A tale of patronage, civil service and Malloy’s GOP aides

It took a second term, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy now has greater power to hire and fire under the Capitol dome.

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It took a second term, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, seen here touring the Capitol in his first days in office, now has greater power to hire and fire under the Capitol dome.

They are a trio with impeccable Republican resumes. Two are former Connecticut House members. One served as executive director of the state GOP. All three did stints as chief of staff for a Republican caucus at the General Assembly.

George E. Krivda Jr., Gary Berner and Andrew Norton now serve Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as legislative liaisons, Republicans in the odd position of being paid to explain, defend and advocate the policies of a Democratic administration.

There is no mystery as to how three Republicans came to represent state agencies under a Democratic governor: Malloy inherited them from a Republican predecessor, and they were immune to removal or transfer as employees protected by the civil service system.

No longer.

Their protected status disappeared on July 1, when about three dozen state employees in legislative liaison and communication jobs were reclassified as political appointees who now serve at the pleasure of the governor.

In the one-day special session on June 29 to put the finishing touches on the budget, the administration prevailed on legislative leaders to include the classification change in an unrelated, 686-page fiscal bill. The proposal had been floated and abandoned three years earlier.

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said the administration made the case that those responsible for advocating its policies to the legislature, press and public should join the relatively small list of gubernatorial appointees.

Coming without a public hearing or other notice, the change stunned those affected, even if some of them grudgingly understood or even agreed with the premise behind the change.

“Having been a governor’s legislative director, I understand their perspective,” said Krivda, who oversaw relations with the legislature for two sessions in the first term of Republican Gov. John G. Rowland.

Krivda can see the issue from several perspectives. His many jobs in government and politics include being chief of staff for the Senate Republicans, deputy chief for House Republicans and twice serving as executive director of the state GOP.

And, yes, he is now the legislative program manager for the state Department of Agriculture, a holdover from the administration of Malloy’s predecessor, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Two months after Malloy won the power to fire or replace at least 32 people, most holding jobs with six-figure salaries, it is unclear what, if anything, the administration intends to do with its new authority.

Officials in both parties say, if nothing else, the new status will dissuade the occasional practice of some legislative liaisons being more attentive to the bureaucracy of their agencies than the desires of a sitting governor.

Not surprisingly, the uncertainty has created tension in state government, especially among some long-serving state employees now subject to dismissal by Malloy or his eventual successor. Administration officials insist no purge is coming, and that includes Republicans.

Mark Ojakian, soon to step down as Malloy’s chief of staff, said Krivda will remain in the job because he enjoys the confidence of Steven K. Reviczky, who has been agriculture commissioner since the first days of the Malloy administration. In addition to his legislative liaison job, Krivda also doubles as Reviczky’s chief of staff.

“It’s up to the commissioners,” Ojakian said of any changes.

Berner, a former state representative and House GOP chief of staff who now is the legislative liaison for the Department of Consumer Protection, is similarly on good terms with his commissioner, Jonathan Harris, a former Democratic state senator and executive director of the state party.

“He is really good at what he does,” Harris said of Berner. “He understands the agency.”

Berner said his political affiliation never has hindered his work representing the department.

Mark Ojakian, left, the governor's chief of staff, and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey. Ojakian convinced Democratic leaders to accept the personnel change.

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Mark Ojakian, left, the governor’s chief of staff, and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey. Ojakian helped convince Democratic leaders to accept the personnel change.

The administration has formally notified the 32 employees of their change in employment status, leaving them and the agency staffs and legislators who rely on them to wonder what comes next.

Two months after the change in labor law, the only person on the list of 32 known to be leaving state service is Jim Perras, the legislative liaison at the Department of Insurance, which has a relatively new commissioner. Perras could not be reached for comment, and a department spokesperson would not say if his departure from a job that pays $109,000 annually was voluntary or sought by the commissioner.

Mark Bergman, the governor’s director of communications, said there are no plans to remove agency communication directors, who generally have backgrounds in journalism or corporate communications, not partisan politics.

Two of Rell’s former chief spokesmen, Dennis Schain and Judd Everhart, remain in state service as communication directors at high-profile agencies, Schain at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Everhart at the Department of Transportation.

Schain has had a busy week explaining the department’s rationale for killing a bear deemed to be a threat to humans.

Bergman said both are well-regarded. Everhart was an Associated Press reporter at the Capitol before leaving for a job in corporate communications. Schain had been a communications manager for Fleet/Bank of America and the Hartford Courant.

Stripping employees of civil service protection seems to be unprecedented in the state, even if the concept of merit hiring was slow to catch on here.

Congress created the federal civil service in 1883 with the Pendleton Act , a response to the assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a supporter angry at being denied a patronage job. In 1884, New York became the first state to adopt a merit system of hiring, followed a year later by Massachusetts.

It took Connecticut three decades to pass a limited form of civil service in 1913, and the law was blatantly ignored a year later after a change of administrations. With editorial support from The Hartford Courant, then a partisan GOP paper, a Republican comptroller-elect announced he would fire two Democrats who oversaw the State Capitol and its grounds.

“It may be partisanship, but it is human nature to resent seeing a candidate of the Progressive Party and a lifelong Democrat demand that a Republican comptroller, elected by 17,000 plurality, ask permission of them to name his own subordinates,” the Courant opined.

Reformers despaired of the concept of merit hiring catching on.

“The history of the civil service in Connecticut is a study in political pathology,” wrote Yale professor Henry W. Farnam in a pamphlet, “Civil Service,” in 1921. “It is a very good illustration of how not to do it.”

A more robust civil service law finally was passed in 1937 at the urging of Gov. Wilbur L. Cross, a Democrat. Over the years, its reach has grown to cover most of the executive branch, while staffs of the legislative caucuses remain at-will employees.

Today, a Connecticut governor has the power to hire and fire fewer than 200 employees in a state workforce of more than 40,000, according to the Office of Policy and Management.

“I don’t think what the Malloy folks got through the legislature at the end of the session was an unreasonable thing, provided they exercise discretion, and so far they have,” said Richard Foley, a former legislator who once was Krivda’s boss as GOP state chair.

Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said current legislators of both parties do not want to see wholesale changes in the ranks of the legislative liaisons, many of whom possess valuable institutional memory.

Tercyak said he understands an administration wanting a greater degree of accountability over the legislative and communication aides, but the risk is a future governor coming in dismissing everyone simply to reward supporters.

“These are the people who know what’s been going on. Legislators come and go. Governors come and go,” he said. “We count on these folks, not just for explaining what the administration is trying to achieve, but for what our history is, how we ended up here.”

Norton, a former Republican legislator and former House GOP chief of staff, acknowledged being less than enthused at losing his civil-service status as the legislative liaison for the Department of Rehabilitation Services.

“But I’ve always thought that a governor should be able to assemble his own team,” Norton said. “I’m not going to change my opinion because of the job I hold.”

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