Part 12: A sullen, wary citizenry hears Malloy out
HARTFORD -- "We should probably just alert the press that we're going to do an availability as soon as it's over," Roy Occhiogrosso says to his boss on the afternoon of Feb. 21. Already, a giant mound of paper has accumulated on Dan Malloy's desk in his office, and the governor peers over it, from his slouch in the rolling leather chair, back at the senior adviser.
"I'm not sure that you should," Malloy replies, looking from Occhiogrosso to Colleen Flanagan, the communications director, and back again. "Again, we don't know how crazy this is going to be."
They have made a calculation. They have decided to send the governor out on the road, to sell his budget to the people directly.
Tonight, a few hours from this gray afternoon, Malloy has to drive to Bridgeport to get started. So nerves have set in.
Their apprehension -- and Occhiogrosso quickly adopts the caution the governor is expressing -- is less about physical danger than the potentially lethal political threat familiar from the campaign trail: chaos, and with it, the lost ability to control the message.
"Let's just play it by ear," Occhiogrosso says, and he heads back into his office to gather stats about their budget proposal as Flanagan drives to Bridgeport to oversee the preparations in the drab meeting room of the Bridgeport City Hall Annex.
Arielle Reich is sitting in one of the two chairs directly facing the governor's desk, looking over the paper drifts as the governor wrings his fingers and stifles an afternoon yawn.
"You'll have six of our troopers and then 10 Bridgeport police, four of them in plainclothes in the crowd," she tells him.
Malloy nods. They don't in fact, know what to expect. Angry taxpayers hurling fruit? A shout-him-down crowd furious on behalf of unions? Maybe even a fan or two?
"It is what it is," the governor says. Too late to duck it now.
"The town halls," as they are dubbed from inception inside the Malloy administration, are a gesture of instinct. What this team was built for, first, was campaigning. They are also a reflection of where Dan Malloy's closest allies feel his strengths lie. Occhiogrosso works the phones in the opening weeks of the administration, burnishing the new brand. The governor is "out there," he likes to say. This is a catch-all designation, meant to suggest stylistic differences with his predecessors, like Malloy's insistence on lunching in the cafeteria and strolling through state offices to greet "my fellow state employees," and also his determination to take the arguments over taxes and cuts out beyond the stifling boundaries of the Capitol grounds, to actual people.
For now, though, Malloy is nervous.
"Any time you walk into a situation that you expect to be hostile, you'd have to be crazy not to be a little bit nervous," he says moments later. "And some people do say I'm crazy."
The governor giggles.
"You've got to do it. You can't make these kinds of changes and hide."
THE BRIDGEPORT TOWN HALL
Cecil Young never sees how close he comes to getting flattened by Master Sgt. Sean Cox, the man with the shaved head and mustache, the earpiece, the wide-cut gray suit bearing down on him at the microphone.
The troopers are on edge. The year is young, the budget has driven up the rancor level of the public, and they're still growing to know the new governor, how much security, and how overt, he really wants. Now the political brain trust wants 17 public meetings about the budget, with the guy who wants to raise taxes and tick off labor unions standing alone in front of hundreds of his own targets?
This first town hall feels like a cauldron: 500 people, a standing-room-only crowd in the Bridgeport City Hall Annex, and now here's Young, the first questioner of the whole bunch, pulling out and raising his false teeth to make a point about his lack of health insurance and his workers' compensation claim. The governor is sidestepping, laughing nervously at the strangeness of it all. Then Young says, "I had a ball to throw," and Sean Cox is taking the first of three startlingly quick steps from his place near the wall, behind and to the left of the speakers' microphone, as Young continues, "but I'm not going to throw it," and Cox, the head of the governor's security detail, is slowing, but still striding right toward the older man's back.
"I thought about Egypt," Young says cheerfully, still looking at Malloy. "Thank you, brother. Bless you."
He leaves the microphone and never looks directly at Cox, who is now standing stock still in the center of the floor, right behind him, force not exerted, no drastic action to take this time.
OK. One down.
LONG LITANY OF CONCERNS
The woman comes to several town halls, with a pair of annoyed-looking friends and a hand-lettered cardboard sign that says "I (HEART) CHRIS CHRISTIE."
Others hold up placards bemoaning the imminent death of hairstyling salons in Meriden and Norwich, now that Malloy wants to make them charge sales tax.
In Norwalk, a yacht salesman says that if the state really lets towns apply the property tax to boats -- oh, how Ben Barnes used to look out over the bobbing playthings of the upper-middle-class in the marina back in Stamford and think how his budget woes could be eased -- they'll shutter a whole industry. The yacht business in western Connecticut will flee to New York; in the east, to Rhode Island.
At every single stop there are scores of people in identical red T-shirts demanding universal health care, approaching the microphone as Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman holds it out to them to ask Malloy to commit to funding Sustinet, the health care program he thinks is a punitively expensive pipe dream.
The representative of the correction workers' union wants to know why the governor has failed to adopt the unions' cost-savings suggestions, rather than come after them for more givebacks.
In Greenwich, the administrators and staff of Greenwich Hospital have packed the auditorium. They are here to protest the hospital tax, a money-changing gambit in the Medicaid program that will enable the state government to pay out even more than it collects to all but a few wealthy hospitals in the state. Greenwich is one of the few, and the governor -- as doctors, nurses and administrators warn about the damage his new tax will do to the quality care Greenwich patients enjoy -- is developing a silent head of steam.
By the next morning, he wants two facts dug up and delivered to him by the staff, should he ever be confronted by these people again. What is the CEO of that hospital pulling down each year in salary? (Total package: $1.5 million.) And do they still serve lobster to the parents of the hospital's newborns? (The papers say they do.)
Malloy and his team are cataloging the most loathed proposals as they crisscross the state, and they will jettison those -- like the total elimination of the property tax credit, or the property tax on boats -- that threaten to undermine the whole budget package. Greenwich Hospital, however, will not come in for any sympathy.
an easier night
In New Haven, where the emcee is Mayor John DeStefano, Malloy's old rival, the first question goes to a small child in a blue crab costume from a household down in Morris Cove.
"Can you help those guys not to pour all the poison on me?" demands the blue crab, who gives his name as Nicholas. Malloy, like any recent statewide candidate, recognizes a local issue: The people in the Cove are upset about dredging.
"You weren't the crab when I was here last time," Malloy says. "It was a young lady, right?"
"My sister," says the crab, and the half-full room erupts in laughter.
This is an easy one right from the beginning, when they cool their heels backstage at Wilbur Cross High School, sitting at gray school desks, Arielle harassing the governor for eating at a McDonald's, Roy and Colleen gossiping about former employees of the Democratic press operations at the Capitol. A dry-erase board above them lists first-aid techniques and diagnostic methods. Painted on the cinderblock are the logos of musicals performed here in the past: "South Pacific," "Beauty and the Beast," "Fame."
Afterward, Malloy and Arielle go with Al Barbarotta, his old buddy from Stamford, to Pepe's for pizza. A bunch of them are around the table, joshing about old rivals in the city, sipping beer and Foxon Park soda and chowing on pepperoni and sampling the white clam pie. (The governor is unenthused.) Gary Williams and Will Ortiz, the troopers, try to be inconspicuous standing beside the booth under the big photo of Bill Clinton, but Malloy waves at them to drop the Boy Scout stuff: Sit. Eat. They do, in shifts, one of them always on his feet, watching the room.
`i can do this'
Norwich feels raw tonight. The lines stretch way down the hallway for a chance to sit in the already crammed council chambers. The fire marshal's going to cut it off, comes the rumor through the crowd spilling down onto the sidewalk in front of the landmark City Hall.
When Malloy emerges, they mean to give it to him good: the unions, the Sustinet supporters and the frustrated middle-aged, middle-class taxpayers.
"I'd like to know how you and your staff decided what the disposable income is in my wallet," says a gray-haired man at the microphone, his voice polite but strained with anger held in check.
There isn't really a good answer to this question. Malloy has decided to raise taxes because he couldn't or wouldn't do something else. The governor wants this man, assuming he earns enough to get the increase, to pay more for the government he's got.
"Would we be better off as a state if we disemploy a lot of people, if we cut the safety net to the point where nursing homes are closed, and the thousands and thousands of people who work there lose their jobs?" Malloy asks, rhetorically, not knowing how close he'll come to this mere weeks from now. "How deep should we dig the hole before we start to fill it in?
"Do I think it's easy?" he continues, looking the man in the eye from a distance of maybe a dozen feet. "Absolutely not. Just like the gentleman who's mad at me from the union doesn't think what I'm asking them is easy. Or the people who think that I should fund their new health care insurance system. They don't think what I'm doing is right. We're here to share."
He has not won this man over, not at all, so he tries solicitude: "I'd like to hear some of your ideas about what I should do," Malloy says, then adds, because it wasn't clear at first if that was a request for input or a schoolyard challenge, "I mean that."
But the man is not deterred, nor are the smattering of people who clap and murmur their assent behind him. How did you sharp people decide that I, in this town, in this year, can afford to lose a little more of my money?
Oh, the hell with it. An attempt at humor is his one out left.
"Well," Malloy says, "we looked at you and figured you're a pretty well-dressed guy, and then we figured, `Let's get him.' "
When time is up, they move quickly through the door to the right of the council dais, down a hallway, into a cramped room. Charlie Jaskiewicz from the Board of Education has brought a stack of pizzas, thinking of feeding the traveling staff, letting the governor relax, but there is no time. Malloy has to visit the nurses from Backus Hospital up the street to cheer them in their drive to organize a union, and then he just wants to go home.
But they can't disappoint Charlie -- a good guy, sweet guy -- so Mike Caplet and Mike Mandell, two of the governor's aides, pick up the pizzas and they troop downstairs and out the side door of City Hall. It's different this time. Two dozen protesters jostle on the sidewalk, close in by the waiting Lincoln. They are screaming at him. Individual words are lost in the din and hustle. He waves and smiles that smile that is only bared teeth, no pleasantness, and the aides pile in, pizza boxes bouncing around.
Gary Williams stomps on the gas as a man with curly black hair under a watch cap just barely dances out of the way of the hood, his mouth frozen open in the headlights, lewd with rage.
Dan Malloy sighs and leans back, the car racing around the block, Williams looking for Cliff Street. Look how angry they were, someone says.
"It's fine, really," Malloy replies. "It really is. I can do this."
Tomorrow: Those who bring up the pot bust of the governor's son risk political ostracism and the wrath of Malloy's aides.