Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can hector, cajole and even bully. In his own words, he is a man of “sharp elbows” and “edges,” whose speaking and management style in his first two years as governor often fell in the narrow space between blunt and brusque.
Now, the governor, whose most pressing concern until a news bulletin Friday was cutting a deficit-mitigation deal in time for Wednesday’s legislative session, is struggling to lead a state through unspeakable grief.
On Friday, in a firehouse down the hill from an elementary school where a 20-year-old man had shot to death 20 students and six adults just hours earlier, Malloy found himself sharing news no parent wants to hear.
“It fell to him to confirm for some of the parents in that room that their children were dead,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, his senior adviser.
In a speech televised live Saturday from his office in the State Capitol, Malloy addressed the horror that visited Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, staining the community as the site of the worst primary school shooting in U.S. history.
He acknowledged the inadequacy of words.
“Though we could all try, when something as senseless as this occurs, there’s precious little anyone can say to the families of the victims that will lessen the horror and sense of loss they feel. We could say we feel their pain, but the truth is we can’t,” Malloy said. “When tragedies like this take place, people often look for answers, an explanation of how this could have occurred.
“But the sad truth is, there are no answers. No good ones, anyway.”
He spoke hours after authorities released an alphabetical list of the victims’ names, giving another measure of reality to an event still hard to comprehend. The list began and ended with two 6-year-olds, Charlotte Bacon and Allison N. Wyatt.
All the children were just 6 or 7.
The adults killed included Dawn Hochsprung, 47, the school’s charismatic principal, and Victorial Soto, 27, a first-grade teacher credited with saving some children by confronting the gunman. Hundreds gathered to honor Soto with a candlelight vigil Saturday night in her hometown of Stratford.
Malloy will be interviewed on the Sunday morning news shows on ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, then return to Newtown to attend a memorial service with President Obama.
“You can’t prepare for this,” said U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, the governor’s friend and ally. “It is such a confounding, horrific thing. How does anyone put it into any context, other than trying to go to the core of who we all are — fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, relationships — and speak from the heart.”
Malloy, 57, is the father of three, including a son who has struggled publicly with emotional issues. He grew up in a boisterous family in Stamford, the youngest of seven boys and one girl. As a child, he had severe learning disabilities, a struggle he says shaped his personality.
Larson said Malloy’s public “bedside manner” often lacks, but he also was a comforting presence at the recent wake of Larson’s mother.
“He is a very disciplined person, and he stays on task in a very clear-eyed and non-emotional way, which is a great asset to him as governor,” said Timothy Bannon, his former chief of staff. “I’ve been with him during very complex negotiations. He never engages emotionally. He doesn’t lose his temper.”
Malloy was all business during natural disasters: He was a constant presence on television during record snows and three tropical storms, giving advice and updates about efforts to restore power.
“It doesn’t mean when you have a personal disaster and emotional disaser those feelings aren’t there,” Bannon said. “I think it’s all there in him.”
Still, the Malloy political style has been one of confrontation, not backslapping. In his first year, he faced angry state employees over his concession demands in a series of town-hall forums; he repeated the exercise in his second year, this time jousting with teachers angry over his education reforms.
“Soft and cuddly wasn’t going to do it,” Malloy said a year ago.
Other politicians decorate their offices with family photos and mementos of past victories. His is dominated by scenes of battle. An oversized mural of Lafayette leading a charge, soldiers dying at his feet, hangs behind his desk.
It was removed before his speech.
In his speech Saturday, sitting before a blank wall and two flags, Malloy stayed away from the political push and pull already surrounding gun control.
“There will be time soon for a discussion of the public policy issues surrounding yesterday’s events, but what’s important right now is this: love, courage and compassion,” Malloy said.
The governor grasped for the only good he could find in the tragedy, the impulse to offer comfort in a small town, where the funerals of 20 children will dominate the start of the holiday season.
“Too often, we focus on what divides us as people, instead of what binds us as human beings,” Malloy said. “What we saw yesterday were those bonds, that sense of community.
“In the coming days, we will rely upon that which we have been taught and that which we inherently believe: that we have faith for a reason, and that faith is God’s gift to all of us.”