Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today named Mark Ojakian, a confidant of his lieutenant governor and the point man in the protracted concessions negotiations with state employees that largely defined Malloy’s first year as governor, as his next chief of staff.
“He has a tremendous breadth of knowledge, experience, dedication and character, and an extraordinary capacity to produce results for the people of the state,” Malloy said.
On Jan. 5, the first anniversary of the governor’s inauguration, Ojakian will succeed Timothy F. Bannon, who is keeping to his plan to serve only one year in what many consider to be the highest-pressure job in state government.
Malloy made a wry reference to the demands of the job when Ojakian thanked his husband, Jason Veretto, for support during the long labor talks, as well as the job he is about to take.
“Good luck with that,” Malloy said.
Ojakian, 58, of West Hartford is the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. He is not a longtime acquaintance of Malloy’s, unlike others in his inner circle, but he won the governor’s trust in handling the successful labor talks.
“Over the last year, OJ has been one of the key group of staff members that I have come to rely on,” Malloy said.
In giving responsibility for the concessions talks to Ojakian, who was deputy comptroller for Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s entire 16 years as comptroller, the Malloy administration chose a career public employee with a reputation for lowering the temperature in heated discussions.
“Mark was obvious in my mind. I just think it was a great fit,” Benjamin Barnes, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, which oversees budget and labor issues, said earlier this year. “Mark has a really novel ability to get people to agree and bring them together.”
Today, Malloy said that Ojakian was his first choice to succeed Bannon, but he looked at other possibilities, including some outside his administration. But in the end, he chose someone whom he has watched closely for a year dealing with the unions and helping sell legislators on the budget.
“He’s got the right skill set, and he does have the patience of Job,” Malloy said.
In some previous administrations, notably that of Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the chief of staff was a gatekeeper who controlled access to the governor. Malloy has a broader circle of senior aides with free access, including senior adviser Roy Occhiogrosso, general counsel Andrew McDonald and Barnes.
McDonald and Barnes worked for him in Stamford, when he was mayor. Occhiogrosso worked for him on the 2006 and 2010 campaigns for governor.
The governor joked that picking Ojakian shows he was willing to expand his circle: “He doesn’t even come from Stamford.”
Wyman also is considered a senior adviser, who particpated in budget meetings and, more recently, has been asked to run a policy group looking at how the administration can work with the state’s tribal casinos to prepare for competition from new casinos planned for Massachusetts.
Ojakian grew up in West Hartford, graduated from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., then earned a graduate degree in international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. He was working as a waiter at Carbone’s Restaurant in February 1980 when he was hired by the Office of Legislative Research.
To begin his career as a public employee, Ojakian took a pay cut. He continued to moonlight on weeks at Carbone’s for six months. His friendship with Wyman changed his career path.
“I probably would not be standing here today had it not been for her friendship and her ability to mentor me over her 16 years as the state comptroller,” Ojakian said.
By the time Wyman was a state representative serving as co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, Ojakian was managing government affairs for the state Board of Higher Education. In 1994, when Wyman decided to run for the statewide office of comptroller, Ojakian was struggling with the death of his partner in a car accident. She suggested he volunteer on her campaign as a distraction.
“One day turned into two days turned into three days, then turned into every day,” Ojakian said in an interview earlier this year. “It quickly became her and I on the road together.”