Legislative lords bridle at Malloy's reach
HARTFORD -- Mark Ojakian, natty in pinstripes with a leather folio under his arm, stands at the railing near the top of the escalator on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building. In the marble-floored atrium below, a woman in a black-and-white sweater moves from one knot of people to another. Rep. Roberta Willis talks with her hands, the gestures suggesting peril. The collapse of their entire governmental mission could be at hand if her colleagues won't join her in stopping ... something.
Ojakian watches her. His head follows as the black-and-white sweater moves from the foot of the escalator toward the bright sun splash at the building's front door. Whatever he was about to say dies off into silence. The sunniest member of the Malloy administration has the beginnings of a scowl on his face.
Willis hates the governor's plan to consolidate the community colleges. Loathes it. She can't abide by it or understand, she says, how anyone else could, either.
And the Malloy administration -- that is, the unlucky Mark Ojakian -- has no choice but to deal with her. Roberta Willis is a co-chairwoman of the Legislature's Committee on Higher Education. The consolidation of community colleges and state universities, which the administration has proposed without so much as checking with her, is an incursion onto her legislative turf. Now she is determined. They will pass this thing over her dead body.
This will happen again and again in the first year of Dan Malloy's tenure as governor. Conflict with Republicans was to be expected; they orient toward different political stars. It is Malloy's struggle to make changes that upset his fellow Democrats that prove more nettlesome, and require, on this afternoon, dispatching Ojakian to the Legislative Office Building to try to run down the complaints about the higher ed consolidation.
The new administration desperately wants to be able to claim efficiency, to take an ossified state bureaucracy and streamline it. To make it work better. But you can't touch the Department of Aging, little though it seems to matter in the grand scheme of things, without angering Sen. Edith Prague. That agency is her baby. Find a way to save millions by redirecting state troopers out of the highway weigh stations? Sounds good until Rep. Tony Guerrera hears about it. He raises holy hell. He's the Transportation Committee chairman, and he promised the State Police he'd keep any new administration from messing with the weigh stations. And besides, there's a more important concern. If they wanted to mess with something in Guerrera's backyard, they should have come to him first.
That Malloy has essentially zero patience for these legislative protocols and niceties doesn't matter much now. He needs the Legislature, more than he'd care to admit. And some of the Democrats who eyed him warily at the outset of his tenure are now locked into dead-set, if private, opposition.
THE TEARS FLOW
"He made her cry!" Ben Barnes exclaims, as he and Ojakian burst into Tim Bannon's crowded office on the second floor of the Capitol. Roy Occhiogrosso takes the chair closest to Bannon's computer monitor. The others move to an armchair across the room and the little leather-covered love seat. Bannon is slightly slouched in his desk chair, one hand flat on the heaping drift of paper on his desk, the other, at 90 degrees, on the keyboard. The chief of staff looks up in surprise.
O.J. did? Mark Ojakian made Roberta Willis cry?
"If you could identify one member of the administration least likely to make a woman cry, who would that be?" Occhiogrosso says, in a tone of wonder.
Moving to take a chair near Andrew McDonald, O.J. mutters simply, "I've lost my mind."
It has been Ojakian's job to reach out to Willis, who has steadfastly refused the administration's determined push to consolidate the oversight of the state's community colleges and state universities under a new, single board of regents.
And now it's late April, and after a handshake deal with the leaders of the House and Senate, the administration and the leaders are beginning to push a budget deal through the required committees and toward a vote in each chamber. Willis has acceded to the need for change, acknowledged that her outranking colleagues -- the speaker of the House, the appropriations chairs -- are on board with the consolidation plan and said she'd go along. And yet, the governor's legislative liaisons keep reporting, Roberta's at it again, spreading word, along with Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, the young representative from New Haven who works for the college administrators' union, that the consolidation isn't really happening, that the many won't be swallowed up into one, for all the reasons she's been warning about.
And that's why they sent O.J., who has unions to negotiate with, to try to reel Willis back in one more time.
Willis' co-chairwoman left her and Ojakian alone, O.J. tells the crowd in Bannon's office, and Barnes and Occhiogrosso smile, knowing where the story goes.
"I think, like, we're close," he says, "and then she goes into this thing about respect, and then she starts to cry. `Nobody looks at me when they walk down the hall. Tim Bannon goes like this.' "
O.J. pantomimes Willis' version of Bannon, raising a folder in front of his face like the Phantom of the Opera's cape. It takes the chief of staff a full second before he squawks in disbelief.
"Did she say that?! The last time I saw her, I actually interrupted a conversation I was having to say hello."
Now, Willis is again threatening to undo their deal. She'll mobilize opposition in the Appropriations Committee, where they hope to get the budget deal approved the next day. But the threats sound hollow ("Representative Who? He is literally blind!") and soon they're laughing again.
ANGRY YOUNG MAN
"The governor's problem is that he's an a--hole!"
In theory, what's said in the Democratic caucus room stays there. But in practice, Gary Holder-Winfield's infuriated words reach a member of Malloy's inner circle just minutes after he shouts them behind the closed doors of Room 207A. A state rep tells a friend. A friend tells O.J. as he's descending the front steps of the Capitol to head toward his black Saab. (License plate: "OJ.")
And O.J. calls it in, so soon everyone knows, including the governor himself, who giggles the next morning when someone asks about it. But Malloy will only laugh, and for now he'll say no more about it, this breach of protocol that seems to bother his colleagues more than him.
"I've been called worse by my brothers."
Why is Gary Holder-Winfield so mad?
It's a subject of some discussion. O.J. knows part of it is the same thing that bugs Roberta Willis: resentment of the administration's plans to consolidate the higher education system. "Consider his employer," Ojakian says. Gary Holder-Winfield works for the AAUP chapter at Southern Connecticut State University, on legislative strategy.
Malloy, if you press him, will say Holder-Winfield is immature and relates a story about his own immaturity: He once called a fellow member of the Board of Finance a "knucklehead," only to take it back the next day.
The others think Holder-Winfield is just conceited, a loudmouth, a kid still. He's from New Haven, holds the seat once held by Bill Dyson, who chaired the Appropriations Committee, the hand on the silver spigot, until he lost a bid to be the first black speaker of the House and was banished to the back row.
In fact, it's the budget deal that has Holder-Winfield steamed, a fact he'll concede on a summer afternoon, months later, in New Haven awaiting a gubernatorial press conference. It feels to Holder-Winfield like the General Assembly is ducking behind Malloy. The budget they are debating in that House Democratic caucus one night in April says the administration will get nearly $2 billion in give-backs from its state employee unions. And what it doesn't get from unions, it will make up in cuts to other things: aid for towns, or earmarks for nonprofits beloved to some lawmaker or other. Maybe even another pound of flesh from the higher ed system.
And the leaders are going along with it! This is supposed to be the Legislature's job, Holder-Winfield fumes. It's their list of brutal choices to make, and the governor's job is to sign what they vote on and send to him.
But the leaders want a deal, and Dan Malloy won't budge. So they're going along, ceding more authority than Gary Holder-Winfield is prepared to give.
IN THE OFFICERS' CLUB
The bar is a smoky relic of the days before the cigarette ban, one half-flight of steps down from the ground floor inside the William A. O'Neill State Armory. This is the Officers' Club: gray-blue haze, lobbyists and state representatives and uniformed members of the National Guard bellied up on swivel bar stools, passing ashtrays back and forth and knocking back beer, whiskey, white wine.
And right there in front, at the high two-top by the jukebox, is Linda Orange.
The state representative from Colchester is pounding on the top of the waist-high table, her perpetual cigarette riding perilously along between two fingers, the half-conquered drinks of a fellow legislator and a pair of lobbyists bouncing and clacking on the wood. And she is chanting:
"Bring back Jodi Rell! Bring back Jodi Rell! Bring back Jodi Rell!"
Then she releases a long, cackling laugh.
Linda Orange is a Democrat.
She's mad about consolidation, too. And she's in good company. So is Steve Dargan, a gregarious Democratic rep from North Haven who thinks, like Orange, that combining the state police and the emergency management people under one boss is pure folly. Over by the bar, under the blaring television, commiserating more quietly, is Roberta Willis.
Malloy's making them so angry, moving the organs of the state around. For God's sake, he's new. Linda Orange will tell you -- she's telling you now, and if your gaze moves beyond her shoulder, scoping the rest of the crowd, she will take you by the elbow and move you back into the full-force stream of What She's Telling You -- she was around when they created that department. The Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. No sense in combining them with the state police. No sense at all! You think the guys who handle emergency scenes are going to like that? It's bad enough they get bossed around at accident scenes by state troopers. Now they're going to work for State Police Commissioner, Reuben Bradford, the top state trooper of them all? Insanity.
"Now, I'm a Democrat," Orange says, and she's not pounding the table anymore. "But Jodi Rell would never have done this."
This is why she and Dargan are fighting so hard, she explains. And if Malloy insists on doing his consolidations, at least she and Dargan should have some say over the agency's name.
"They want the status quo, and they want you to call it change."
Dan Malloy sits in the leather desk chair in the office, twirling around from his computer, where he checks his latest headlines, to face a questioner.
"I think it's paramount that we reorganize state government and that the process begin in earnest."
He doesn't particularly want to talk about the ways in which his agenda is being resisted, and how that comes so steadily from his own party, his team. Dan Malloy will also not be conceding, this day, that his team violated etiquette. If they didn't follow the rules, about running his ideas past legislators whose personal domains he hasn't even memorized yet, the problem isn't them. The problem is the rules.
"Listen, I want to change some of that, let's be honest," he says. "I think some of that stuff is pretty overdone. I think it's a set of customs that really don't legitimately represent society. Right? You get elected, you come up here, whether it's the executive branch, the legislative branch, or you get appointed into the judiciary branch, your job is to do the job, not to fall back on whether --" the sentence jumps in a new direction.
"I mean, I'm not a particularly formal guy, I don't know whether you've noticed this. And I didn't grow up in a particularly formal household. So, you know, it's more about getting the things done than it is anything else. And that's the way I think, and I have to be constantly reminded that that's not the way everybody thinks."
The energy for pushing back is spent. The frustration that crept out, despite his denial of frustration, is gone. So he says this, too.
"You don't want to have to start fights all the time."
SIGN ON THE LINE
The budget is moving through committee, finally, and that's what Mark Ojakian is doing here, in the office building, watching Roberta Willis from his post on the rail. She's making one more stab at salvaging her status quo, O.J. sees. With each visit to one of her colleagues, Willis delivers her message: It doesn't matter what the leaders have said publicly, or what's in the bill they're voting on today. Nothing goes away, no boards of directors, no administrators' jobs. There is no deal.
Back up in Bannon's office, O.J. pushes them for "a very much tougher stance" on Willis, since "she can't hold up her end of a bargain." Bannon, ever cheerful, looks grim, even as Andrew McDonald advises them that it won't matter what deal Willis can cut today. If her objections are the only thing holding up a complete budget next week, she'll get "swamped," he promises. And if their efforts to strike a deal with the unions fail, they'll have bigger concerns than Roberta Willis, or community colleges.
"Frankly, I think that after today, we only talk to her when she's under oath and there's a court reporter," Bannon tells Ojakian. "And tell her that. This is really disappointing. It's one thing to be an ardent advocate. It's quite another thing to reach a compromise and then renege on it."
He isn't kidding.
A few days later, O.J. is sitting on one of the cushioned benches in the Hall of the House, arranging papers in the leather folio. He holds one up: a written outline of the administration's agreement with the chairwoman to consolidate the higher education system.
"I made her sign it," he says, and so he did, right there on the bottom of the page, in the event of any more rumor-mongering about there being no deal. This time, Ojakian adds, there were no tears.
Tomorrow: Cathy Malloy is a dominant presence in the life of the governor and his team, and her partnership with Dan Malloy is deep and strong.