When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, accompanied by just his security detail, walked down to the Legislative Office Building cafeteria Thursday for a cup of coffee, many seasoned lobbyists and legislative staffers were surprised to see him.
Malloy, a former mayor, was just as surprised when he was cornered by a news reporter and a cameraman at the cashier.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior advisor, said Friday that the media will continue to receive unprecedented access to the governor, but he said the governor wants to be able to establish some sort of normalcy as he settles into his new workplace.
“It’s not that it made him uncomfortable, but he wants the ability to just talk to people,” Occhiogrosso said. “People are going to have to get used to him walking around the building.“
As mayor of Stamford for 14 years, Malloy was accustomed to going to the cafeteria or the local grocery store where he would talk to people about their concerns. Occhiogrosso said he understands Malloy holds a much different position now as governor, but doesn’t believe it’s too much to ask to give him time to speak in private to regular folks.
“That people find that so unusual will change pretty quickly,” Occhiogrosso said. “We’re trying to figure out how he, as governor, can stay in touch with the people on a regular basis.”
Longtime lobbyist Carroll Hughes said he loved Malloy’s visit Thursday.
Hughes recalled that Malloy got his coffee and walked around the cafeteria introducing himself to people he didn’t know, “as if he needed to introduce himself,” and reconnected with those he did know.
When the governor approached Hughes, he assured him he wasn’t getting involved in the debate of Sunday liquor sales, but would sign the bill to lift the ban if it got to his desk. Hughes, a proponent of keeping the ban on Sunday liquor sales, joked with the governor and asked him to just stop saying the bill was a “no brainer.”
Aside from their agreeable disagreement on that piece of legislation, Hughes said he thinks people were thrilled to see a governor stop and talk to people.
“The last time I saw a governor walking around by themselves was Ella Grasso,” Hughes said.
Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, who worked under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell said going into the cafeteria would not have been something Rell did. If she did do it, it would have been an extremely rare occurrence, he added.
Everhart, who worked for the Associated Press during the tail end of Grasso’s administration, the late Gov. William A. O’Neill’s administration, and Gov. Lowell P. Weicker‘s administration, said O’Neill was “fairly accessible,” but the press would have to camp out at times in front of his office to get a quote every once in awhile.
However, Everhart said O’Neill was known to cruise the building too.
O’Neill, who governed before the construction of the Legislative Office Building, would on rare occasions be seen in what was then a small cafeteria on the fifth floor of the Capitol, Everhart recalled.
But that was before the days of cellphones and handheld video cameras, when managing the role of the media may have been a little simpler
Steve Kotchko, the dean of the Capitol Press Corps, said it’s instinctive for reporters to approach an elected official, any elected official, when they see them in a public area.
“I don’t think the press corps is going to sign off on any agreement that if we see Dan Malloy in the real world we’re not going to ask him a question,“ Kotchko said.
He said he’s more than welcome to say he’ll talk to us later, but he’s just going to have to deal with it and those encounters may have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
He said he can’t remember former Govs. M. Jodi Rell or John G. Rowland getting their own lunch in the cafeteria, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t stop to answer a question if they were seen in public by a reporter. The only governor Kotchko can remember blowing by reporters with his troopers was former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker.
But it wasn’t always like that with Weicker, Kotcko recalled.
He said Weicker used to hold press conferences all the time before the firestorm over the state’s first income tax.
Not unlike Weicker’s first few weeks in office, Malloy is currently experiencing a honeymoon period before the release of his first budget expected to be released Feb. 16.
“Right now Dan Malloy is a novelty,” Kotchko said. “Let’s see where things are after he deals with his budget message.”
With a more than $3.6 billion budget deficit it’s almost certain that Malloy will disappoint several constituencies, a fact he already admitted on Thursday.
“I’m sure I’m going to disappoint a lot of people with respect to what they would like to be there in the budget,” Malloy said toward the end of Thursday’s press conference on snow removal.
But Occhiogrosso said Malloy’s leadership style is about more than the budget deficit. He said it’s about how Malloy views government and everyone’s role in it, including the role of the media.
Occhiogrosso said the transparency will continue and Malloy’s desire to talk to people will extend beyond his budget address.
Everhart applauded Malloy’s decision to stop by during a meeting of state agency press secretaries Thursday. He called the move “refreshing.”
Malloy spent about 15 to 20 minutes at the meeting and told the 30 to 35 press secretaries it’s not his administration’s intention to “over manage” them, Everhart said.
Occhiogrosso, who ran the meeting, said Malloy told them he doesn’t want to be surprised by anything that happens at a state agency, but that his communications staff won’t be signing off on every press release they send.
“It’s about the way he approaches government and views government and his understanding of everyone‘s role in the process,” Occhiogrosso said.