Even relaxed, Chris Healy is never at rest.
The Republican state chairman fidgets at his desk as he talks about the importance of intensity and intangibles in 2010. He polishes his glasses, neatens his desk, dusts a lampshade and peels a label off a knick-knack. Only as he glances at a bulletin on his BlackBerry does he fall still.
“Evan Bayh is retiring,” he says, smiling.
In Healy’s business, Monday’s unexpected retirement of a popular two-term Democratic U.S. senator, even one from distant Indiana, is a welcome omen to a party hoping to change its luck.
“We haven’t had the intangibles lately,” he said.
The GOP has had a rough run in Connecticut. Since the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland in 2004, the GOP has lost 20 seats in the state House of Representatives and three U.S. House seats.
Republicans now are outnumbered 114 to 36 in the state House, where there is one vacancy, 24 to 12 in the state Senate and are without representation in the seven-member congressional delegation.
The party’s only household name is Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election this fall, giving Democrats hope of capturing an office they last won in 1986.
But Republicans are showing signs of life in Connecticut, and Healy is getting credit for doing what has been increasingly difficult for state party chairmen – shaping a message and setting a direction.
With his encouragement, Greenwich businessman Tom Foley shifted from the U.S. Senate race to a campaign for governor after Rell announced her retirement. He is the early front-runner for the GOP nomination.
“What Healy is doing is being the honest broker of the political process, which means explaining the facts of life to candidates who may not want to see it that way, at least at first,” said George Jepsen, a former Democratic state chairman.
Even more remarkable is that Healy has been able to exert influence without the backing of Rell,
“It is an unusual situation,” Jepsen said. “Traditionally, the chairman is the political arm of the governor’s office. I don’t think it’s any secret Healy has been at odds with Rell and is more closely aligned with legislative Republicans, particularly House Republicans.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, is a fan.
“He’s tried to put together the best team for 2010. A lot of travel, a lot of conversations, a lot of cajoling, arm-twisting, understanding, stroking of egos, etc.,” Cafero said. “He’s been doing that, and he’s been doing that fairly effectively.”
John F. Droney Jr., who enjoyed the strong backing of Gov. William A. O’Neill as Democratic state chairman in the 1980s, said party chairmen work best when they are feared. Without the backing of a governor, a chairman loses his clout, Droney said.
“It is very difficult for you to shape any sort of outcome. People may respect you, or not, but they do not fear you any more. You are reduced to trying to herd ducks,” Droney said.
But Healy, 52, a former newspaper reporter, lobbyist and campaign consultant, has managed to be relevant, despite having no close relationship with Rell or her chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody.
He also has had to overcome a public struggle with alcoholism.
In June 2007, just as he was coming up for re-election before the Republican State Central Committee, Healy announced he had been arrested and charged with driving under the influence while on party business in South Carolina the previous month.
It was his second DUI arrest since March 2002.
“I’ll leave it up to others to decide my fate,” he said at the time. “I’m at peace. We’ll see where life takes us.”
Healy was re-elected without opposition.
With its intense highs and lows, Healy acknowledged, politics can hold special dangers for someone with an addictive personality.
“I think no matter what I did I’d be all in. If I sold insurance. If I coached basketball. I think that’s just the way I am wired. I have to be very careful. It is addictive,” Healy said. “The fluctuation of emotions is very up and down.”
“It does remind me that you have try to be as level as you can, because there is nothing as exciting as being as successful in politics,” Healy said. “And there is nothing as humbling as getting beat.”
By nature, Healy is combative. He has embraced new media, blogging and Twitter. He is visible at the State Capitol and has shown up at Democratic press conferences to offer the GOP view.
“There are certain things we do here that elected leaders just can’t do and don’t do — to be a little more vocal about the conduct of the Democrats,” he said.
Healy relentlessly criticized U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd last year before the Democrat announced his retirement, questioning the propriety of Dodd’s mortgages and his purchase of a cottage in Ireland.
But in an office cluttered with the usual political memorabilia, including photos of Healy with an array of GOP luminaries, hangs an autographed photo of Dodd.
In his desk is a letter Dodd wrote Healy last summer, after Healy sent him a get-well note when Dodd was having prostate surgery. Dodd’s note is a typed form-letter thank you, but there is a handwritten post-script:
“Would you be interested in spending all of next year in Ireland? I could make that ‘mansion’ available.”
Healy said he appreciates worthy opponents, especially when they have a sense of humor.
Jepsen calls Healy “a happy warrior.”
“I am very mindful that it is politics, and you can go out and fight for what you believe in without getting personal or crossing the line. That’s probably why I have lots of friends on the other side of the aisle,” Healy said.
But plenty of legislative Democrats thought Healy did cross a line last year by posting satirical web sites and Twitter accounts that purported to be the work of Democratic lawmakers.
On the site, MeetChrisDonovan.com, visitors were greeted by a picture of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, with President Barack Obama.
Under a headline that said, “Mortgaging Connecticut’s Future,” the site described Donovan and Democrats voting to borrow $2.3 billion to pay the bills.
“The decision to borrow this money while there are still many meaningful cuts that can be made to our bloated government is just wrong,” it said.
Twitter shut down the accounts. But the web sites remain live.
Healy said he has no regrets.
“This game is about winning and then governing,” he said. “It’s not about giving it the old college try. It’s about laying everything you have out there no matter what the office or cause is.”
Healy said growing public restlessness with the state’s poor economy and fiscal condition is a ripe environment for the minority party to get a new look from voters. The next governor is expected to inherit a budget shortfall of at least $3 billion, and the state was last in job-creation from 1989 to 2009.
“When are we going to get the joke here? No job growth, no population growth for 20 years,” Healy said. “What does that say?”
Connecticut had Republican governors for 16 of those 20 years, but Healy chooses to blame the Democratic legislative majorities.
History says that Healy should temper his expectations on election night, at least with regard to the General Assembly. Since the state abolished the party lever after the 1986 election, no party has picked up more than 8 seats in the House.
If the party competes in every viable race, the numbers will take care of themselves, he said.
“To what degree depends on the national mood, because that will give you the extra two or three points in turnout and in intensity,” he said. “A lot of this just has to do with intensity.”
Two years ago, the Democrats had the edge in intensity. This year, when he thinks of intensity he thinks of Scott Brown standing waving a sign on a frozen bridge over the Mass Pike for eight hours, part of his successful campaign for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.
“That’s what you call intensity,” Healy said. “It’s craziness, but it’s what you also call intensity.”