A half-hour into a conversation with former House Speaker John Boehner, Gov. Ned Lamont asked the Republican if he had any advice for a first-term governor navigating politics. Keep the legislature close, Boehner said, “Hug ‘em.”
Lamont and the now-retired speaker chatted Friday during an hour-long Zoom conference, a promotional event organized by R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison tied to Boehner’s political memoir, “On the House.” Lamont said later he was not paid for the event, which he participated in at the request of a mutual friend.
The governor steered the discussion, which largely centered on Boehner’s political tell-all. The former speaker repeated some of the choice words for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that have grabbed headlines this year (think “Lucifer in the flesh” or “miserable son of a bitch”) and opined on the state of modern politics. Both parties, Boehner said, are held hostage by their most extreme voices.
But the Ohio Republican, who was speaker of the House from 2011 to 2015, was willing to offer the moderate Connecticut Democrat one pointer: treat governance like a team sport in which the legislative branch is part of the team.
“If I was the governor, I’d have very close relationships with both houses of the legislature, both parties, where they have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and you have a clear idea of what their challenges are,” Boehner said. Focus on what’s doable, he added.
“That’s my two cents worth: hug ‘em. Hug ‘em, hug ‘em, hug ‘em. And yeah, you’ll be disappointed from time to time, but overall, I feel you’ll get a lot more out of the process,” he said.
The governor joked that the COVID-19 virus has made hugging a bit difficult. But so far, no one could mistake Lamont’s relationship with the legislature as overly close.
His first year in office was marked by his contentious and ultimately unsuccessful pitch to pass tolls on state highways. Meanwhile, the legislature was barely a factor through most of Lamont’s second year as he steered Connecticut through the coronavirus pandemic largely through emergency executive orders.
The governor did see some legislative wins in the session that concluded Wednesday night. Although his push to legalize recreational cannabis remains unresolved despite months of negotiations with lawmakers, it may pass during an upcoming special session. And Lamont was able to hold firm on his opposition to a number of new taxes proposed by fellow Democrats who control the legislature. The resulting budget passed Wednesday with bipartisan support.
Following the event with Boehner Friday, Lamont headed north to Stafford Motor Speedway to highlight a promotional event for racetrack goers — take a COVID-19 vaccine shot and get a free hotdog from the concession stand. He told reporters there that he was proud of the work he’d done to build relationships in the legislature.
“Look, I’m not from Hartford, I’m not from the Capitol. I’m not quite from that world and I worked really hard,” said Lamont, a former owner of a cable television company. He said COVID interrupted his networking efforts with lawmakers.
“But I think I have a strong personal relationship. Look, do we always agree on things? Absolutely not. But it starts from a basis of trust. I think we all know where we’re trying to go.”
At times during the session, quarrels between the governor and legislative Democrats rose to the surface. Back in April, Sen. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the Finance Committee, bristled at Lamont’s threat to veto a tax package his committee passed.
“The governor is a Democrat and I think it’s time to back up that designation, that moniker if you will, with substance,” Fonfara said in April.
Lamont and Fonfara sparred publicly again this week over the budget, which Fonfara eventually voted for but not before likening its policies to a “knee on the neck of the Black community and other underserved communities.” During a press conference the next day, the governor referred to one of the tax policies approved by Fonfara’s committee as a “really dumb idea.”
When the legislative session concluded at midnight Wednesday, Lamont and legislative leaders broke from longstanding tradition and opted against a speech by the governor to a joint session inside the House chamber. Lawmakers filed out of the building soon after gaveling out around midnight. Much of the night’s usual celebratory feel had been sapped away, perhaps due to COVID or late-session news reports of drinking by lawmakers at the Capitol.
But the governor seemed in good spirits Friday at the noisy race track in Stafford. He briefly wedged himself behind the wheel of a purple-decaled stock car before getting out and chatting with veteran driver Michael Waltrip. Lamont wanted to know about the strategy of short-track racing. Waltrip explained that it involved less aerodynamics and a little more physical contact between cars.
“When you pass, you give them a little love bump and get ‘em out the way,” Lamont said.
“Hopefully, gracefully,” Waltrip said. “The more subtle, gently you can shove him out of the way, the more likely he is to have a beer with you after the race. Clobber him — probably not going to have a beer.”
“First win,” Lamont said. “Then worry about the beer.”