Highway tolls was that one issue that never went away last year – and bled over into this year. It’s been chipping away at Gov. Ned Lamont’s ratings. Besides tolls being an unpopular proposal, last week’s Democratic inner-party and state-level intra-governmental relations demonstrated Connecticut’s fractious political environment and may have implications come November.
After months of staggering then waiting to vote on tolls, Lamont pulled the tolls proposal that was splintered between the General Assembly houses. The back-and-forth between the governor and state Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, was the most awkward political moment in recent history. Lamont claimed that he felt “misled” by lawmakers.
Last Thursday, it all came to a political crescendo. The General Assembly’s ineffective legislative deal-making was out in the open for voters and reporters. Looney even offered to flip a coin with House leaders so they could decide which chamber would vote first on the tolls bill. As one journalist noted, our General Assembly “makes dodging choices a political sport.”
Setting aside the theatrics, it’s rare that a governor prolongs a proposal (especially an unpopular one like tolls) for months – until an election year – and suddenly takes it off the table. Meanwhile, Looney insisted after the fact that tolls could still come up for a vote at some point.
Looney and Lamont appeared to not be on the same page then. But neither did the Senate and House leaders. In fact the governor cast blame on legislative leaders while state House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz admitted, “We all failed.”
Governors should be in sync with their legislative leaders, especially if they are in the same political party. But in Connecticut, legislative leaders and our governor hardly know how to work with one another. Last month, I discussed this concern for novice millionaire executive leaders like Lamont and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. I received feedback from readers that the governor was not entirely at fault for legislative problems since state lawmakers are the ones who often prove ineffective.
But according to various political scientists, governors take the blame for legislative misses. Alan Rosenthal, for example, stresses in his work “Engines of Democracy” that it’s because governors are in the limelight and few voters know their lawmakers. As a result, governors take the heat.
Observers are recognizing Lamont’s troubled relationship with our General Assembly. But many, including me, often overlook key lawmakers like Aresimowicz and Looney and how significant a role they play in allowing and preventing bills from passing – or being brought up for a vote.
Interestingly, Aresimowicz is a union leader but he will not seek another term. So he will not face political heat about tolls in November’s election. Yet New Haven’s senior legislator is one of the longest-serving lawmakers in Connecticut. Looney has served in the General Assembly since 1981 and remained senate president since 2003.
Clearly then, Looney has the upper hand over Lamont in understanding the General Assembly’s process and its political culture. He is such a longtime and skilled lawmaker that he easily made the novice governor wait for months to line up votes on tolls. Or in boxing terms, Lamont was “rope-a-doped” by leaders in his own party.
The question is whether last week’s tolls episode will make Looney vulnerable for his re-election chances in November. Candidates from both sides of the aisle are lining up to challenge him so the writing is on the wall: Tolls – and especially how Looney failed to handle the proposal – are a formidable issue.
Looney has rarely faced opposition in primary or general elections. But this year will be different. Fellow attorney and Democratic candidate Alex Taubes as well as salesman and Republican candidate Jameson White may make this coming election season unusually challenging for Looney. Both candidates are half his age and were not even born when Looney was first elected to the General Assembly.
Will enough voters recognize Looney’s politics to vote him out? It will be an uphill battle against a longtime lawmaker. After all – going back to Rosenthal’s point – governors too often take the blame for legislative problems.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
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