He’s already had five years of crisis, conflict and close calls. But 2016 is dawning as a pivotal year for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat taking on a leadership role in national politics while trying to solidify a legacy in Connecticut.
Malloy, 60, a survivor of two tight elections, began his sixth year as governor Thursday with an ambitious domestic agenda, a restive legislature and a busy calendar as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and a presidential campaign surrogate.
He sees the roles as complementary, not conflicting.
“I’m a pretty driven guy. I’m happiest when I’m working,” Malloy said. “And let’s not overdo the surrogate thing. It’s a certain number of days over a certain number of months.”
As the voice of the DGA, Malloy says he intends to stress social issues he’s pushed in Connecticut: gay rights, targeted aid for distressed schools, a higher minimum wage, “Second Chance” sentencing reforms, and gun control, the issue that brought him to the White House on Tuesday.
In 2013, Malloy won passage of one of the nation’s toughest gun control measures, including universal background checks on all purchases of firearms and ammunition, in response to the shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
“It is something that you may not want to run in Mississippi or Alabama on, but we’re not likely to elect a Democrat in Mississippi or Alabama any time in the near future,” Malloy said in a recent interview. “But in states we could pick up, having a sane discussion about crime, guns, second chance, I think all of that comes together and is a good discussion for Democrats to have.”
It is the best and worst of times for Malloy.
At home, he was rated positively by only 32 percent of voters in a Quinnipiac University poll last fall, the worst showing of any governor. General Electric is expected to announce any day whether it will move its headquarters from Fairfield to New York, Massachusetts or Rhode Island. And Connecticut seems mired in a semi-permanent state of fiscal crisis.
His stock seems higher outside Connecticut.
His social agenda is winning national notice, including a recent laudatory editorial in the New York Times. Malloy’s advocacy of a higher minimum wage, criminal justice reforms and repeal of the death penalty appeal to the broader Democratic base. His feistiness plays well on the road, especially his willingness to go after other governors.
Time magazine labeled him the “ready-to-rumble” governor last February, when he was fresh off a re-election win in a GOP year. “When we run as Republican-lite we lose,” he told the Association of Democratic State Chairs, whose members stood and applauded. “Let us be Democrats once again.”
Twice last year, he was quick to jump on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican up for re-election in 2016, first by making national news with a ban on official state travel to Indiana over Pence’s embrace of a law that seemed to permit businesses to discriminate against gays. More recently, when Pence objected to the relocation of a Syrian refugee family to Indiana, Malloy welcomed them to Connecticut.
The mention of Pence’s name brought a smile to Malloy’s lips during an interview in his corner office at the State Capitol, where a massive mural of a revolutionary battle hangs over his desk.
The reality is Malloy has drawn something of a short straw as DGA chair in 2016, when Democrats are defending more seats than Republicans. Only three of the eight Democratic governors with expiring terms are seeking re-election, while three of the four Republican incumbents up for re-election are running again.
“It’s a tough cycle for us. That didn’t scare me – we have a tough cycle,” Malloy said.
But Indiana is in play, because of what Malloy sees as Pence’s self-inflicted wound on gay rights: Signing a religious freedom law immediately decried by major business groups as an affront to gays.
“His state is anxious to put his gigantic mistake behind it, and he just keeps picking at the scab. And every time he picks at the scab is a good day,” Malloy said. “If you were to ask me this time last year would Indiana be on our horizon, the answer would be no, or not likely.”
The Republican Governors Association taunted Malloy last month hours after he became chairman.
“Malloy represents the worst of Democrat governors’ failed policies – raising taxes, increasing regulations, misleading voters and driving away business and jobs. As the DGA attempts to cling to its small minority of only 18 governorships in 2016, Gov. Malloy will be a major liability to Democrat gubernatorial candidates everywhere,” said Jon Thompson, the RGA spokesman.
If GE leaves, Malloy can count on the RGA to amplify the news.
His budget is currently in balance, but only after emergency cuts imposed by executive action in September and through legislation during a special session in December. Non-partisan fiscal analysts see another shortfall in 2017 as the state continues its slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.
“My one regret is that I didn’t get to be a governor in good times,” Malloy said. “It would have been fun.”
Malloy’s pitch for a $100 billion, 30-year transportation infrastructure overhaul won him national notice – and even fans in New Jersey, where the Newark Star-Ledger compared him favorably to his nemesis, Gov. Chris Christie. The newspaper complained that “Connecticut is taking decisive action while New Jersey’s governor won’t even acknowledge a crisis.”
Overlooked is that Malloy has yet to identify a revenue source to cover more than a few years.
A study panel he commissioned is to recommend new funding sources this month, but the Democratic majority’s leadership in the General Assembly is unlikely to expose its members to a major tax vote in an election year. Still, Malloy refuses to rule out a push for some progress toward his transportation goals.
“I can’t imagine this coming year will come and go without us taking major steps in transportation,” he said.
Malloy said his previous sentencing reforms and his call for further changes raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 18 to 21, at least for less serious crimes, also are worthy of national discussion as DGA chairman. So are his ambitions on transportation infrastructure and his call to restructure the state’s unfunded pension liability.
“Quite frankly, some of those are legacy issues as well that I’d be more than happy to be measured on, and I think because of the successes we’ve had there, I’m in a position to talk about those things,” he said.
Lest anyone think he is getting ready to close the books, Malloy clarified that he used the word “legacy” as a measure of an issue’s importance, not a final word.
“I’m not thinking of legacy in terms of a capstone,” he said.
Malloy made headlines in December by refusing to rule out a run for a third term, but his position seemed to be less a hint at running than a refusal to declare himself a lame duck in the first year of a four-year term. Indeed, the more popular game at the Capitol is guessing if he will leave early.
His role in the Democratic Governors Association, his campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and his eagerness to serve as a wingman to the president on issues such as minimum wage, Obamacare and gun control all feed a steady diet of speculation that his interests lie beyond Hartford.
Connecticut was the first state to pass a law reaching the president’s goal of a $10.10 minimum wage, which will take effect next January. Obama celebrated passage with a rally in New Britain at Central Connecticut State University.
Malloy is circumspect on the question of his own ambitions, other than acknowledging a fierce desire to be out front in any endeavor.
“I’ve played a leadership role every time I’ve been in a position to play a leadership role,” Malloy said. “It’s just who I am and what I am. If I’m going to be active in an organization, I want to be held accountable for the organization in some way.”
That meant sitting in the front row of the East Room during Obama’s speech on guns Tuesday, when Connecticut’s history with gun violence and its strong gun laws were repeatedly invoked, then going on national cable shows to defend Obama’s proposal. But he waves off questions about a larger agenda, say a job search in Washington.
Last year, legislators were surprised at his reticence to sell the public on his initial budget proposal, which would have closed a shortfall with business taxes and spending cuts that fell heavily on the poor, elderly and disabled. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, asserted that the governor had “checked out,” at least on the issue of Connecticut’s finances and business climate.
Today, Fasano’s view is similar, even as he praises Malloy as one of the most driven, hardest-working elected officials ever seen in Connecticut politics. Fasano said there is nothing wrong if Malloy does harbor higher aspirations.
“I respect, by the way, people who have high aspirations, and I respect his work ethic,” Fasano said.
But Fasano said the social issues that he sees as the bulk of Malloy’s accomplishments, while important to some constituencies, enhance the governor’s image nationally while doing nothing to address the state’s finances.
“I think some of the initiatives are rooted in his passion to be active at the federal level, whether it’s the minimum wage, whether it was the gun bill, whether it was his $100 billion transportation plan, whether it’s, now, his juvenile sentencing issue,” Fasano said.
All people in Connecticut are likely to remember at the end of his current term, Fasano said, is whether Malloy leaves state government as badly he found it in 2011, burdened by an inherited deficit of $3.6 billion.
On Wednesday, after a visit to East Lyme to announce the closing of the Niantic Annex, the fourth correctional facility closed during his tenure, Malloy said no one should question if he still is in command of the granular details of the budget.
“I work,” he said. “I do my homework.”