over the next four years, I plan on having a very aggressive set of legislative proposals,” Malloy said. “We’re going to talk about transportation, gonna talk about what do we do to further turn around urban areas, which in part has to include a mature discussion on a second-chance society. And we’re going to be aggressive.”
Malloy shared little sense of whether a second term provides opportunities unavailable in his first. Or how he might somehow be freer, bolder or — to use a favorite word — more aggressive. In fact, he seemed to find the idea amusing.
“I’ve never been the most restrained person,” Malloy said.
He won a three-way race in 2010 by a half-point. Despite the absence of a mandate, Malloy convinced legislators to raise taxes by $1.5 billion, reorganize higher education, pass the nation’s first state law mandating that private employers offer paid sick days, repeal the death penalty, decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and borrow staggering sums to finance economic development initiatives, including a major bioscience effort at the University of Connecticut’s medical campus in Farmington.
“I think we’ll have an aggressive legislative agenda when we roll it out, so stay tuned for more. Whether we get it all, or don’t get it all, or how much of it we get remains to be seen, but we will be aggressive in reshaping the state and addressing issues that I think have not been appropriately addressed in the past,” Malloy said. “Even in the last four years, we had to make choices about what fights we were going to have in a given year and the timing of those things.”
Ask Malloy to name the fights he deferred to a second term, and he suddenly revisits the first, as if the question short-changes the administration.
“Let’s talk about what I didn’t push off. I didn’t push off the death penalty. I didn’t push off [decriminalizing] marijuana. I didn’t back off medical marijuana, except in year one, when I was told I could only have one. Which one did I want? I wanted to save kids from having a criminal record. That was my first priority, so I made that choice,” he said. “We didn’t back off of an aggressive economic development strategy. We didn’t back off of education reform. I understand the context in which you are asking the question, but the reality is I have not backed off too many issues. I’ve timed some issues.”
At the movies in Hartford, Malloy said, a young employee making minimum wage asked him how to get a raise. Malloy told him his hourly wage would jump by 45 cents to $9.15 on New Year’s Day.
“That makes me feel pretty good,” Malloy said.
He was lukewarm about raising the minimum wage early in his term, then embraced increases in 2013 and 2014. The bill, passed last year without Republican votes, will increase the minimum to $9.60 in January 2016 and to $10.10 in 2017.
In his first term, Malloy saw a neglected transportation infrastructure and an economy that had not produced a net gain in jobs in 22 years. He approved a busway and pursued federal funds for new train service from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield, but he used much of the state’s available credit on economic development.
“I think the economy puts a pall over the accomplishments that we’ve had. I do think that that’s the case,” he said. “We have enacted some very powerful legislation, and we so far have been able to protect a level of social services that exceeds other states, and I’m proud of both of those things.”
He started the first term facing a projected budget shortfall of $3.6 billion, the worst in the nation on a per-capita basis. He will start the second term with the state having recovered most of the jobs lost in the 2008 recession, but tax revenues are off and another budget shortfall is projected.
With his first-year tax increase, Malloy managed to preserve the social safety net and maintain local aid, but the governor has limited his options in his second term by vowing not to raise taxes.
Can he maintain state aid to municipalities again? Can he avoid cuts on programs that protect the poor?
“I think it is a work in progress,” Malloy said of the budget. “It’s really too early for me to be able to answer your question about the depth of those cuts. But it’s going to be a tough budget. One way or the other, it’s going to be a tough budget.”
Malloy said he is confounded by the state’s strong opposition to keno, an electronic lottery game offered in every surrounding state. With two tribal casinos and an aggressive Lottery Corp., gambling is an important source of revenue here. But the legislature last year revoked the Lottery’s authority to offer keno.
“I think it’s emblematic of Connecticut’s weird relationship with gaming,” Malloy said.
Weird or not, Malloy said, he has no plans to revisit keno.
Malloy ended 2014 and began 2015 as a political outlier, a Democrat who prevailed in a Republican year, despite the burdens of an uncertain economy, a gargantuan first-year tax increase, dismal poll numbers and a refusal to distance himself from an unpopular Democratic president.
The Democrats didn’t find a secret sauce. They outnumber Republicans in Connecticut by 300,000 voters, and they proficiently turned out their base vote for an energetic and engaged incumbent who was respected more than loved. And it didn’t hurt that his GOP opponent never displayed a command of issues or a passion for the job.
Malloy, who turns 60 in July, does not entertain questions about whether he hopes to remain in politics beyond his second term. He takes over leadership of the Democratic Governors Association in 2016, but that doesn’t reflect any broader political ambitions, he said.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it. I always played a leadership function in any organization I’ve been in. If I’m in it, I’m in it to play an important role, which I did with the DGA from day one. Now I’ll get to lead during a presidential election year and a large gubernatorial cycle.”
His frequent trips to Washington, D.C., drew much notice in his first term. His predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, seldom traveled out of state, even to meetings of the National Governors Association in Washington, at which governors get to network with cabinet secretaries and other senior officials.
“I know people speculate. This is the job I wanted. It’s the job I wanted for a long time. I’m going to be here for another four years. I’ve run for governor on three occasions. I won it twice. I have a broad agenda that I’m going to pursue. This gets most of my attention,” he said. “The other stuff? Gets some of my attention. No one’s ever outworked me. So I can do more things and still get the job done because I love to work, always have.”
Still, Malloy said he has consented to his first week-long vacation in five years. He and his wife, Cathy, plan to depart for someplace sunny and warm in February after he presents his budget.
“No one should expect me to go to sleep in any of the next four years, but I will take my first vacation in five years,” he said. Pausing a beat, he added, “My wife is making me.”