Part 16: A governor finds he still must play politics
HARTFORD -- The building at the corner of Main Street and Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford is a squat, brick affair, with a drive-in basement for the cars of the lobbyists, law firms and campaign committees that rent these dim-lit offices. Up on the third floor, Dan Malloy, Arielle Reich and Roy Occhiogrosso come to the blue-walled office of Nancy DiNardo, the chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party.
DiNardo is a low-key chief, friendly and deferential to the Democratic governor and the aides who delivered him at long last. A plastic jug of Twizzlers sits on her desk, a staple food of long strategy sessions and conference calls. A blue "Connecticut" placard leans against the wall next to her desk, a souvenir from the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. A photo of Bill Clinton addressing his own nominating convention looks down from one wall, Obama-Biden posters from another.
It's mid-October, and DiNardo's visitors are tired but here for a meeting they can't afford to skip. The party's young executive director, Eric Hyers, and Nick Balletto, stand to shake Malloy's hand as they come in and settle around a small conference table.
DiNardo may be chairwoman, but Dan Malloy's victory in November has made him the focal point of power in the Democratic Party. The pleasant side of this fact is the social gravity it conveys. Every smile and handshake at each party gathering tilts inevitably, expectantly, toward him.
But it also means the party needs him constantly. To raise campaign cash for mayoral candidates, to weigh in on their strategy for rolling out votes they need to hold tightly contested town halls and contest in new ones. And to be on the road, stumping, glad-handing, making the short, uplifting set of remarks that will bring checks rolling in for the first selectman candidate in Fairfield, the would-be mayor in Middletown, and on and on.
It also means engaging with the network of the people who get these things done. The favor-doers and the contribution-askers, sources and fixers. That doesn't always sit well with the governor's closest advisers. They worry about the impulsive figures who do useful work but risk embarrassing the boss.
And then there are nights like this one. The governor is here to find out how the mayoral campaigns are shaping up, and how much more money the party needs him to raise to help them pull the town slates through Election Day.
Malloy is not inclined to waste time. Hyers passes sheets of paper around the table that show the key mayor's races and how they think they're doing in each of them.
The three big cities are safe. Notwithstanding the headaches each has presented this year, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven will stay Democratic in the fall. The concern here is the second tier: smaller cities and towns the party is eager to win back from Republicans, or to keep from sliding out of their control. Middletown and New London, Norwalk and East Haven, New Britain and Fairfield.
They go through the races one at a time, Hyers explaining the candidates' positioning: how much money, what have they spent so far, what they think they need. To a one, the state party officials shake their heads. Every campaign thinks it knows what's best. Malloy is antsy. He has places to be.
"He needs to do four mail pieces," he says curtly about one of the candidates. "Three of them negative and the last one positive!" The governor says this like he's saying a football team needs to establish the run. Any idiot knows this. Tell them to get on it.
They groan at the way some of the campaigns are spending money -- "He's got a f-----g billboard on 84! That's how he's spending his money!" -- and they roll their eyes at a story that will shortly break in the local papers in Waterbury: The Democratic candidate, Neal O'Leary, is feuding with Rep. David Aldarondo, who has repeatedly approached the campaign offering to help with Latino turnout in the city in exchange for putting some of Aldarondo's people on the payroll.
Occhiogrosso stirs, less quiet with each troubling detail. The polling is all over the place, untrustworthy, weird sample sizes. The campaigns are wasting money on multiple direct mailings. He squawks when the name of a campaign operative comes up repeatedly, and DiNardo asks if she should "reach out" to the man.
"What? To make him smarter?" Occhiogrosso snaps.
He needs details.
"How much do you need?" the senior adviser asks. They're all happy to listen to Dan Malloy tell them how to win elections; he's won some elections before. What they really want him for is star power. He's the draw for the last-ditch fundraising that will pay for all these campaigns to organize get-out-the-vote drives. They need him on the phone.
"Sixty," Eric Hyers says. That's sixty on top of the $3,000 or $4,000 they're hoping to bring in with a fundraiser on Friday, that is, tomorrow night.
The governor would prefer to do an event. Glass of white, glad-handing, little pep talk about being Democrats and getting this state on the track to job growth -- then you get out of there, let the campaigns or the party worry about raking in the checks, filing the paperwork, accounting for it all.
"I don't want him fundraising," Roy says later, talking about the governor. He'd prefer to keep him away from those calls, those individual appeals, if he can, and besides, he's not kidding about how much the governor hates doing it. "Any strategy that has him making fundraising calls as a central focus is not a winning strategy."
IN THEIR DEBT
By late summer, Occhiogrosso is nearing his limit. What can you do with Robert Ficeto? Of course his enthusiasm is exhilarating. He vibrates with excitement, just being near the governor. Ficeto is short and thick and spear-bald on top, with a constant grin and a wise-aleck way of talking -- loud, but out of the side of his mouth -- that puts you a little in mind of Yogi Berra or what you think Yogi Berra might sound like. And he is persistent.
The guy strutted through the primary night victory party and the strange semi-celebratory bagpipe fest of election night like he'd invented Dan Malloy, invited him to the ball himself. And in a way, he was one of the ones who had. Ficeto had helped Malloy flip votes on the floor of the state Democratic convention back in 2006. Malloy had stolen that convention victory and with it the party endorsement from John DeStefano. Stunned the guy from New Haven with the titanic self-image and the labor vote locked up, even as DeStefano was stalking onto the floor to accept coronation. There in the middle of the dank concrete Expo Center was Dan Malloy, poking delegates in the chest, while all around him, these acolytes he barely knew -- Robert Ficeto over in the Waterbury delegation, stiff, tight-wound Shawn Wooden in the Hartford seating section -- continued their own laying on of hands. Then Malloy was up on a chair bellowing, "Do this with me, you will not regret it, I will not let you down."
Some had regretted it, of course. Because they'd won that party endorsement at the convention and then gone right out and got stomped by John DeStefano and the UAW and AFSCME in the primary, a much-shorter voyage than Dan Malloy had promised up on that chair, braying like Bobby Kennedy in the back seat of a convertible.
It's years later now, but Malloy is not about to forget that Robert Ficeto and Shawn Wooden and so many others had been among those who pushed and begged and wheedled to get him those convention votes. They were Malloy guys. He was going to take their meetings, and he was going to hear them out, never mind that Roy and others thought they were nothing but trouble.
a bus and a problem
"Ro-bert Feh ceee toh."
The governor does a wicked impersonation of the man's voicemail message. It's all the other messages that are the problem.
This is how Roy Occhiogrosso comes to find out that Robert Ficeto has been negotiating with the Boston Red Sox, trying to squeeze out of them a few more tickets for the official party for "Connecticut Day" at Fenway. After all, Ficeto's going to rent a bus. Lotsa people going to be coming along, going to be a highly selective invite: Catch a ballgame with the governor, on Connecticut Day!
Someone catches wind of this -- the poor, perplexed Boston Red Sox staffer keeps placing calls to the official scheduler. It seems a Mr. Ficeto, who says he represents the governor, is demanding a bus -- and Roy goes bananas. Why can't Malloy see how bad this could look? Some guy from Waterbury, claiming to call on his behalf, trying to shake down the Red Sox for extra baseball tickets? He can see the Kevin Rennie blog post, the Jon Lender column about it in The Courant.
Dan Malloy hears Roy out on this stuff, yeah, yeah, yeah. But he doesn't catch fire as Roy does. He's used to this; it's just a goofy guy who lives to please you, and besides, he's been good to us.
`he's got to stay
out of this'
"Hey, Colleen?" Roy Occhiogrosso is yelling, from the desk in his office out into the nest of cubicles that house the press staff. Communications Director Colleen Flanagan appears, crosses her feet at the ankles and leans in the doorway, raising her eyebrows. Roy waves her closer, for a look at the message on his BlackBerry.
"I'm going to get this pebble out of my shoe," he says.
The text arrived early this morning from Marc DiBella, the Hartford political operative and son of Roy's former political godfather, the silver-maned, wily Bill DiBella. Marc DiBella is helping out (this is the term the connected guys all use) with Mayor Pedro Segarra's first citywide election campaign, which in Hartford means winning the primary and then arranging which Democrats will land where when the council is seated. And Pedro Segarra, the mayor of Hartford, just got a phone call from one Robert Ficeto.
This is not the first time this has happened. It always gets back to Roy, to the others. Ficeto's been telling people they'd better back this or that Hartford candidate or else. This is what the governor wants.
Ficeto, DiBella reports, has called up the mayor "demanding" he ensure their friend Shawn Wooden receive one of the Republican cross-endorsements the party has to distribute. They've already intervened on Wooden's behalf once. Malloy, spurred on by the former speaker and influential lobbyist Tom Ritter and with little notice to his own strategists, convened a City Hall-steps endorsement that whisked Wooden out of the primary against Segarra in exchange for the mayor's backing Wooden for the Hartford City Council. Now there's talk that Wooden wants council president, and here comes this Ficeto character, blustering and demanding Segarra get Wooden an endorsement, with a clear implication: The governor wants this.
"This is bulls--t, Roy," the message reads. "The mayor is pissed."
So is Roy Occhiogrosso. He's already had a conversation with Malloy about it, and he's won a concession at last. "If I'm going to be here another year, he's got to let me deal with this. It's urban politics. He's the governor! He's got to stay out of this s--t."
Roy calls DiBella back as Colleen listens. "I know, Marc, I know." These conversations tend to begin this way. "Tell Pedro that did not come from him," he says, meaning the governor. And the mayor is to respond to Ficeto this way -- tell him to call Roy Occhiogrosso at once.
The message is presumably delivered, and DiBella's temperature cools. Segarra wins his first full term, and Shawn Wooden is elected to the City Council. On election night, when they're turning to kiss their spouses, hug their mothers, smile for the news cameras, Dan Malloy will be there. A big night for Democrats! They lost East Haven, sure, and the suburbs have tilted even harder toward the Republicans who nearly beat him in 2010, but Roy has him pounding out the miles, getting credit for his endorsements, his brand on each win. They win in Middletown, notwithstanding the kid's troubles. O'Leary wins Waterbury, the kid in New London steamrolls two opponents, and even New Britain, where they worried about O'Brien and the party splitting the vote. That falls their way too.
Back at the ornate wooden desk in Roy Occhiogrosso's office, under the picture of the wolf and the poster for "The Shawshank Redemption" and the mementos of past campaigns and no fewer than 20 images of his boys, the crummy black plastic phone sits undisturbed by one man. Robert Ficeto never calls.
Tomorrow: The Malloy administration prides itself on managing the press. In private, aides are relentlessly critical, sometimes scornful, of the news media.