One of the most dedicated, effective, and skilled elected officials in Connecticut is calling it quits after 20 years of public service in the state. That news itself would be bad enough, but at the end of last week, Comptroller Kevin Lembo abruptly announced his resignation well before his term would end next year.
The decision, as my colleague Hugh McQuaid reported on Friday, was made in consultation with a team of doctors and concerned a “serious and debilitating cardiac condition that has recently been worsening in intensity and severity,” Lembo’s office said in a Dec. 3 statement.
Lembo’s absence will be a big loss for the state. His presence in the important comptroller’s office has been a comfort to those who view the job as a nonpartisan watchdog and fiscal guardian.
Democrat Lembo was first elected to the statewide constitutional office in 2010 and before that, he served as Connecticut’s first health care advocate, where he moved aggressively to champion health care reform and bring down prescription drug costs.
Lembo further defined the job of comptroller as helping to “eliminate wasteful spending, strengthen budget transparency, deliver government services more efficiently and address the state’s growing health care crisis.”
By all accounts, Lembo was successful. More remarkable, perhaps, is that he remains popular not only with Democrats, but with Republicans and unaffiliated voters. I’m guessing his relatively high approvals stem from a quality I’ve always admired about him.
Connecticut has six independently elected constitutional officers. The governor’s office is, of course, inherently political. It’s not really clear what the lieutenant governor’s job is, aside from acting as governor if the chief executive is out of state, resigns, or dies. The LG also casts a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, but as I’ve written before, it’s pretty much a nothing job that no one aspires to, except as a springboard to higher office.
That leaves four important but theoretically apolitical constitutional offices that do important work: attorney general; secretary of the state; treasurer; and comptroller. Some, such as disgraced Treasurer Paul Silvester, used their office to enrich themselves. Others, such as former AG Richard Blumenthal and current Treasurer Shawn Wooden, have used their office, in part, to advance a clear political agenda.
Others, such as retiring Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and former AG George Jepsen, simply did their jobs and, to the extent possible as elected officials, avoided politics. Thankfully, Lembo fits neatly into this latter category.
In 2017, Lembo’s efforts culminated in the enactment of a budget savings program that restricts the General Assembly’s ability to spend state income tax receipts that are tied to investment income, thus increasing reserves and shoring up the state employee pension program.
“Over ten years ago, voters took a chance on a gay, vegetarian nerd that had never run for office in his life,” Lembo said in his resignation statement. “I’ve worked every day since to represent this office with honesty, integrity, and a focus on the common good. Even now, I love the work that I do and the people I work with. Unfortunately, my health simply won’t allow me to continue to serve.”
One of the benefits of being independently elected rather than reporting to a governor is that you’re free to annoy said governor — and others in your party, for that matter. Lembo, who flirted with the idea of running for governor himself, did this exceedingly well, but he did not come across as someone who simply enjoyed pissing people off. He just thought his policies were the right ones to pursue.
Lembo often disagreed with then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his budget chief, Ben Barnes, on the size of projected budget deficits. To wit, in 2013, Lembo’s budget deficit projection dwarfed Malloy’s, which was clearly a source of irritation for Barnes and Malloy’s senior advisor, Roy Occhiogrosso, while delighting Republicans in the General Assembly.
Malloy’s controversial First Five Program, providing incentives to corporations that promised to create jobs in the state, in effect, bribed companies with hundreds of millions of dollars to relocate to the state or stay here.
As a member of the State Bond Commission, Lembo questioned the wisdom of providing $25 million to Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world. Bridgewater managed approximately $130 billion as recently as 2016.
Lembo believes in transparency, as when he championed legislation that would have required the state to maintain an online database of taxpayer-funded economic development efforts of the sort lavished on Bridgewater. The legislation passed the House unanimously but much to Lembo’s dismay (and mine), the bill died in the Senate. With a straight face, leaders there cited a lack of time and urgency, and lukewarm support from Malloy.
Since winning election in 2010, he has launched several transparency initiatives. Fittingly, most of them contain the prefix “Open.” Open Budget allows taxpayers to track how their dollars are spent — and it’s searchable right down to the line item. Open Connecticut allows users to export the data and perform their own analysis on it.
I extend my best wishes to Lembo for a full and speedy recovery. Cardiac illnesses are never easy to deal with, but Lembo has a strong family that includes husband Charles Frey and three sons. Live long and prosper, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of you in public service.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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