STAMFORD–Gov. Dannel P. Malloy scanned the auditorium Tuesday night, looking for familiar faces. His budget director, a former official in his mayoral administration, sat up in the balcony, as did at least one of the governor’s six brothers. Malloy saw them and grinned.
The ninth in the governor’s series of town hall meetings on the budget brought him home. This is the city where he grew up, raised three sons and launched a political career. In his 14 years as mayor, the city and the politician each prospered. Now, he was back, selling a tough budget.
Mayor Michael Pavia, the Republican who won the race to succeed him in 2009, and not by always singing his praises, played the gracious host, introducing the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years with a broad smile at the downtown Stamford branch of the University of Connecticut.
“We’re happy you came back to Stamford,” Pavia said. “I know you are going to bring great things to the state of Connecticut.”
Up in the balcony watched a grim-faced security officer, a former high-ranking police officer whom Malloy, if a friend remembered correctly, had encouraged to retire. In the audience sat a candidate for a vacant House seat, itching to tell Malloy – and the crowd – what a colossal failure was his first shot at a state budget.
But the first man at the microphone was Carmine Passero, holding the cane he’s been using since going blind eight years ago.
“Don’t talk too long,” Malloy warned. “The mayor’s gonna hit you in the shins.”
The audience laughed.
“You bring up memories, governor,” Passero shot back. “I remember when I used to hit you in your shins.”
The audience laughed louder.
“I remember that, too,” Malloy replied. “I talked to your cousin in New London about it.”
Passero was a boyhood friend of one of Malloy’s brothers, a fixture in a house crowded with seven boys, one girl and their friends. Passero’s cousin, Michael Passero, is a city councilman in New London, where Malloy had a previous town-hall meeting.
“I don’t think there’s anybody here who knows you longer,” Passero said. “First of all, I give you all the credit in the world for coming here.”
Malloy waited for the complaint was certain to follow.
In a tone of exasperation, Passero wondered aloud just what his old friend was thinking when he proposed consolidating a bunch of the state’s smaller agencies, among them the Board of Education Services for the Blind.
“I don’t know what you are trying to do,” said Passero, who added that the agency helped him find a sense of independence after losing his sight. “Don’t try fixing something that’s not broke.”
If not a kick in the shins, it was a pretty good shot to the ribs by an old playmate.
“I want to be clear. This budget does requite a lot of consolidation.,” Malloy said, his voice soft. But he added, a little louder. “No elimination of services with respect to services for the blind.”
The speakers who followed Passero all were polite. Most thanked him for coming. Malloy recognized a few by name. But they all had a complaint with his plans to erase an inherited deficit of at least $3.2 billion.
State employees, some wearing green T-shirts that read AFSCME, complained about his demand for $1 billion in concessions and other labor savings, a figure approaching 20 percent of what the state now spends on wages and fringe benefits.
A few equated the demand with a 20-percent pay cut.
“That’s not what we’re negotiating,” Malloy said. He added that he is not seeking a steep wage cut, but savings from a variety of sources, including fringe benefits.
Malloy said if state employees settled for the health benefits now enjoyed by federal employees, the state would save $100 million. An aide quickly clarified that figure was $50 million in each year of the biennial budget.
The employees said they were being asked to pay Malloy’s higher taxes, while giving up benefits, a double hit.
Others pressed him to endorse Sustinet, a policy to expand health coverage that was passed into state law last year as a concept. Now it is time for implementation. Malloy has endorsed the goal, but is wary of the details.
“We haven’t got a fiscal note on Sustinet. We don’t have a cost,” Malloy said.
John R. Zelinsky, a Democratic member of the local council, the Board of Representatives, said, “I sincerely believe you are trying to do the best you can.”
And then Zelinsky griped about the state’s traffic fines. Bad drivers, those are the folks Malloy should chase for higher revenues, he said.
Malloy left to a standing ovation. Not 100 percent, but most.
He walked out a side door and said he was grateful for one thing: None of his seven siblings got anywhere near the microphone.
“Thank god, my family didn’t get up,” he said. “They were all there.”
Malloy said the homecoming was pleasant.
“It was fun,” he said. “I got to see a whole bunch of people. It was fun to see people. Any time I get to be in Stamford, it’s a pretty good day.”
Malloy spoke as he briskly walked through the UConn campus, his aides and security detail trying to keep up. He never broke stride as he reached the front door, heading down the street to meet friends, family and staff for a drink.
Benjamin Barnes, the budget director who sat way up in the balcony, was having a birthday. It was unclear who was buying, the guy who crafted the budget or the governor who is selling it.