Gov. Ned Lamont answers questions from the media at the 30th Annual Conference of the Affordable Housing Alliance in Cromwell, CT, September 19, 2019. Monica Jorge
Gov. Ned Lamont talking to reporters Monday. Behind them are anti-toll protesters. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The political strengths and weaknesses constant to Gov. Ned Lamont’s first year in office were on full display as he addressed municipal officials last week. He was cheerful, optimistic, self-deprecating and, ultimately, not entirely reassuring.

Lamont owes them money — quite a lot, in fact. Town aid for roads and local capital improvements is being withheld while the governor tries to close on an elusive deal with lawmakers over how to finance billions in transportation infrastructure improvements over the next decade.


TOMORROW: Gov. Ned Lamont met some of his objectives in his first budget, but there were trade-offs and compromises along the way.


“I think we’re pretty close on an agreement,” Lamont told the local officials. “I hope we’re very close. I think I’ve said that before. One of the things I’m finding in government, that was not my life in business, is in government you can agree up to the two yard line. It’s getting that final two yards that is an awful lot of effort.”

It is in those moments that Connecticut’s rookie governor sounds less like a politician than a bemused observer of politics, a stranger seeking his way in a strange land. 

“I keep reading all these articles about, ‘When is he going to learn the ways of the legislature?’ ” Lamont said Monday. “Well, we’re both going to work together. Or we’re both going to learn, because I was elected to do things in a different way.”

Perhaps they have.

“I was elected to do things in a different way.”

Gov. Ned Lamont

For the first time since Lamont took office on Jan. 9, the Democratic governor and the leaders of the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly are working in concert on the passage of a transportation financing plan, one that would rely on truck-only tolls. 

It is an undertaking that has bedeviled Lamont and overshadowed first-year successes that include the passage of a budget without raising the income tax or tapping budget reserves, as well as delivering on campaign promises to raise the minimum wage and create a paid family and medical leave program.

But his job-approval ratings cratered as his first-year agenda was dominated by his pursuit of new transportation revenue, beginning with an ill-fated plan to raise $800 million a year by charging tolls on all motor vehicles at more than 50 locations.

Profanely, he dismissed the cost to his popularity.

“I can’t care about that shit. If I do, then I’m just going to pull my punches, right?” Lamont said. “Let’s just not do transportation? I would have had a great year, a great year. But I wouldn’t have solved a big problem that’s confronting us.”

The governor spoke during an interview in his office Monday, a day when his duties included a press conference in the rain with a 900-pound cow named Leia as part of a promotional event marking the 50th anniversary of Stew Leonard’s, the Norwalk-based supermarket chain that calls itself the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores.” 

“I can’t care about that shit. If I do, then I’m just going to pull my punches, right? Let’s just not do transportation? I would have had a great year, a great year. But I wouldn’t have solved a big problem that’s confronting us.”

Gov.Ned Lamont

On the north steps of the Capitol, Lamont offered a milk toast to Stew Leonard, the 91-year-old founder, and Stew Leonard Jr., the current chief executive. Behind them, anti-toll protesters conducted a silent vigil.

Lamont’s latest transportation plan would raise $187 million annually in tolls on trucks, enough to finance $19.4 billion in transportation infrastructure improvements over 10 years, according to financials released Friday. 

Legislative leaders are aiming for a vote during a special session in January — one of two special sessions expected before the annual 2020 session opens in February.

Next week, Lamont intends to ask legislators to accept a $1.8 billion settlement his administration has negotiated with the state’s hospital industry, resolving a war over taxes begun by his predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy. 

“That was an incredible black cloud hanging over the state,” Lamont said. “We had a potential $4 billion judgment against us. You know what that would have meant? That was about $400 million a year paid by the taxpayers over the course of 20 years.”

If successful on both undertakings, Lamont will have swept a glossy finish over a rocky first year.

Lamont, 65, is a cable-television entrepreneur from Greenwich, the husband of a successful venture capitalist and a friend to successful men and women in the worlds of technology, finance and corporate governance. He has tried to bring elements of his old world into his new one. 

The governor pauses as he speaks during his inauguration, Jan. 9, 2019. The year that followed his inaugural speech would bring many challenges, some created by his propensity to speak off-the-cuff, others by his lack of political experience. Jessica Hill / AP

“One of the things I’ve really worked hard to do is get that piece of the state more involved in Hartford and not New York,” Lamont said.

His chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, was hired from Bridgewater Associates, the giant hedge fund founded by the billionaire and philantropist, Ray Dalio. His economic adviser, David Lehman, came from Goldman Sachs. Lamont hired a tech entrepreneur, Josh Geballe, as the commissioner of administrative services.

On a few occasions since taking office 11 months ago, Lamont said, he has mixed what he called the “Hartford crowd” and the “Fairfield County crowd” at dinners at his home in Greenwich. 

“I just sit back and sort of watch the tensions,” Lamont said. “It’s sort of fascinating. We are two states.”

Those tensions are evident at times in his own administration. 

Lamont badly misread how the public and lawmakers would respond to his proposal in February to raise as much as $800 million annually by installing more than 50 electronic tolling gantries on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95. 

In doing so, the governor reneged on a campaign promise to seek only tolls on trucks as recently implemented in Rhode Island. And he broke the news by a publishing an op-ed piece on President’s Day Weekend.

“Was I a little taken by surprise?” Lamont said of the backlash. “Yeah, because I had every business leader say, ‘It’s really important — transportation, rail and road — or else I may not be here in five years.’ ”

His plan never came to a vote.

The administration developed a new plan, CT2030, that offered a new funding mechanism: low-cost federal loans that would be paid off by $320 million collected annually from tolls on 14 bridges.

The plan won bipartisan praise for identifying projects that could improve commutes by improving Metro-North commuter rail and eliminating highway chokepoints. But, again, the administration misread the depth of opposition to tolls on passenger cars. 

Trying to sell his transportation plan last May: Lamont talks tolls in front of a construction site on I-91 in Hartford.

Less than a week after its release, Republicans said they could not support tolls or any other new revenue and Senate Democrats took automobile tolls off the table, saying the administration had to find something that was politically “palatable.”

“It was the right plan. Everybody said it was the right plan,” Lamont said. “They just didn’t want to pay for it.”

Lamont said he had no regrets, nor did he ever seriously contemplate abandoning the search for a way to stabilize a Special Transportation Fund expected to hit insolvency in five years. Financed by fuel taxes and fees, the fund pays for the operating expenses of the Transportation and Motor Vehicle departments and the debt service on transportation projects.

“I’m asking people to do something pretty tough,” Lamont said. “So, do I regret coming out with 2030 because I got my head handed to me in a couple of caucuses? No.”

Lamont said he is trying to show Connecticut employers what the state could look like in 10 years.

“I didn’t really have much of a choice if I’m going to solve this problem. And I’m going to make these guys solve it,” Lamont said of legislators. “I mean, that’s the deal. I’ll meet you half way, and we’ll negotiate, but this is a state, year in and year out and decade in and decade out, that hopes the roof doesn’t fall on their head. And this is not the way I do it.”

Lamont has both benefitted and suffered by comparisons with Malloy, a former Stamford mayor who took office with a sharply defined agenda, a command of details, a coterie of experienced political aides and a talent for twisting arms.

The new governor has a gentler, more personal touch.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this: He needs to grab a little bit of Gov. Malloy’s behavior and say, ‘This is what I want.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano

Joe DeLong, the president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said municipal leaders were more forgiving of Lamont for holding back town road aid than they would have been a year earlier with Malloy.

“I think that’s a tribute to him,” DeLong said. “If this had been toward the end of the prior administration and we were waiting on this money, we probably would be holding press conferences and throwing grenades by now.”

DeLong and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who recently ended a term as president of CCM, both said Lamont called regularly with updates on his talks with lawmakers, assuring them that their aid eventually would be forthcoming. 

“I’m happy with what he did with municipalities in the budget. At least it was stable, which is what we were asking for,” said Mayor Laura Hoydick of Stratford, a Republican and former state representative. “I think those were all positive things, and I think he really is pro-Connecticut, and he vocalizes it. He is Connecticut’s best cheerleader. And it’s really important for a leader to do that.”

His reviews in the Capitol are more measured, with two leaders differing on what the governor learned from his first-year difficulties.

“I think the governor is learning and developing as he goes along,” said Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “I think that’s a strong positive. He is a bright and thoughtful man, and his experience will benefit him.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he appreciates that Lamont is trying to bring a business perspective to the Capitol, but he fears that the politics of the building still elude him, even as he approaches two special sessions.

“It’s a lack of understanding in that building that has been an impediment to the governor closing the deal” on transportation, Fasano said. “I think the business principles and brains are of value, but they are nullified if you can’t navigate the building.”

Fasano said Lamont needs a harder edge and a greater feel for what moves lawmakers.

“I think Gov. Lamont is a nice man. I always say that. I think he has to shed a little bit of that,” said Fasano, who clashed with the governor’s predecessor. 

He paused.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this: He needs to grab a little bit of Gov. Malloy’s behavior and say, ‘This is what I want. This is what I think is good for the state. And this is what, Democratic majority, you’re going to deliver for me.’ ”

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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6 Comments

  1. A little bit of Malloy’s behavior?!! We suffered eight years of Dan’s incompetence,the man who has now taken his act to Maine, thanks to Jackson Labs. And Dan’s scorched earth will be with us for decades.
    “Navigating the building” is a huge part of the problem as the building is in Hartford and is a model for corruption.
    Connecticut is a sad story of missed opportunity and failed potential.

  2. There is a certain smugness, a ” let them eat cake” attitude that comes through with Lamont.
    His willingness to tax groceries, the last attempt conducted in a sneaky, shameful, backdoor manner. His creation of a educational slush fund without Freedom of Information Act transparency. His creation of secret trials for juveniles. Together he is turning out worse than Malloy ever was.
    Truck tolls will become car tolls. Hopefully he is a one term governor.

  3. Unfortunately, Gov Lamont and his lovely wife have lived a life that is unlike that of a private sector middle class taxpayer. They do not know, what it is to keep the same car for over 10 years, because you cannot afford a new one. They do not know, the sacrifice of turning the heat down to 61 Degrees, to save on heating fuel. They do not know, inability to go out to a restaurant or movie, because you can not afford it. They do not know, need to only buy food items that are on sale. They do not know, need to eliminate Christmas Lights to save on monthly electricity costs.

    I am sure they are nice people. However, they have no idea whatsoever, on how their actions and policies, effect the common resident and taxpayer. The concept of tolls and its financial impact on the cost of goods is not something they think of, or can even relate to. It is unfortunate, but it is true.

  4. “A gentler more personal touch….” . Doesn’t matter that we just got hit with another round of massive tax increases. Doesn’t matter that he ignores the unfunded pension liabilities. Doesn’t matter that he intends on tolling us until we die. And many more “doesn’t matters”. The guy is a gentle kitten so what’s not to like? I don’t trust him, that’s what.

  5. Is Senator Fasano suggesting the Governor use Malloy-like tactics to force through tolls in order to gain advantage for his party in the next election?
    If so, that’s inconsiderate of the state. Especially because a Turmp-hate election is unlikely to produce a state government willing to vote the tolls out again.

  6. The transportation plan described in the first draft of CT2030 was a climate catastrophe. Expanding interstates with only 2% for bus transit and 0.25% for active transportation projects (walking and biking) is a terrible, unsustainable strategy for the state. The train system funding was a silver lining, but any plan that increases vehicle miles driven (and greenhouse gas emissions) should be a non-starter in the age of impending climate crisis. We found in a state wide survey in Oct 2019 that 62% of respondents supported a moratorium on interstate and state route widening projects (only 17% opposed the moratorium). https://tinyurl.com/ct2030survey
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/68fb2eea916ac8518a5dc45942990173e5b2c3c267d3b85fcf848afd0dcd7f93.jpg

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