Kissing and making up is often the hardest part of any relationship. One or both parties must admit mistakes, apologize and move on, while still managing to save face.
It’s especially tricky in the political arena, where egos, image and public policy all come together. That complicated mix magnifies the public mistakes of public figures in such a way that reconciliation can be problematic.
Such is the case with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Connecticut’s 44,000 public school teachers. Malloy, you may recall, disparaged their profession two years ago when, in a budget address to the General Assembly, he foolishly asserted that, “Basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”
I support some of Malloy’s reform efforts, but I must confess I was shocked to hear him say such a thing — not only for the serious implications it could have on his bid for re-election this year, but because I knew the statement to be untrue.
Indeed, the first few years of a teacher’s career are typically the most rigorous. School boards and administrators know they have relatively wide latitude as to which teachers are granted tenure after the probationary period. From then on, however, ridding a school of a chronically underperforming teacher is an arduous and expensive process. So school officials have a powerful incentive to put their new teachers through the wringer and get it right the first time.
Malloy’s harsh judgment on securing tenure poisoned the well and prompted howls of outrage from teachers across the state. I’ve worked in schools for much of my career and I know several teachers who have told me they will never vote for Malloy again.
And Malloy’s embrace of the modern reform movement has spawned further resentment. Former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto, whose blog is adored by thousands in the public education community, has been a constant and bitter critic of Malloy’s education policy and Stefan Pryor, Malloy’s appointed Education Commissioner.
Malloy also alienated state employees when he negotiated give-backs to help plug the $3.5 billion deficit he inherited shortly after taking office in 2011. But it does appear that state employees are beginning to forgive the governor, especially since few of them lost their jobs as a result of the cutbacks and, unlike Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Malloy never moved to take away their collective bargaining rights.
Now Malloy appears to be taking some baby steps in reaching out to teachers, recently telling reporters, for example, that “some of the rhetoric could have been better and should have been better. On the other hand, there are thousands of teachers currently employed in the state of Connecticut because I went in a different direction than other states.”
And there are other examples of trying to make amends with organized labor. Malloy issued an executive order in 2011 allowing state daycare and home healthcare workers to unionize. A couple of years ago, he traveled to a hospital in Norwich, where he climbed atop a flat-bed truck and shouted his support for nurses who were locking horns with management over a new labor agreement. And he has provided public support for union efforts at hospitals in Plainfield and New London. Malloy also makes much of the fact that his mother was a nurse who helped healthcare workers organize in Stamford.
And in an example of bending over backward to reverse the damage, Malloy appointed as his labor commissioner Sharon Palmer, a former teachers union official and member of the AFL-CIO’s executive board.
But it’s doubtful those efforts will be enough to win teachers back. Union officials are a notoriously thin-skinned lot and they take a very dim view of any attempt to malign the profession of their members, or of any suggestion that they somehow don’t measure up.
The question is whether Malloy can win re-election without the help of teachers and their unions. But where will they go? I can’t see them voting for Republican financier Tom Foley, although they could conceivably go for Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a former social studies teacher at Danbury High School who also sat on the Education Committee when he served in the General Assembly. Or they might consider Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who has a well deserved reputation as a sensible moderate.
But it’s unlikely any of those Republicans will be better on education and labor issues than Malloy. Teachers will either have to swallow their pride and vote for the governor they despise — or stay home. Malloy had better hope for the former or he could be in big trouble come November.