On the left, there were gay-rights activists like Anne Stanback. On the right, there were Democratic soldiers like James Wade, who ran William A. O’Neill’s campaign in 1986, the last time Connecticut elected a Democratic governor.
The same things brought them Sunday to Elizabeth Park in West Hartford: a thirst for a candidate who can end the Democrats’ 24-year drought, and an interest in learning if Stamford’s former mayor, Dannel P. Malloy, might fit the bill.
“Do you have a strategy to win? And will progressives like me jump on board?” asked Catherine Blinder, a longtime activist. Her ex-husband, Bill Curry, was the nominee in 1994 and 2002, losing to Republican John G. Rowland.
It is the question Dan Malloy is trying to answer with a mix of social liberalism, fiscal discipline and political pragmatism, ingredients that have not always mixed well in Democratic primaries, where the electorate tilts left.
With the early front-runner, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, suddenly opting to run for attorney general, Malloy and the rest of the crowded Democratic gubernatorial field are getting second and third looks.
Malloy’s progressive credentials include his early and unequivocal support of gay marriage and his staunch opposition to the death penalty, a potential wedge issue in the general election. In these dire fiscal times, he also pledges to protect the “safety net” for the state’s most vulnerable.
But Malloy says nearly everything else in the budget has to be on the table for negotiation as the state copes with projections of widening deficits in the budget, as well as even larger unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health care.
And that has the potential to rattle labor, an important constituency in a Democratic primary. Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, a Malloy supporter employed by the Connecticut State Employees Association, said the pragmatists in labor understand that Malloy is stating a hard truth.
Whomever the Democrats nominate for governor, that candidate will have to convince general-election voters that he or she has fiscal discipline, he said.
“We just can’t appeal to the Democratic activists,” McCluskey later told the crowd. “We have to appeal broadly.”
In 2006, Malloy lost a gubernatorial primary by 2 percentage points to a candidate perceived as more liberal, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. The same year, Ned Lamont won a nationally watched primary against U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
This year, Lamont is Malloy’s main rival in early polling, which primarily is a measure of name recognition, pollsters say. Lamont led Malloy among self-identified Democrats in last week’s Quinnipiac University poll, 27 percent to 11 percent. No other Democrat topped 5 percent.
An early issue separating Malloy from Lamont is participation in the state’s voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns. Malloy is publicly committed; Lamont, who spent $17 million of his own money on the Senate race, is not.
The rest of the Democratic field includes James A. Amann, the former speaker of the House; Gary LeBeau, a state senator; Rudy Marconi, first selectman of Ridgefield; Juan Figueroa, a former legislator and universal-health advocate; and Mary Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury.
During an interview Sunday before his appearance at the Pond House in Elizabeth Park, Malloy talked about issues that generally have not come up in early candidate forums, including the death penalty.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would have replaced the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole for capital crimes. If elected, Malloy could expect to see the Democratic legislature raise the bill again.
“If the legislature passes a bill, I would sign it,” Malloy said.
He acknowledged that abolition could be an especially sensitive at a time when the first of two defendants in the Cheshire home invasion case is about to go to trial.
“We are going to have a very high-profile death-penalty trial in Connecticut, but that doesn’t change my core beliefs that it is not a core function of government to put people to death. It should not be a function of government,” Malloy said. “And there is absolutely no connection between the death penalty and preventing or discouraging homicides from taking place.”
Malloy also would have signed a health-care pooling bill vetoed by Rell, but he would have insisted on a more modest version to start. The bill would have allowed municipalities, non-profits, small businesses and other to buy into the state-employees’ health system.
“I think some of her complaints are legitimate,” he said. “What’s not legitimate is her inaction.”
The state should first experiment by opening the system to non-profits, he said.
“Stop right there. Get a year under our belt. Get two years under our belt. Stop and see where the plan is,” Malloy said. The caution is necessary, he said, because of “the potential dangers of exploding costs.”
Malloy said he would like to see the legislature refrain from mandating additional areas of coverage for group health insurers, though he supported the state setting standards when insurers failed to meet basic needs, such allowing mastectomy patients to remain hospitalized over night.
Unlike Rell, he also supported legislation requiring paid sick days for companies that employ more than 50 workers. The legislation, which passed the House and died on the Senate calendar last year, pegged sick days to hours worked.
“Honestly, that’s not going to break the bank,” he said.
The crowd Sunday at the Pond House in Elizabeth Park, which straddles the Hartford-West Hartford line, included Geraldine Sullivan, a former Hartford city council member and the sister of the late Mayor Michael Peters. Four years ago, she backed Malloy for governor and Lamont for Senate.
Sullivan said she is undecided this year, but she has ruled out Lamont.
“In my opinion, we need a mayor, someone who has run things,” Sullivan said.
Malloy is in the mix. So is Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury. Others said they will listen to Lamont, who has an event in West Hartford later in the week. Some expect the field to grow.
Stanback said she was committed to Malloy, as were Wade, McCluskey and one of the legislature’s fiscal moderates, Rep. Deborah Heinrich, D-Madison.
“I know some of you are supporters, and some of you are here to kick the tires,” Malloy told his audience, who gathered at table in a function room still bedecked with Christmas decorations.
Blinder left among the undecided.
“Was I convinced? I really, really haven’t decided,” Blinder said. “The thing I like about him is he is very, very straightforward. You don’t get the sense he is dancing around.”
His stump speech this year has a sharper focus on his personal narrative, the story of a young boy who struggled with learning disabilities and was physically uncoordinated.
“A lot of people thought I was stupid. My mother didn’t think that,” Malloy said. “I was a good communicator orally, although I couldn’t read or write very well.”
Malloy still struggles with the written word, preferring to process information orally. Despite the handicap, he graduated from Boston College with honors, then earned a law degree from Boston College Law School.
His spiel quickly turns to the economy and the need for more aggressive leadership. From 1989 to 2008, Connecticut and Michigan were the only two states to experience a net loss of jobs, he said.
Given the collapse of the auto industry, Michigan did well to end that period with 97.3 percent of its jobs, a tenth of percentage better than Connecticut, he said.
Malloy, who did not seek re-election as mayor of Stamford last year after 14 years, said his 2010 campaign has a different feel from 2006.
“I think I’m more comfortable,” Malloy said. “This is it. I am either going to be elected governor, or I am going to ride off into the sunset.”