It’s a simple question that executive search committees ask. The query is meant to test whether the desire to be a chief executive can be crystallized into a single concrete act: OK, let’s say you have the job, what do you do first?
Tom Foley, 62, a Greenwich businessman and two-time Republican nominee for governor, has had plenty of time to imagine his first day in office. He fell a half-point short of winning four years ago. And he’s been pretty much running ever since.
But he has no answer to the day-one question.
“I don’t know what the first day in office will be, yet,” Foley said. “But we’re already planning the first day after the election, which will be a road map to getting to that first day in office. You want to be well down the road on staffing.”
It’s not a fatal answer. It’s not even a gaffe. But it’s another morsel feeding a narrative that Foley can talk all day about the failings of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, but he won’t share a detailed action plan.
Foley hasn’t been on a job interview in a long, long time.
Aside from a stint as a U.S. ambassador, Foley hasn’t answered to a boss since the days when the last gasps of disco made “Celebration” a hit for Kool and the Gang and “Indiana Jones” debuted as a movie character, not a franchise.
“I think the last job I was hired for was going to work for Citibank in 1981,” Foley said. “But in the business I was in, going to borrow hundred of millions of dollars to go buy businesses, that’s an interview.”
Foley grew rich buying undervalued companies in the mid 1980s as a private equity manager, not for the quick kill, but for the long haul. He held the Bibb Co., a textile manufacturer, for 11 years, losing it to creditors. He sold an industrial manufacturer, T.B. Wood’s Sons, after 21 years. He still owns Stevens Aviation, which he grew from the flight department of the defunct textile giant, J.P. Stevens.
Those experiences are the basis for his claim to be a leader, a manager, a problem-solver, a turnaround specialist, all qualities Foley says Connecticut desperately needs as he tries to convince voters of two things: One, it’s time to fire Dan Malloy; and two, they should hire Tom Foley.
Every poll says voters are open to the first proposition. The bigger question is whether Foley has shown them enough to win the job.
Malloy says Foley is running a Seinfeld campaign – it’s about nothing.
“Tom and I have run for governor against each other now twice. He had no plan the first time,” said Malloy, the former Stamford mayor. “He was going to settle a $3.6 billion deficit by cutting spending by $2 billion. That was his plan. Now, there is something wrong with that plan, that’s quite obvious. It didn’t settle a $3.6 billion problem.”
Foley’s strategy of hewing to broad goals, not specific policies, has helped drive some constituencies toward Malloy. Jim Cameron, a mass-transit advocate who had clashed with the governor, endorsed Malloy after listening to Foley and Malloy speak at a transportation forum. He called Foley “clueless.”
After the two candidates addressed the League of Conservation Voters, the environmental group made an endorsement for the first time, backing Malloy.
Foley’s overarching plan for his administration was released via email one afternoon in late August as reporters were driving to Norwich for the first debate between him and Malloy. Neither candidate referenced it. Foley never called a press conference to promote or explain what he called, “A Plan for Restoring Pride and Prosperity in Connecticut.”
A month later, he released an urban agenda at a press conference outside New Britain City Hall. Foley stood with five mayors in a pocket park outside city hall and pledged, “As governor, I’ll have no higher priority than making our cities great again.”
Foley read aloud what he called “a sampling of the plan,” but his campaign brought no copies. He encouraged reporters and voters to read the plan on line.
He says he will keep spending “flat” while cutting the sales tax by half a percentage point, streamline government, cut regulations and improve the business climate — all while acknowledging the limits of being a chief elected official, especially one facing a hostile legislature.
“I think a governor certainly has a lot of tools available to direct decision-making in the legislature, to influence the laws that are passed, and certainly has a lot of authority within the executive branch, but you’re more like a cheerleader and a coach than the way a chief executive role works in the private sector,” Foley said. “You don’t have nearly the authority, and I recognize that. Nobody is really in charge.”
Foley is attempting to be elected governor without holding prior elective office, something last accomplished here in 1948 by Chester Bowles, a Democrat who became a politician and diplomat after making a fortune in advertising.
As a candidate who has shared little about his circle of advisers, as an outsider who skewered his rivals for the GOP nomination as political insiders, Foley has left the political establishment and public guessing about who would populate a Foley administration.
“I’m not going to have a partisan and political administration,” he said. “I’m bringing in people regardless of party affiliation. If people are ideological they probably are not going to fit in the culture of the administration. I’d like it to be a problem-solving culture and not people coming in with hard beliefs about policy.”
Malloy was elected knowing he wanted Tim Bannon, who had been a top aide to Gov. William A. O’Neill, then took a series of high-ranking corporate jobs, as his chief of staff. His running mate was Nancy Wyman, a Capitol insider as the longtime state comptroller and a former state legislator.
Foley, who insists he respects politicians for their skills in legislating and governing, has reached out to some of the elected Republican officials he branded as insiders, people like House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney.
He offers a sentiment never expressed when he was competing for the GOP nomination with McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton or when Cafero still was the mix of potential rivals:
“I have a tremendous admiration for career politicians.”
Foley said the admiration is sincere, a reflection of knowing what he doesn’t know about governing.
“It is a set of skills that’s very different,” Foley said. “I have friends in the private sector who say, ‘Why don’t they do this?’ Or, ‘Why don’t they do that?’ Those are people who don’t understand politics. A good politician, there is a little bit of lubricant aspect to it. It’s about bringing people together.”
Quinnipiac University’s polls show Malloy has erased a six-point lead a month ago to tie Foley, 43 percent to 43 percent, with petitioning candidate Joe Visconti at nine percent. Foley says his internal polling shows a static race with him leading, albeit within the margin of error.
Over the course of a two-hour interview, Foley acknowledged limits to his knowledge of politics, but not his ability to govern.
“I’m going to be the best governor the state’s ever had,” Foley said. “And part of that is bringing better government to the state. I’m going to search far and wide for the best people we can bring into government.”
Foley worked in Iraq for seven months overseeing the private-sector economy after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. He worked under L. Paul Bremer, head of a U.S. effort there that received mixed reviews, including one scathing account, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” But Foley says he’s proud of his service and his abilities as a trouble-shooter.
“I’m not going to be humble about it. I’m somebody who has a history and talent for figuring out ways around obstacles and getting people to see how we can get together, get to an objective.”
Foley said his experience in Iraq taught him that government needs to get out of the way as much as it must act.
“What you don’t want to do, and this is what happens in centrally planned economies that are not democratic and where you don’t have a private sector market working, you have all these little permission givers,” Foley said. “They become little Caesars.
“We saw this over in Iraq, I was trying to explain to one of the ministers over there who was in charge of granting permits. ‘No, this is the way you do it. You zone a district, and if you meet these certain requirements, then you can build your plant or do what you want to do.’ He said, ‘We have to give permission.’ ‘No, you’re inhibiting the marketplace’.”
In Connecticut, he said, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would come under his close scrutiny for over-regulation.
“I support the notion of regulations to protect the environment, public assets and so on and so forth. But if you end up with a whole bunch of advocates — and I don’t think regulators should be advocates, I don’t think you should have an environmental advocate who is a regulator at DEEP, because they are going to be using their position to maybe do more than the laws intended and the rule-making procedures intended.”
He has no specifics on regulations he would strike.
He also only recently began work on transition plan, should he be elected.
“Well, it wouldn’t be good to divert campaign resources or campaign personnel to anything after Nov 4, but at the encouragement of the [Republican Governors Association], I have asked somebody to begin the process of pre-planning for a transition,” he said. “So, that’s underway.”