COVID arrived, legislators left, and Lamont’s job rating doubled. Now what?
Had the museum not been shuttered for COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont’s press conference at the Connecticut Science Center last week could have been an interactive exhibit, a display of a businessman’s continuing struggle to understand and master politics and governing.
On a rooftop deck, Lamont glossed over the good news of the day: All signs are that COVID is on the wane, and the Science Center is among the attractions that can reopen Wednesday in the second phase of easing the restrictions he ordered to fight the pandemic.
Ninety-five percent of the state’s economy can be open in Phase 2, a comforting talking point in the unsettled age of the novel coronavirus.
But Lamont pivoted to a grievance that gnaws, the resistance of Hartford to outsiders. He complained once again about the ingratitude of lawmakers and the criticism they directed to business executives and academics who volunteered to craft a plan to reopen Connecticut.
“ ‘Who are these corporate talking heads? Who are these academic elitists? Who are these people coming in and telling us what to do?’” Lamont said, recounting the gibes he heard directed at the volunteers, some his friends. “I said, ‘Thank you.’ And I say it again.”
Lamont is a Democrat and wealthy Greenwich businessman who took office in January 2019 with visions of governing amiably by consensus: If you don’t like my ideas, fine; bring me yours, and we’ll work it out.
The approach contributed to Lamont’s fall into a joyless slog over highway tolls in his first year, one that left him among the lowest-rated governors in the U.S. at the end of 2019. It also helped make the past 12 weeks a triumph: his handling of the pandemic was approved last month by 78% of voters.
The question now is which period provides the best measure of Lamont’s political and leadership skills.
On the horizon are two monumental challenges: Coping with the economic and societal impacts of the pandemic, while simultaneously addressing new, pressing demands for police accountability and social justice after the wrenching death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Notably, Lamont’s best days have come in the absence of lawmakers. They are a breed that still mystifies and often miffs the governor — as he made abundantly clear at the Science Center and later in an interview. He couldn’t understand the suspicion and resentment directed at the Reopen Connecticut volunteers.
“It was alien to me,” Lamont said.
Happily for the governor, legislating proved to be a non-essential activity during the pandemic. Since March 10, Lamont has ruled under a state of emergency that grants him wide latitude in doing what he deems necessary to protect the health and safety of his 3.5 million constituents.
But the lawmakers are coming back, intent on proving themselves essential workers in the run up to November. They are up for re-election, and the governor is not.
I think the pandemic changed everything. Last year, the substance of the issue was just overwhelmed by politics. And this year the substance of COVID took over. We had to deal with it, and the legislature went home.”
Re-election worries contributed to the Democratic majorities’ refusal to vote on any version of the Democratic governor’s first-year priority: returning some form of tolls to Connecticut’s highways, a step towards modernizing a creaky and underfunded transportation infrastructure.
It was a year that seemed to diminish everyone. Lamont was exposed as being ill-equipped for legislative dealmaking, and a compromise crafted by the House majority and allegedly supported by the Senate majority died comically.
Unwilling to trust the other chamber’s vote counts, Democratic leaders each insisted the other go first with a vote.
The governor finally lost patience on Feb. 19, bringing down the curtain on what had become an embarrassing burlesque. Declaring the bill dead at a press conference in his office, he was the picture of a man adrift.
“I guess the only thing that disappointed me a little bit was if you don’t like my idea give me something better,” Lamont told CT Mirror last week. “That’s how I always negotiated. At the end of the day, they couldn’t vote on any transportation plan. They couldn’t vote on mine. They couldn’t vote on their own. They couldn’t vote on anything. Now I’ve got a transportation fund that, you know, is out of money, but you keep trying.”
Cue the novel coronavirus.
Suddenly the feckless governor was a man with a plan, a steady voice in daily televised briefings, even if some parents chafed at the ban on graduations, which now can take place in July. Wedding planners try to gauge what might be possible in the fall, based on the status of his oldest daughter’s nuptials. (Her September wedding has been postponed.)
But on May 6, the Quinnipiac Poll found voters giving him the strongest overall rating of any Connecticut governor since M. Jodi Rell, with approval by 65% and disapproval by 26%. On the narrow question of the pandemic, the margin was even better, 78% to 17%.
“I think the pandemic changed everything,” Lamont said. “Last year, the substance of the issue was just overwhelmed by politics. And this year the substance of COVID took over. We had to deal with it, and the legislature went home.”
The pandemic gave Lamont an opportunity to lead in the fashion he imagined in his inaugural address, when he quoted John F. Kennedy’s call for voluntarism. Lamont described his office as a place with a big table and an open door.
“I got the best and the brightest I could from the private sector, from the academic community,” Lamont said. “I got them to the table, and I worked with fellow governors. And I think we made a difference. I think we had a thoughtful response.”
Thoughtful, but not without controversy.
On two days notice, he changed his mind about allowing barbers and hair stylists to reopen on May 20, the start of Phase 1. He pushed them back to June 1, a 10-day delay that seemed more about bowing to noisy voices than heeding public-health experts, and which created another round of protests from those who disagreed with the delays. More significant was the criticism from the ACLU and others that the administration was too timid about releasing some inmates with health conditions.
And he was reminded by state employee unions that his view of government as “a big table” where everyone comes to reason has limits. He asked them to forgo raises due at month’s end, something he saw as a reasonable request given the fiscal challenges now facing the state.
It was a request made without bargaining leverage, and he admitted at the Science Center that he had failed to convince them. The previous day, one of the unions, SEIU1199, released a biting commercial featuring heroes of the pandemic and ridiculing Lamont’s request.
Overall, he sees his consensus-driven approach as validated by the cooperation he received from Connecticut’s hospitals, who bitterly fought and sued his predecessor over tax policy, and the working relationship he nurtured with the region’s governors before the pandemic.
He is one of several governors whose stock rose during the pandemic, aligning themselves with public-health experts —a contrast to President Donald J. Trump’s initial dismissal of the health threat.
Lamont, of course, could not be more different than Trump. The governor is a conciliator, not a counter-puncher. He is averse to burning bridges. But, like the president, Lamont ran as an outsider. Rather than promise to “drain the swamp,” Lamont suggested opening a “closed ecosystem.”
“I tried to, A, change the tone of this building,” Lamont said of the State Capitol. “And, B, see if I could get a wider variety of people weighing in on the decisions we make.”
That means people from the world inhabited by him and his wife, Annie, a successful venture capitalist. Their circle is wide, and Lamont is an inveterate networker. To lead his Reopen Connecticut group, he recruited Indra Nooyi, a classmate at the Yale School of Management and former CEO of PepsiCo, and Dr. Albert Ko, a prominent epidemiologist at Yale.
It’s just too vague. I don’t know what ‘police reform’ legislation means, but I’m happy to find out.”
“This is a pretty closed eco system here. And you generally have governors who are politicians and legislators who were maybe lawyers or real estate brokers and a lot of people who come from in and around this world. And they’re great folks. When I say the best and the brightest, I say folks who can complement the folks who are here. But when it came to a highly infectious germ called COVID I thought we’d be much better off by taking all the resources from around this state and beyond and channelling them to make a real good response.”
Lamont was slow to grasp that George Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis would mean a legislative response, not merely the governor promising to redouble his efforts at diversity. On June 2, he was noncommittal about police reforms.
“It’s just too vague,” Lamont said. “I don’t know what ‘police reform’ legislation means, but I’m happy to find out.”
Within days, he had endorsed police accountability measures and then accompanied legislators on a walking tour of a black neighborhood in Hartford, escorted by Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, the chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Monday, he issued an executive order aimed solely at state police that bans chokeholds and places other restrictions on the use of force.
One prominent caucus member called Lamont’s embrace of police accountability measures a start — but only a start.
“He has to change the people he is talking to,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and a strong advocate of criminal justice reforms. “He’s got to get a different kitchen cabinet on this issue. Understanding the complexity of an inner city community isn’t the strength of a hedge fund person.”
Lamont suggested that the power of Floyd’s death lay in how it may change the hearts of police, not necessarily legislation it might inspire.
Other than pledging diversity in future judicial nominations, Lamont has stepped lightly, leaving some fellow Democrats to privately question if he recognizes the potential of the moment, such as the possibility to address housing segregation reinforced by local zoning or education disparities.
“I mean, I understand the legislators are going to pass a lot of bills and maybe get a task force, have a couple of commissions,” Lamont said. “That’s fine, and I’m with you on that.”
But Lamont said he was most moved by the Connecticut State Police leadership’s challenge to fellow officers to consider another line of work, if they were not horrified by the video of Floyd’s mistreatment: “If you wear a badge and aren’t appalled by that what you saw, please turn it in and find a new profession; we don’t need you.”
He has to change the people he is talking to. He’s got to get a different kitchen cabinet on this issue. Understanding the complexity of an inner city community isn’t the strength of a hedge fund person.”
Lamont said that showed good faith.
“That resonated with me more than five resolutions coming out of the legislature this week or this month. It was very powerful to me, and it’s a part of how I try to respond.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Lamont has shown little sign of learning how to deal with the legislature.
“I probably still am where I always have been. I like Gov. Lamont as a person. It takes a lot to get very upset with the guy. I don’t think he does anything mean-spirited or mean from the heart,” Fasano said. “But he listens to voices who don’t know this building, and they haven’t served him well.”
Fasano, a lawyer and a businessman, said he is not talking about the governor’s senior staff.
Lamont intends to stay the course, on consulting from his friends and associates outside the Hartford ecosystem. He still is bullish on the idea of somehow marrying philanthropy to government, despite the high-profile failure of the model for the governor’s vision: the Partnership for Connecticut.
He was stung by dissolution of the Partnership, which was to provide at least $200 million for creative ways to reach disconnected young people. The philanthropy founded by the hedge fund billionaire, Ray Dalio, and his wife, Barbara, pledged $100 million, with a match from the state.
It was hampered by transparency issues, if not a clash of cultures that Lamont does not yet seem to fully comprehend. Legislators saw the partnership as an abrogation of public responsibilities, ceding control of $100 million in public money to a quasi-public entity that was allowed to play by its own rules.
On the same day he complained about legislators’s treatment of the academics and business executives recruited to help with the pandemic, Lamont said he was intent on trying to find a way to make public-private partnerships more palatable in Hartford.
“I have to figure out how we do better to put together a structure that is transparent, that gives you confidence they are acting in the public interest,” Lamont said. “Then we can leverage their amazing resources, their intellectual resources and their financial resources.”
To head that effort, Lamont said he is tapping a Republican and a Democrat.
Both are legislators, and the Republican is Len Fasano.
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