Meet the "Anti-Christie" -- CT Gov. Dannel Malloy
NJ Star Ledger
By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger
April 17, 2011
If you follow the cutthroat politics of New Jersey, a trip to Connecticut can leave you strangely disoriented.
The problems in each state are the same: huge budget gaps, punishing property taxes, pricey union contracts and a chasm between poor cities and prosperous suburbs.
But when you cross the border into Connecticut, you enter a parallel universe that is very different from our own.
The small stuff hits you first. There are no tolls on the highways. Drivers show courtesy. You can cover miles without seeing a diner or hearing a single Bruce tune on the radio.
The real jolt, though, comes when you reach Hartford and visit with Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat who calls himself “the anti-Christie.”
Malloy is trying something that is rare these days, and brave. He is governing as a hard-nosed liberal, built for tough times.
He wants to cut salaries and benefits for public workers, and is threatening massive layoffs. But he’s doing it so he can support schools and hospitals, not to cut taxes on the wealthy.
“I’m progressive in my politics, but I’m a fiscal conservative,” he says. “I don’t see those two things in conflict. What we’re doing now is not sustainable.”
Malloy is closing nearly half his budget gap by raising taxes, skewed to land most heavily on the wealthy. He’s cutting taxes on the working poor.
Christie did the opposite: He vetoed a tax hike on the rich, and scaled back a credit for the working poor, effectively raising their income taxes.
Malloy is seeking givebacks from the unions on the same scale as Christie, but he doesn’t blame public workers for those cushy contracts. He blames the politicians in both parties who signed them.
“Do I think the unions have made mistakes? Yes,” he says. “But every mistake they’ve made has been in concert with the governor and the Legislature. So let’s be honest. I don’t see the unions as the bad guys here. I’m not trying to scapegoat anybody, or blame anybody.”
Union leaders, who backed Malloy against Republican Tom Foley in November’s election, say Malloy’s respectful tone will make it easier for them to sell concessions to their members.
“With Tom Foley, we would have been the menu,” says Lori Pelletier, secretary general of the state’s AFL-CIO. “With Dan Malloy, we’re at the table.”
Compare that with the hissing and snarling that passes for conversation between Christie and, as he calls them, the “union thugs” he constantly denounces.
The $1.5 billion tax increase is unpopular. But Malloy refused to take a pledge against tax hikes during the campaign, and he won anyway. Today, just three months into the job, he has approval of only 35 percent, while 40 percent disapprove. So the 25 percent who remain undecided could tip the balance one way or the other.
In the meantime, assuming the Democratic legislature approves his budget, he will have added revenue to tackle some jobs that Christie has left undone.
Under Malloy’s budget, Connecticut will make its full payment into the state pension plan this year; Christie didn’t deposit a penny, a move that led to a downgrade of the state’s credit.
Malloy decided against cuts to schools and towns; Christie made the deepest cuts in history, leading to a spike in property taxes and layoffs of teachers and cops.
Will Malloy’s liberal approach to the crisis succeed? That depends a lot on the unions.
Malloy needs $1 billion in givebacks to make this work, a staggering sum that the union says works out to about $20,000 per worker.
If the unions don’t budge, Malloy vows massive layoffs and program cuts.
“I’d prefer to downsize over time,” he says. “But if I have to do it overnight, I will.”
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Enough about substance, let’s dish on the bad blood between these two men.
The clash began in February when Christie was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” receiving the usual fawning praise he gets on the conservative circuit. Asked about Malloy’s plan to raise taxes, Christie pounced.
“Let me tell you something, I’ll be waiting at the border to take Connecticut’s jobs when he does it,” Christie said. “He’s still got to read the governors’ owners manual.”
To Malloy, it was pure nonsense. Even with his income tax hike, the top marginal rate in Connecticut would be 6.7 percent, compared with 8.97 in New Jersey.
“I’m not sure I get his point,” Malloy says.
As for Christie’s style, Malloy seems revolted. Why would one governor attack another? Why the constant bombast?
“I just have a different way,” Malloy says. “I’m not trying to cram anything down anyone’s throat. I’m just saying we have big problems, and I got hired to straighten them out.”
* * *
The youngest of eight children, Malloy had spasms as a child, and was so dyslexic that teachers thought he had mental retardation until the fourth grade. Even today, he can’t read the placards that protestors wave at him because the letters swirl together in a haze.
“Anybody who grows up with that kind of difficulty, it plays a role in who you are,” he says. “Most of that’s good. It allowed me to develop compensatory skills, like listening, and hearing people.”
Christie declined to be interviewed for this article. No doubt, he would say his higher approval rating shows he’s more in touch with the times than is Malloy. And that’s probably true.
But watch this one. Malloy will get his answer from the unions within the next several weeks. If he gets what he needs, Connecticut will weather this crisis with its schools and police departments intact, its pension plan on the mend, and its property taxes under control.
Christie can’t make any of those claims. His agenda is stalled in the Legislature, property taxes are rising faster than they did under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and relations with Democrats are deteriorating badly.
One final difference: Malloy is humble.
“It’s still an open book as to whether I’m right,” he says. “There are only a handful of us doing what I’m doing. Really, I’m just trying to produce a budget that is thoughtful and balanced, and doesn’t seek to demonize anyone.”