Moving on, looking ahead
HARTFORD -- Here's what they want to know, everybody: Does he dye his hair and does he want to be president?
Almost everyone asks one of these questions, or both. The hair question makes Dan Malloy giggle. Cathy laughs about it, too. He is -- let's be honest -- a little vain about the hair and not above pointing out that he is one of seven brothers and the only one about whose locks anyone is even raising the question of dye.
The presidential inquiry they wave away. The governor does, his family does, the press aides. The governor is focused on doing his job, Roy Occhiogrosso would say. Don't even start with that.
Roy and Malloy are in his office in February with Arielle Reich, looking over emails pouring in from excited Democrats who love the feistiness he showed on the morning cable talkfest that day. Here's one from Crawfordsville, Iowa, asking if he has any thoughts about 2016. "No!" they bark, almost in unison, and laugh.
But some are convinced, from the earliest weeks. Partly, it's a way of saying, in a manner that will resonate with fellows in the Capitol complex, that the thrill of victory has gone to his head. Some say they knew it from the moment he insisted he'd be known as "Dannel," the infamous press conference at the Legislative Office Building that gubernatorial critics -- union members, reporters, Republican legislators -- cite as the moment his designs became plain.
In fact, no early trivial moment of the administration is more thoroughly misunderstood. An amped-up politician who views press conferences as something akin to pingpong to the death gets asked by the showman-like dean of TV reporters how he would like to be known. And Dan Malloy thinks: What challenge is it you're setting for me? What are you really asking me? And so he tells them, yes, his mother named him Dannel P. Malloy, and that will do nicely. And the reporters, the TV guys, they were just looking for first reference -- what to call him in the lede, what to put in the chyron at the bottom of the screen -- but now this is becoming something different. Oh, it's Dannel now, is it? Dan not quite good enough now that you've got your governor's chair at last? And the presidential rumors grow in the weeks to come, on this new evidence, though his closest affiliates shake their heads bemusedly at it. Everyone who knows anything knows Dannel is the son; everyone who really knows him keeps calling the governor "Dan Malloy."
Malloy will tell you not just that he doesn't think about becoming president, but that he will not. He is, the 56-year-old governor says, too old. He would have had to reach this current plateau earlier, to have built more national stature, and more quickly. And besides, there is the problem of geography -- this little state, its northeasterness. If there's one Democratic governor in the Northeast who might be on the ballot in 2016 it's Andrew Cuomo, not Dan Malloy.
In their private moments, contemplating the work they've done and the work still to do, sometimes the thought nonetheless occurs to the Malloy people. Let's say the bitter medicine they've swallowed in the last 11 months actually works. A billion and a half in tax increases. A bruising labor fight for $1.6 billion in concessions, all of which they'll still have to conscientiously eke out of the system. Reforms to streamline agencies -- condensing the number of titular offices by a third, with the promise of more winnowing to come. The argument, sometimes implicit, sometimes said aloud, was that you frontload this pain and then you get a recovery to work with. You have three years to prove your discipline for management and to launch yourselves at the Big Problems, the ones you'll be admired for confronting, let alone solving. Public education. Salvaging the listing casinos. Cracking the code and finally growing the ranks of the employed.
And sure, they'll tell you, to a person, that they don't waste time on the fantasy that maybe it all starts to click, and maybe Dan Malloy wins re-election, and maybe then, in 2016, perhaps some southern Democratic governor needs a feisty, accomplished prosecutorial type to fill out a Cabinet post, or better yet, the bottom half of a national ticket. The Malloyalists are not lying when they say they don't make such plans, that they care more about fixing the state they believe Malloy was born to govern. Don't believe them if they say the thought of even greater heights has never flickered in the margins.
WHAT HAVE THEY CHANGED?
Ben Barnes is sitting at a small conference table near his desk at the Office of Policy and Management on Capitol Avenue, the sun already halfway gone in midafternoon, late October. Talking about their hard-won budget, he is a study in satisfaction held constantly, warily in check.
The administration is still projecting to end the year in the black, he says, though he pushed to revise estimates downward, toward one last round of budget cuts. But they have a labor deal, and thousands of job vacancies, of which the administration will announce its plans the following week to fill only about a third.
"I think we're going to be OK," Barnes says.
He is a conundrum, the budget chief, as frustrated as anyone in the administration by the simplification, the generalization, the flawed assumptions he hears in those who question and write about the budget, the single, mammoth problem that was the challenge of Malloy's first year in office. And yet, for this reason, he is one of the most effective defenders of their work, bluntly explaining their frustrations and their reservations in ways that, for all the press staff's facility with The Message, never seems to work as well when prepackaged for the masses. "It's going to be a tough few years," he says, thinking of the slate of measures they've already promised to take up in the hastening second year, especially public education. "It's just going to be a lot of work to make the progress we want to make."
The brash confidence of the administration doesn't usually allow for declarations of risk, especially now that an uneasy peace has been established with most of the state employee unions and the ugly decisions about taxes may buy them at least a year without a major ask to make of the voters -- if the numbers hold. That last part is especially buoying to Malloy and his advisers as they watch the events across the border in New York: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an about-face, raising the top income tax rate on the wealthiest taxpayers in his state, seemingly having to take the foul medicine that Malloy took back in the spring, alone.
They have promised change and a new efficiency. The explicit pledge of Malloy's candidacy and first year was that he and his trusted team would bring a born manager's eye to the problems built into the budget and the ossified bureaucracy of government. That struggle was postponed by legislative battle, by the cruel math of making a budget balance. But now it's time for the proof of their theorem; it's time for change to spill down from the governor's office and from the desk of Ben Barnes, to bring new rationality and elegance to the thankless work of making Medicaid, or the DOT, or the employee health system run right. But change feels like it's taking too long.
"What that signals to me," Barnes says, describing a wrinkle in one program, "is the extent to which it's very difficult to get state agencies and state systems to change and to implement change as effectively as you'd like." Even hiring new people, for vacant positions they need, like nurses and supervisors doing thankless work in state facilities. "We should be able to crank those things out. It may take six months to hire those people."
Here is how Malloy addresses the news, privately conveyed to him in late August, that his trusted chief of staff is leaving.
Several days of uncharacteristic inwardness. A silence.
Months later, in November, when the news is out, the governor and Tim Bannon make much of the fact that this was always to be a short-term arrangement. Bannon jokes about his age, and notes the demands of serving as chief of staff, the one on whose desk all administrative troubles wash up.
In truth, the arrangement had not been quite as planned-out as Malloy now makes it sound, almost like a one-year contract to get his new administration on its feet. But Bannon had warned him. They discussed the strains of the job in June, after the legislative session finally ended. And then, in late August, Bannon tells the governor for good: He will work as long as necessary, but it's time to go.
"I think he's struggling to wrap his head around it," one of the governor's aides says of Malloy in the days that follow.
It doesn't help that Bannon's notice is followed by two more. In quick succession they tell him: Roy Occhiogrosso, his senior adviser, and Colleen Flanagan, his director of communications, also plan to go.
It's not that he doesn't understand this is part of the game, or that he couldn't have predicted it. The staff that got him through the crucible of the campaign is approaching burnout, exhausted from the nightly anticipation of bad press or of keeping a good streak rolling. And it's the nature of their business to be cool to the prospect that people you need will leave you, perhaps before you're done needing them.
But now it weighs on Malloy as they work their way through the secretive work of filling the jobs, especially Bannon's. Anything that looks like people are fleeing his administration will raise the suggestion of a listing ship.
ADVISE AND PROTECT
The desk of a chief of staff is like a sandbar. Trouble strands itself there. This commissioner who's gone and done something embarrassing. That group of congressmen who want to horn in on the day's public agenda. This dilemma that seems a big deal to some of the legislative liaisons, but not so much to the senior adviser. So, when in doubt, run it by Tim.
There are others, sure, with the rank to upbraid a commissioner if necessary, to say nothing of Malloy himself. But it falls in the main to the slightly built, self-effacing lawyer, Bannon, a veteran of government and one whose friendly tenor falls into icy rigidity when he's angry.
The chief of staff's office is a small room across the main entrance from the governor's quarters. Images of Chief Joseph, Red Cloud and a young Earl Warren look down from one wall. On the other, a framed LP of "Abbey Road," and a hand-drawn "Doonesbury" cartoon, memorializing certain daft statements of former President George W. Bush. Bannon's job shares its essence with all of those close to Dan Malloy. They are there to advise and protect. This is also Nancy Wyman's job, and Arielle Reich's, and Andrew McDonald's, too.
Malloy grinned at the question, over the summer, when asked about the strong-willed men he'd installed in positions of different and equal counsel just beneath him. Bannon, Occhiogrosso, McDonald. Each essential, each different.
"It is not lost on me," he said, "that they probably go in there and piss on the furniture at night after I'm gone."
Their competitive tension was part of the strength of his crew. Now some of the dogs were leaving him.
Bannon will still be in place at the end of the year, after the governor and his circle have reached out, considered replacements for weeks, and even announced Bannon's departure without making a choice. But when the choice is mulled and made and finally announced, Bannon is there, with the rest, smiling at the press conference. The job goes to Mark Ojakian, the loyal Wymanite, the negotiator tempered in the hardest negotiations of the administration's inaugural year, with would-be allies who present the most serious threats to Malloy's streamlining agenda.
Colleen Flanagan, the unrestrained id and ruthless firefighter of the press office, has already departed. She's engaged. Her next act is under way, elsewhere.
But Roy Occhiogrosso isn't going anywhere, not yet.
He confirms this over lunch with Malloy, just a month after telling his biggest client ever he also wanted out. No, Roy will stay on another year. He has reasons for this. Didn't line up the job he wanted outside the administration, worried his departure would create a distraction as he finalized shared custody of the boys, fretted that a new employer wouldn't look as kindly as his current ones on the needs single parenthood places on him. But it was the fire of this job, too. He claimed he wanted nothing more than a nice beach vacation, a cushy job away from "all this." It seemed plausible more than it seemed true.
Occhiogrosso goes boot shopping for the boys at the end of October, zipping down the Berlin Turnpike to the usual place. He grills the clerk who handles him, a shortish, middle-aged man with glasses and a slightly exhausted manner, leans over slightly toward him and narrows his eyes after he's given the specifications: THIS, something like THIS ONE, and they have to be the SAME EXACT KIND or the boys will fight over them. Does the guy get that?
Back in the car, he starts in right where the conversation left off: the strengths of this member of the administration, here's what she brings to the table, quite frankly, it is historic, all they've accomplished. It takes a moment to register. He is spinning. Fervently. Meaning it. Roy Occhiogrosso can't quit this job.
"I think the governor has changed the mindset of governance," Andrew McDonald says one day in November.
Malloy's critics don't agree. Not at all. They leap when the governor announces an investigation into fraud in the emergency food aid program launched after Tropical Storm Irene. See, nothing's changed. The culture of entitlement reigns.
And more fights are looming that will split the Democrats and their allies, or threaten to.
A major fight awaits over the price and sacrifice of reforming public education. Even the small gestures Malloy has made toward reform of teacher tenure and charter schools are a warning shot to teachers' unions, another signal that just electing a Democrat doesn't mean their political goals are in hand. And the relative political stability of the late fall depends on factors no governor can control: If the national economy continues to erode, if there are more shock waves out of the Eurozone, then the cycle of deficits and brutal choices could begin all over again.
The battles of Dan Malloy are far from over.
What Malloy is thinking about all this you might not learn from asking him. Questioning is a contest, to be won. An answer is what you can shape cleverly and return in time. Sometimes, most times, he doesn't want to muse about the big pictures and the purposes. It's the doing of the work that rewards.
He comes close one day, way back in January, drawn into the conversation. Books stacked up sideways on the floor around him, staff yawning and ready to head home. All the conflict and insecurity still to come, all the questions he will leave unresolved at year's end looming now, as if all hold some obvious answer he can't grasp yet.
The answer is full of ego, arrogance even. It forecasts the way he'll reinvest in the liberal dream -- the government as agent of betterment -- but warily, and only first by establishing his separateness and willingness to gut it out. And he gets there in a conversational pivot. He is talking about the teachers who helped to save him, the teachers who saw the promise and the talent in a struggling boy from Stamford who had to crawl to get over his disabilities. They were the government, after all, those architects of his crawling lessons.
"If government's going to do great work in the future," Dan Malloy says, "it's got to save itself today."
And he smiles, almost a smirk. There you have it.