For armchair political analysts such as yours truly, this year’s gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley has been a treasure trove of material.
It has been a steaming stew of personality and policy — though far more of the former than the latter. Perhaps that mix, along with enemies made by the candidates over the years, explains the current nastiness of the campaign.
Let’s start with the enemies. Ken Dixon of Hearst Connecticut Newspapers did a terrific job last week of cataloguing Malloy’s brashness, missteps and — some would say — arrogance of his first couple of years.
The former prosecutor and 14-year mayor of Stamford got off on the wrong foot almost immediately. Just after he was elected in 2010 but before he took office, Malloy took the short walk from the Capitol to the Legislative Office Building. He wanted to pay a surprise visit to the House Republicans — a great idea for an incoming Democratic governor who was looking to reach across the aisle and build relationships even before he had proposed a single piece of legislation.
As Malloy strolled along the walkway between the two buildings, Capitol Police officers saluted him and Malloy reciprocated. But he quickly tired of the routine and soon failed to return the officers’ gestures of respect and protocol. As the old saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Couple that with Malloy’s display of brinkmanship in a labor stand-off with the State Police the following year, and you have a recipe for mistrust and dysfunction among law enforcement officials.
Then there was the now-legendary remark Malloy made about teachers in 2012 (“show up for four years and tenure is yours”). The comment provoked howls of outrage among teachers, many of whom said they would never vote for Malloy again, though their two major unions did half-heartedly endorse him recently.
How interesting it was in his interview with Dixon that former Malloy henchman Roy Occhiogrosso blamed himself on the tenure flap, claiming to have authored the offending line. Occhiogrosso, who subsequently left for a lucrative gig in private consulting, has since returned as a top strategist to Malloy’s re-election effort.
“It was totally my fault,” Occhiogrosso told Dixon. “I think about it all the time.”
Think about this. If you’re a governor who had hired a tart-tongued consultant who had drafted a speech that might cost you a re-election bid, would you bring him back in a senior campaign role? Did Occhiogrosso really believe what he wrote or did he just think it was a tactical error? He did not say. No, it looks more and more like Malloyalist Occhiogrosso simply fell on his sword and took one for the team in the hope that the offended teachers would let his boss off the hook.
Then Malloy fell on his own sword, sort of. “I have had to overcome some challenges and maybe that gives rise to a prickly personality, I don’t know,” Malloy told reporters last week after his aggressive performance in a debate with Foley.
Sounds like Malloy came perilously close to blaming his childhood struggles with learning disabilities for his cantankerous personality. Did those struggles some 40 years ago also cause him to hire advisers who insert language into a speech that alienated 40,000 public school teachers? He did not say.
While it does seem trivial to spend time discussing the personalities of candidates for office at the expense of taking a hard look at policy, it is also true that personality can either help public officials realize their policy goals, or wreck them. I’m convinced that Malloy’s personality and choice of words are the major factors that have made this election as close as it is. Blue-state Connecticut is making slow but steady progress recovering from the economic mess Malloy inherited, but swing voters are giving the governor little credit for it.
During last week’s debate with Foley, Malloy sought to further deflect attention away from his personality: “They may have disagreements with me,” Malloy said of his detractors and even his some of his erstwhile supporters. “They may not agree with the policies that I’ve implemented, but they understand that I work really, really hard, sometimes, perhaps, too hard and sometimes perhaps I take the work too seriously.”
That’s a politician’s non-answer when asked what his greatest fault is:
“Well, sometimes I work too hard for the people of Connecticut. And I take all that work I am doing for the people of this great state too seriously.”
With faults like that, who needs attributes?
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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