At a glance it seemed like a mismatch – a passionate advocate for education and social services leading a budget-writing panel where many interests typically walk away with less than they sought.
Yet as Sen. Beth Bye approaches her most important task as new co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee – recommending a new budget, in a re-election year no less – legislators, advocates and others say the West Hartford Democrat is more suited to the role than many realize.
“Beth brings a certain passion to the table,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who tapped Bye to replace Toni Harp following the latter’s election as mayor of New Haven.
“But she never misses an opportunity to move the ball forward,” Williams said. “She can tackle very tough issues, work with folks from numerous points of view and find solutions without burning bridges.”
‘If you can say ‘no’ with fairness’
Still, the potential for burnt bridges – or at least a few singed support beams – is high this year.
Even in the most prosperous of times, the countless interests clamoring for a slice of the annual $19 billion budget pie could never be completely satisfied. And Connecticut’s recovery from the last recession remains somewhat sluggish.
Despite the $500 million surplus Gov. Dannel P. Malloy touts in the current budget, nonpartisan analysts say that because of gimmicks, there will be a nearly $1 billion hole in state finances just over a year from now.
Factor in a re-election year mind-set at the Capitol – any talk of tax hikes is taboo – and Bye and her committee don’t have much flexibility to spend.
“‘No’ is the order of the day” nearly every year for Appropriations chairmen, said New Haven Democrat William Dyson, a retired lawmaker who held that post for 16 years through 2004. “You have to be able to say ‘no.’”
But the key to success, Dyson quickly added, is a quality Bye has in abundance.
“This is a job where you are required to set the tone, ultimately, about what is best for the whole state,” Dyson said. “If you can show people you have listened — that you understand and that you care – if you can say ‘no’ with fairness, people will accept that.”
Early childhood development is first love
Bye, 51, who has a master’s degree in child development, said you can’t succeed in the field that has always been her first love without an intense focus on the needs of those you serve.
A native of Greenwich, Bye settled in Greater Hartford and has helped develop several pre-school facilities here since 2000.
She is a former director of Trinity College’s Community Child Care program, in Hartford, and of the School for Young Children at what is now called the University of St. Joseph, in West Hartford. In 2007, Bye co-authored research on the impact of economic integration that was published in a leading early childhood education journal and later hailed by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“People know her as a really gifted educator, but she’s just one of the nicest, most caring people I know,” said Bob Macca, a West Hartford resident who runs a plumbing business in the region.
Bye played a key role 16 years ago in helping to diagnose Macca’s 3-year-old son, Timmy, with low muscle tone – a condition Macca says largely has been resolved with therapy that began with early intervention.
“If she hadn’t been there” running the program at St. Joseph, Macca said, “it would have been a different situation. Now you would never know there was a problem.”
“If you don’t pay attention in the first month, if you don’t get right on it,” Bye said, “the whole year can pass by without intervention.”
Discrimination and the art of compromise
Still, Bye conceded there are times her new role is a source of frustration, when the advocate’s passion for immediate action is strong.
One of two openly gay senators, Bye and her wife, Conard High School teacher Tracey Wilson, became the first gay couple married in Connecticut on Nov. 12, 2008.
“Those of us who have been through some of the challenges of discrimination, when you go through something this hard, you come out strong,” she said. “I think it’s a critical part of who I am.”
Bye, who served from 2001 through 2006 on the West Hartford Board of Education, conceded there were times early in her public service when she advocated for more spending for children and was told “no.”
“She was really mad at me,” West Hartford Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor said, recalling a car ride she and Bye shared coming back from Cape Cod nine years ago. And it took the full two-and-a-half hours for Bye to accept that the Town Council wouldn’t back the school board’s full budget request. “We are friends and we talked it through. There was mutual respect – but she was angry,” Cantor added. “I think she has grown quite a bit since then. But she’s a good person, and she always tries to do the right thing.”
Bye recalled the incident with Cantor with a smile.
“Yeah, I was mad. But we’re both moms,” said Bye, who has four children. “So we’ve always had mutual respect.
West Hartford politics was a good training ground for the Capitol for Bye, who won the first of two terms in the House in 2006, capturing a 19th District seat that Republicans had held for 26 years.
And if a career in child development encourages an appreciation for programs and services that are most important, fighting for political survival in a balanced district teaches the art of compromise.
“I was representing a district that was very moderate,” Bye said. “That was a very important part of my first four years in the legislature.”
Striking a deal with Malloy
Bye, who first was elected to the Senate in 2011, was challenged to compromise two years later in the wake of a controversial merger of the state universities and community colleges. Lawmakers from both parties had balked amid a central office scandal that included big raises for executives as tuition rose and rank-and-file workers took a two-year pay freeze.
Those raises had been approved by administrators chosen by Malloy, a situation that prompted a bipartisan call to reduce the executive branch’s influence over the merged college system.
Bye, one of the most vocal critics of the raises, also co-chaired the Higher Education Committee at the time, and therefore faced the delicate task of negotiating a reform bill acceptable to the governor’s office.
The final bill, which Malloy signed, revoked his authority to appoint the president of the merged college system.
“That’s where Beth really showed her bipartisan stripes,” said Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, ranking GOP senator on the committee. “She takes seriously what the other side thinks and understands that is the surest way to success.”
“We were just able to put all of that in the past and go forward,” added Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the Higher Education panel’s other co-chairwoman.
“Beth speaks passionately on issues, but she never loses sight of the goal: at the end we had to reach a compromise, and we did,” said Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, who negotiated that 2013 legislation with Bye.
Ojakian, who lives in Bye’s district in West Hartford, said he routinely meets for coffee with his senator. And when his father died last year, tough policy talks didn’t stop Bye from bringing Ojakian more rice, pasta and salad than he and his husband could eat.
“When you’re going through a hard time,” Bye said, “food always helps.”
“Beth doesn’t take herself too seriously and that is important,” Ojakian added. “At the end of the day, she is still Beth Bye.”