Malloy takes on Cuomo, Christie as the states build their budgets
NEW BRITAIN -- The question comes, as it always does at the 17 town hall meetings Dan Malloy does across the state:
In New York, Andrew Cuomo's cutting taxes instead of raising them. He's capping property taxes. Why can't you be like Andrew Cuomo?
The frustration had been building for Malloy and his team for a while, privately, in the meetings in Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman's office -- the gang seated around the desk with an ice bucket and Diet Coke cans and a jug of pretzels.
The flattering coverage of Cuomo's $10 billion budget cut is nagging at the governor. "This 10 billion he talks about," Malloy interjected, in a staff meeting on the morning of April 8. "Five billion was getting rid of the income tax surcharge. And another 4.65 was transferring obligations to municipalities." That is, the state shifting costs for running public schools to other levels of government down below on the org chart -- counties, school districts, towns. "And I get compared to that!"
Malloy let the last word hang. Isn't it clear what crap this is?
So when the question comes again at one of the final town halls, he's ready.
If I did what Cuomo's doing, you'd all be paying an extra billion dollars in property taxes, Malloy says. He lays into the questioner, polite but pointed. Is that what you want? Should I avoid raising the income tax by cutting aid to towns and cities instead? Do you want property taxes to rise by a billion dollars?
And then, at the last of those town halls, Malloy gets an earful from a school psychologist, a state employee. This guy is hitting him from the other side, not citing Cuomo's tax cuts but bashing supply-side economics and wealthy bankers, traders and hedge fund managers who have profited for decades and who this questioner thinks Malloy is treating too gently.
Malloy stares at him, hard. He doesn't have a glib answer -- he's calling for an income tax hike, but it's true that he doesn't much like demonizing bankers -- so he offers instead another contrast with New York.
Of those bankers, Malloy says, with a sharp look like he wants to be sure he's being understood: "I'm not cutting their taxes."
The phone rings early the next morning in the office of Tim Bannon, Malloy's chief of staff. On the other end, blistering the line with expletives, is Steven M. Cohen, Cuomo's secretary. The title belies the position's power: He is one of the New York governor's closest and most powerful aides, and he is calling to express their fury at being made the object of Dan Malloy's denigration. "F this and F that," someone sums it up later. Cuomo's people do not appreciate this twerp in Hartford taking potshots at a fellow Democratic governor. Cohen's tirade, and the phone call, end with a declaration of his modus operandi in Albany: "We operate on two speeds here: Get along, and kill." Then the phone slams down.
THE TWO RIVALRIES
Dan Malloy's rivalry with Andrew Cuomo is the quiet counterpoint to the public game of dozens he played all year with Chris Christie, the wittily acerbic Republican governor of New Jersey. Christie presented a natural foil, joyously pugilistic in his criticisms of government and Democrats, but smart and prosecutorial about it, too. Like Malloy, he lay in wait for critics at public question-and-answer forums, letting them swing open the rhetorical door (a flawed assumption or some other loose logic) before he slammed it gleefully shut on their hands.
Malloy's rivalry with Cuomo was one of silent contrast. This was due in part to Cuomo's status in the adolescent hierarchy of political men. The up-and-coming quarterback does not deign to speak to the third-string narrow-shouldered tackle who just barely made the team. Connecticut's budget problems were a rounding error if you compared them in straight dollars to New York's. And besides, this was Cuomo, who strides with a rigid uprightness, the sort of walk you might get from carrying around a dynastic name.
And Cuomo was an alternative. Tough as Danny Livingston and the union guys thought Malloy was trying to get with them at the bargaining table, there was Cuomo lambasting unions, hurling dripping steak to the voters. Overpaid fat cats getting their due. No new taxes! And they rewarded him with approval ratings Dan Malloy could scarcely match even if he could double his own. You bet he wanted to measure himself, to build the argument that his approach would win in the long run.
Malloy's aides, like the press, egg him on. When they ask him if Christie's eating crow, now that Malloy has his labor deal and balanced budget, aren't they coaxing him toward a joke about the rotund Republican? "I'm not going to advise him on his diet," he says, grinning. Occhiogrosso planted the line he used in the fall, when they knew someone would ask Malloy if Christie should run for president. ("I think he should run." Then a long beat, the reporters starting to titter.)
And, in his defense, he pulls his punches sometimes. Mic'd up in the NBC studio in West Hartford, punchy in the early morning hours after the end of the legislative session, the governor sits facing a small camera that will beam him to the viewers, once again, of "Morning Joe." Arielle Reich, his government affairs director, watches from an adjoining conference room, as the stagey camaraderie of the panel gives way to commercials -- the absurdity of products pitched on cable in the early weekday mornings: a custom pan for cooking meatloaf, an electric knife, cut-rate life insurance -- and then to Dan Malloy, who knows he's going to get a big, fat fastball from Joe and Mika. Chris Christie has been taunting him on TV again about losing his union concession deal. (Simply returning fire, Christie's supporters would say.)
"Listen," Dan Malloy starts and it seems as if Arielle Reich momentarily stops breathing. "This is not about who has the bigger ... belt."
Mika Brzezinski guffaws, the exact you-are-so-bad laugh that he loves so much from any audience. Arielle smiles but also shakes her head slightly. The boys are throwing things at one another on television. But it could have been worse. Before, in the car on the way over, and as they were checking him in the light (no powder for the forehead, thank you), he'd been threatening to use Agnes Malloy's line. It's the comeback suggested to any of her children complaining that so-and-so had said such-and-such, that people were being mean, as people will. "What do you expect from a pig but a grunt?" Agnes Malloy would say. Your adversary is a simple beast, and you're OK.
Dan Malloy does not, in the end, say this about the sitting governor of New Jersey on MSNBC, and by his standard, this is showing a little restraint on a Thursday morning.
WINNING IN THE LONG RUN?
One reason Malloy doesn't easily confess to a rivalry with Andrew Cuomo is that for much of the spring Cuomo appears to be winning. The New York governor gets a budget, quickly, and a union deal seemingly just as fast, and when the latest polls blast out in embargoed emails from Quinnipiac University the numbers seem to tell a harsh story about the governor who wouldn't raise taxes and the governor who would.
Cuomo starts the year with an approval rating of nearly 4 to 1, and he is still cruising in June: 61 percent of voters approve of his performance, including 59 percent of Republicans, the polls say. They love his avoidance of income tax hikes. They love his property tax cap.
On June 15, on the phone from his office to the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC-FM, Malloy calls property tax caps "disastrous," though he doesn't throw a jab at Cuomo himself. That same day, the new Q Poll is out on him: 40 percent of people disapprove of Malloy's performance. Only 35 percent say he's doing a good job.
All year long, they wait for that to change, and by early December, Roy Occhiogrosso is on the phone with a reporter from The New York Times, explaining how Malloy chose the avenue of openness and public conversation when he had to raise taxes.
Cuomo, see, has just reversed himself, ramming through a bipartisan deal to raise the income tax on top-income earners, a move he now says -- as Dan Malloy once did -- that the budget deficit made unavoidable. Cuomo's had his struggles with labor, too. And even in Chris Christie's backyard, the hometown paper editorializes in the first week of December about raising income taxes on the rich. Now that Cuomo's done it, and Malloy has, too, the sand is washing out from under Christie's feet.
Occhiogrosso doesn't say a word about Cuomo to The Times. No gloating. But sitting at his desk in the Capitol, Occhiogrosso smiles like he's spent all morning flossing canary feathers from between his teeth.
NO BACKING DOWN
In the beginning, it's not about their bodies, or their rivalry. Malloy really thinks, in mid-January, that the Republicans in Congress and Chris Christie are wrong to be talking about bankruptcy, of states and cities, as a looming, widespread possibility. It offends his mayoral sensibility. You queer the bond markets that way. You spook investors, and then where does a city or a state go to issue debt? They're sowing a seed that will render government unable to move, to rebuild its bridges, to put up schools.
"It's crazy!" he says in the car, rolling through Hartford. Christie talking about the state going bankrupt, and towns in New Jersey having to withdraw their bond offerings. (There is some dispute about causation, but it seems clear to Malloy.) "When you start putting concepts like that forward, you're just going to undermine municipal finance."
So he starts to talk about it, and once he goes public, there can be no backing down. They all decided as much this afternoon, in the budget meeting in his office. A TV reporter wants a comment from Malloy about the possibility that states could begin to slide into bankruptcy. He can't very well duck it, they tell him, since he's already taken a swipe at Christie on the issue in the Times.
"He's gone hard after Christie for this," Tim Bannon says, in a tone of warning, after Roy brings it up. "So he can't say, `It's bad for Chris Christie, but good for someone else.' "
And Malloy really does think it's bad: We can't have investors all over the world thinking that municipal bonds, from states and from cities like the one he used to run, could suddenly tip into valuelessness. How could he have built anything in Stamford that way? How could he build anything as governor, and what is the point of this job but to straighten out the machine and set it to building all that needs to be built?
"I think we could have a very interesting National Governors Association meeting in February," he says, the car rolling up Trumbull Street. "If this foolishness is still going on, I'm going to raise the issue. In my opinion, every governor in the room has to condemn this."
The more satisfying venue in which to engage his rival is "Morning Joe." They schedule them back-to-back in late February, the governor having presented his budget to the Legislature, and now listening in through his plastic earpiece, parked grinning and blinking in front of the camera in the West Hartford studio, as Christie lays into the new kid. "What's he been there, about a month?" Christie says. Malloy ought to "read the governor's owner's manual" if he thinks he's so smart, and thinks he's going to find a way to deflate his budget deficit without playing smash-mouth with public-sector unions. He's a fool for raising taxes and thinking he can grow an economy. "I will be waiting at the border to take Connecticut's jobs when he does it."
Malloy comes out fighting, grinning and pushing back at his hosts. This is adversarial, this kind of challenge. He knows that. First he presses back at Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who talks with the laconic cockiness of a college senior who thinks he knows it all. They flash some Tax Foundation study that shows Connecticut's the 47th worst state in the country; Dan Malloy has seen it, and he thinks it's bull, so he pushes back on that.
"Let's drill down for a second," he'll start in. That means: "Shut up a second and you listen to me." Sometimes, like this time, it means: "You really don't know what you're talking about, but you will if you listen to me."
He prepares for these things the way boxers in the movies prepare for fights. They are laying some sort of trap, and if he can see it first, and be ready, he can dance around it, not get sucked in, get enough solid shots of his own that the people scoring from the side of the ring will have no choice but to concede that he must have won. Or sometimes he does what he did to that guy on Fox, Steve Doocy, the blond guy with perpetually surprised eyes, like an animated ear of corn in a kiddie cartoon. They tried to trip him up about stimulus spending when he was still mayor, but Dan Malloy caught the gist, saw where it was going and treated him to a storm of haymakers. He gleefully plays it for a visitor in the office, Arielle holding her laptop after they've tracked down the clip. Doocy seeming not just unable to get a word in edgewise but not quite able to draw a breath as Malloy unloads on him, his slanted questioning. Is he really saying the children of Stamford shouldn't get fields to play on? And this just shows the ideological extremity of the other side and on and on.
He laughs and laughs after they play that clip. But before each new interview, as they fit him with the earpiece and ask if he wants that brush of powder across the brow, his eyes narrow slightly in concentration. Athletic focus. A trial is about to begin.
`A GNAT TO THEM'
"I don't think they give a sweet s--t about him," Roy Occhiogrosso says. He's swiveling back and forth between the laptop on his desk and the desktop monitor on the little computer carrel to his left. He's talking about Cuomo and Christie. "We're like a gnat to them. `Connecticut?!' "
New York and New Jersey, by population, by reputation, are the big time, and maybe that explains why he was able, at least a few early times, to get a rise out of them.
"I think they thought, `Who the f--k is this guy criticizing me?' "
There's more ego involved than anyone would like to admit. It's fun to go on television. It's fun when you yap at the famously temperamental Republican and he yaps back at you. ("Dan Malloy has been lecturing me for months..." This is how Chris Christie's dig at him begins, after they lose the SEBAC deal. Don't think they don't notice what it means. Yeah, you hear me, big guy.)
But face it, Malloy, Connecticut is small time. Three and a half million people are a lot compared to Wyoming, sure, but the country sees only the caricature. Somewhere north of New York City, out there up the Merritt Parkway, there is something called Connecticut. Banks and butlers. Greenwich mansions ringed with stone walls. Volvos and Bentleys. Metro-North stops with unfamiliar names: Greens Farms, Cos Cob, Darien. Pedro Martinez had a house there, didn't he, when he was with the Mets? It's good for a punch line on "30 Rock." Whole state's a peg for Geico commercials, jokes about yacht insurance. They all -- outsiders, people who don't know him or his state -- they don't know how the North End of Hartford feels as the sun sets, proud but forgotten by its rulers. The quiet eke-a-day pride of the eastern reaches, the towns on the Rhode Island border that could be in central Maine for all they have to do with the city where Dan Malloy grew up, a clattering 30 minutes on the train from the humming vault of Grand Central.
A NEW YORK MINUTE
Malloy's end of Connecticut is oriented toward the magnetic pull of New York, Wall Street and the markets. All those suit-clad fathers every morning, getting on trains and almost always coming home again.
Dan Malloy's second visit to the site of the World Trade Center comes early in the morning of Sept. 11. He's up in darkness, chatty with the troopers, Gary and Derek, on the way down. Derek's the extra man in the car, to guard against God knows what. Near the New York border on I-95, Derek radios to the follow car -- "Hit him with some deck lights" -- and that's how the New York trooper in the unmarked car spots them, leads them through the dawn light, through the sawhorse barricades of Manhattan.
In the early morning crowd by the VIP tent on the morning of the 10th anniversary, Dan Malloy spies Larry Silverstein. The developer who leased the Trade Center just days before the planes struck sees Malloy, too, and he comes over to congratulate him: Nice work on keeping UBS.
Malloy can scarcely contain himself afterward. "I think I knew" -- that the bank would not be moving its Stamford operations into one of Silverstein's buildings after all -- "before he did," he says. All around him, in the morning, are the VIPs. A grayer George Pataki. Rudy Giuliani and his wife, escorted into the holding pen in a swarm of police and given an early peek at the memorial and the fountains behind the gates. Dan Malloy chats briefly with Hillary Clinton and tells Nancy Pelosi hello. He has no formal role in the program, not like the presidents, current and former, or Cuomo, who takes one of the readings, or Michael Bloomberg, who emcees.
It is only as the ceremony is about to begin that Dan Malloy, all alone except for the troopers hanging back a few steps in the crowd, finds himself standing right next to Chris and Mary Pat Christie and their four children. He greets Christie cordially, and, smiling, shakes his wife's hand, pats his son on the arm.
Later, as they're walking through the memorial, Malloy stands again with Clinton, listening to a description of the work still to be done to complete the museum. And he walks, circling the fountains, listening to the names being read out, stopping at one point with a finger upraised -- "Stephen Patrick Cherry" -- a name he knew.
Dan Malloy leaves the way he came in, over across West Street, under the pedestrian bridge to the side street where the Suburban is waiting, and there is the black SUV with the lights and the New York plates, and Andrew Cuomo in shirtsleeves, folding his suit jacket over his forearm, preparing to go. This time, Malloy walks over, leans into the car to make the acquaintance of Sandra Lee, the governor's partner. He shakes Cuomo's hand again, smiling his obligatory, vulpine smile again, making purposeful eye contact. Andrew Cuomo receives this coolly, facilitates the introduction, accepts and returns the handshake, all with the studied indifference of someone who does not wish to leave Dan Malloy with the mistaken perception that they have connected. Cuomo's chin stays at the level of most brows, as the guy from Connecticut takes his leave, the trucks disappearing, going opposite ways.
Tomorrow: They circle each other, the leaders of the unions and Dan Malloy. They have some history, and it hasn't always been friendly.