Norwalk – A few came to score points, eager to scuff up Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on the opening night of a listening tour, aware that the first-term Democrat would try to road-test themes for a re-election campaign that will not formally begin until May.
Bob MacGuffie of the tea-party affiliate, Right Principles, challenged Malloy to a debate, any place, any time. A man wearing an NRA cap complained about gun control. One woman read a lengthy screed accusing the governor of conspiring with Turkish Islamists to open a charter school.
But mostly the governor was confronted Wednesday night with questions, pleas and complaints about the workings of government at the granular level: funding for rest homes, support for persons with brain injuries, scholarships for the undocumented, trouble getting coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“He cares about what you have to say. That’s why he’s here tonight,” said Harry Rilling, the recently elected Democratic mayor. “We ask one thing, that you allow the governor to speak. We are going to be civil.”
The admonition was unnecessary. Malloy spoke in a room at city hall where most of the 120 seats were occupied and a dozen spectators stood. Malloy carried Norwalk by 3,186 votes in 2010, when he was elected governor with a statewide plurality of just 6,404 votes.
“We are collectively doing the best we can,” Malloy said in brief introductory remarks. He glossed over well-trod talking points: He inherited a state with a deficit of more than $3.6 billion, a place with no net job growth over 22 years. It now has a projected surplus and has added 40,000 private-sector jobs to the economy.
On easels to either side of Malloy were placards summarizing his first three years and his hopes for the fourth in a series of bullet points under headings of “making progress” and “more work to do in 2014.”
“It gives you an idea of what I’m trying to do,” Malloy said.
The format was one he introduced in 2011, when he held a series of 17 town hall meetings to sell his first budget, one in every community with a daily newspaper. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman called speakers to a microphone.
In his first year, Malloy was regularly confronted by state employees angry over concession demands and taxpayers upset over a $1.5 billion tax increase. In his second, teachers challenged him over his proposals for tenure reform. Last year, the governor faced gun owners and gun manufacturers unhappy over his support for post-Newtown gun controls.
On Wednesday, the greatest emotion came from Diane Mortali, the owner of a small rest home, Carlson Place.
She lost patience during an extended exchange between Malloy and MacGuffie, the tea party leader. MacGuffie said he resented Malloy’s comparing the influence of the tea party in Washington to “barbarians at the wall.”
“We don’t like being lied to and we don’t like being lied about,” MacGuffie said. He added, “If you think the Tea Party is all wrong with our focus on taxes, spending and regulation, come out and take us on. I’d be happy to debate you any time, any place.”
Mortali shouted that the two men were wasting time, while others in the audience waited to ask substantive questions. Her name eventually was called to question the governor.
“I apologize for my aggressive way,” she said.
Mortali said Carlson Place offered housing, meals and support for $80 a day, compared with $350 for skilled nursing homes.
“We’re a real bargain,” she said.
But the state reimbursements are insufficient, forcing her to lay off staff. She fears the home will go out of business.
“I’m begging you to help us restore our staff,” she said.
Barbara Montgomery asked Malloy to support a bill restoring the rights of adults adopted as children to obtain their original birth certificates, a step to learning about the circumstances of their births.
Dominic Cotton told Malloy that his administration was backing away from a program that has provided supportive services through Medicaid to persons with ABI, acquired brain injuries.
“It seems like nobody at DSS wants to talk to us,” Cotton said, referring to the Department of Social Services. He was accompanied by others interested in the same program.
Kathy Johnson, a former first selectwoman of Oxford, the mother of a son with a brain injury, told Malloy: “I know you have a lot on your plate. Yes, I understand everybody wants something from you.”
Carmen Sargent, an official of SEIU 32 BJ, a union supportive of Malloy, read a lengthy statement of praise.
“He has taken political risks to stand up and do what is right,” she said.
Malloy thanked her, but suggested she wasn’t winning him any friends with a canned testimonial. He smiled and said, “As nice as you were, you probably just got me in trouble.”
The forum was the first in the series, the dates and places to be announced. Malloy said he may mix up the schedule, holding some sessions on weekends or perhaps during the work day.
On Tuesday, Malloy told reporters he would not make a re-election announcement until after the General Assembly’s session ends in May, shortly before the Democratic Party expects to re-nominate him by acclamation.
“I’d like to get through the session as governor as opposed to a candidate,” he said.
For at least one evening in Norwalk, he got his wish.