With a tentative labor concession deal in hand, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivered his first red-meat speech as governor Monday night, proclaiming himself a proud son of organized labor and defender of a social safety net woven by generations of Democrats dating to FDR.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can: I believe in the union movement and the right to organize and to bargain collectively,” Malloy told an audience of more than 1,200 on the Democratic Party’s biggest night, the annual Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner in Hartford.


Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

Labor activists, some of whom bought their tickets unsure if they would be attending to praise or protest the first Democratic governor in 20 years, jumped to their feet. Malloy paused and basked in the applause at Connecticut Convention Center.

His audience included Dan Livingston, the chief negotiator for the coalition of state employee unions that reached a tentative agreement Friday for $1.6 billion in concessions and labor savings over two years.

“We didn’t doubt his values,” Livingston said. “There is a real war going on against working families and the middle class. We found a way to make peace with someone who wasn’t our real enemy.”

Livingston said the deal required sacrifices from labor, but it preserves jobs and can bring long-term fiscal stability to the state to the benefit of workers and taxpayers.

“That’s a good deal for everyone,” he said.

Malloy was effusive in his praise of the state employee unions’ leadership for agreeing to a deal that now is subject to ratification by about 45,000 workers in 34 bargaining units and 15 unions.

The governor told the crowd that the naysayers were wrong about the willingness of the Democrat-controlled legislature to adopt a budget and of labor leaders to reach a tentative deal, and they will be proved wrong in predicting ratification will fail.

“That’s up to the unions,” Malloy said after his speech. “But what I believe is we’ve structured a deal that is in everyone’s best interests.”

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman had warmed up the crowd, trying to soothe any lingering hard feelings about the recent labor talks by praising her running mate and reminding the audience they belonged to a coalition starved for victory.

“We waited a long time for a Democratic governor,” Wyman said. “Thank god, we’ve got one now.”

Nikki O’Neill, the widow of Gov. William A. O’Neill, went off script and praised Malloy during her presentation of an award named for her husband to former U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly. Until Malloy’s victory last fall, O’Neill’s win in 1986 was the last by a Democratic governor.

Malloy set aside his usual detached talking points about fiscal responsibility and a sustainable state government Monday night and played to an audience hungry to hear about Democratic values from a Democratic governor. He didn’t disappoint.

Malloy repeatedly contrasted himself with the governors of other states, executives he criticized for balancing their budgets by slashing services and state aid to municipalities.

“They have denied services to the most needy in their states, to the frail, to the elderly, to the sick and infirm and our state will not do that. We will not shred that safety net,” Malloy said. “We understand we have a moral obligation to support our fellow human beings.”

His remarks could have been delivered by Hubert Humphrey, a long-ago keynote speaker at a Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Hartford–if, of course, Humphrey ever would have tried to rev a crowd with a reference to “generally accepted accounting principles.”

“I couldn’t help myself,” Malloy said, smiling on the way out the door with his wife, Cathy.

It could have been different had the tentative deal not been reached Friday. This was the same dinner where Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who had delivered Sen. Barack Obama as the keynote speaker, still was booed in 2006 over his support for the war in Iraq.

Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said the governor and his senior staff were so focused on the labor talks they did not think about the awkwardness of his headlining the dinner while threatening to lay off 4,700 state employees. That threat evaporated with the tentative deal.

John McNamara, the New Britain Democratic town chairman and a unionized state employee, succinctly summarized what the tentative agreement meant to the evening.

“No picket lines!” McNamara said, laughing. “As you know, labor is a big part of the Democratic Party, and labor is well-represented here tonight. The timing was good.”

“He hit it out of the park,” said Lori Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “He tipped his hat to the union leaders. I think he needed to do that.”

Others said Malloy’s audience Monday, both inside and outside of the labor movement, understands that the governor did what was necessary to stabilize state finances, at a cost to taxpayers and labor.

“People, they don’t love it, but they get it,” said Rep. Robert Godfrey, D-Danbury. “That’s what’s going on here.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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