MERIDEN — For those state employees who are worried how Dan Malloy’s plans to solve the state budget crisis will affect them, the Democratic governor-elect cautiously reminded them Wednesday night that it could be worse: Republican Tom Foley could have won the election.

Malloy, who was greeted loudly and enthusiastically at the Connecticut Working Families Party’s winter awards dinner, also thanked the public- and private-sector labor groups behind the party for the crucial role they played in securing his narrow win on Election Day.

His warm reception at the labor gathering came just a day after a business group, the MetroHartford Alliance, applauded Malloy’s pledge to improve the business climate in the state by balancing the budget and providing the stability needed to promote economic development.

But the governor-elect reasserted Wednesday that fixing the state’s fiscal problems would not be at the expense of Connecticut’s neediest and most vulnerable citizens.

“How bad would it be for the people we embrace… if we had not accomplished what we had accomplished on Election Day?” Malloy told a crowd of about 150 gathered at the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center. “We in Connecticut stood up on a principled basis and said we care about our fellow human being.”

Foley had frustrated Malloy throughout the campaign by insisting he could close the largest budget deficit in state history — a projected $3.67 billion budget gap— without raising taxes.

Malloy never referred to his chief gubernatorial rival by name, nor did he refer to Foley’s no-tax-hike pledge directly, saying only that the campaign was marked by “people saying what they never should have said.”

Foley had said he would seek major concessions from state employees and would consider trimming state social services to close the deficit. And while Malloy repeatedly said “we’re not going to shred the safety net,” he generally was more vague about the prospect of seeking wage- and benefit-givebacks.

The next governor was gracious and appreciative Wednesday in his 10-minute address to the Working Families Party, whose member unions played a key role in delivering Malloy huge margins of victory in Connecticut’s urban centers while Foley was capturing most other communities across the state.

“We’re all part of one big family,” said Malloy, who arrived with running mate Nancy Wyman. “We wouldn’t be here without all of the hard work of the people in this room. I know that. I appreciate it.”

The party honored Carmen Boudier, president of New England Health Care Employee Workers Union, District 1199, and Malloy hailed her as “a great leader” and advocate for “people who have been forgotten in society… who care for the sickest.”

Malloy said that he would take a physician’s approach to the budget crisis, following the foremost principle behind the Hippocratic Oath: “We should do no harm.”

“Some way, along the way,” he added, “we have to protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Pledging to break from past Republican administrations that have clashed loudly and at times bitterly with public-sector unions, Malloy again emphasized his willingness to consider all labor proposals to reshape government.

“We’re going to talk to more people,” he said. “We’re going to be in more places. No one is going to be shut out.”

Malloy wasn’t alone in offering a glass-is-half-full outlook to the difficult budget solutions Connecticut must face.

“I know we all have breathed a big sigh of relief” when Malloy won on an Election Day when Democrats lost the governor’s office in many other states, said Julie Kushner, president of the United Auto Workers Region 9A, one of two party leaders who introduced Malloy. “The rest of the country went right down the tubes.”

Working Families Party Director Jon Green said afterward he believes many party members recognize that Malloy’s fiscal choices are limited.

“There’s rhetoric and there’s reality and the reality is the state is in a very deep hole,” Green said.

But the party leader also was careful with his comments, making it clear that organized labor believes it also is one of the new governor’s highest priorities. “I believe the governor’s remarks tonight were a reminder on how important it is to have a leader in this state who recognizes the important role working families play in our economy.”

Malloy consistently has endorsed one of the party’s highest legislative proposals, mandating paid sick leave for part-time workers.

Legislation defeated last year would have required companies employing more than 50 workers and not already providing any paid time off to allow them to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s chief business lobby, has said that regardless of whether this proposal would impact a significant number of companies, it would break ground no other state has stirred up yet, and send a dangerous anti-business message.

During an interview after his address, Malloy, who also has said Connecticut must carefully monitor its tax policies against those of competing states, said he doesn’t believe mandating paid sick leave for part-time workers would contradict that principle.

“I think it will benchmark us, but in the right category,” he said, adding it would demonstrate Connecticut’s commitment to healthy, safe working environments that protect both workers and consumers.

“I’m willing to talk with anyone,” he said. “We can still talk about the details. But people shouldn’t come to work sick.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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