A Quantum Leap

Hartford beckons like Kubla Khan’s Xanadu, its reflection glittering across the top of an SUV rolling north on I-91 at night. The stately, illuminated onion dome of the Colt building glistens in the cold darkness like a cobalt-blue–neon mosque. From the back of the SUV, a man from Stamford gazes tiredly through opaque glass, munching on cookies for dinner and contemplating an alien landscape he hopes to make his new place of work this fall.

For the moment this man’s destination is Enfield, a Hartford suburb where members of the Democratic Town Committee are gathering to meet him and answer for themselves the question echoed now by other Democrats all across the state: Who is Dan Malloy, and why should we want him as our governor?

Malloy’s eager-beaver campaign staffers call Malloy the man who can reverse a sixteen-year gubernatorial drought for Democrats by courting moderates and business folk in the Republicans’ own backyard. Back in Stamford, where he has been mayor for ten years, allies claim he can grow jobs in the state just as he has there, focusing needful attention, too, on transportation woes that threaten to choke off lower Fairfield County’s success.

Malloy himself says he’s just someone trying to make a difference: “My mother told me a million times, ‘Dannel, you have an obligation to leave the world a better place for your having lived in it.’ I think in some sense, I took that very much to heart.”

Hartford beckons like Kubla Khan’s Xanadu, its reflection glittering across the top of an SUV rolling north on I-91 at night. The stately, illuminated onion dome of the Colt building glistens in the cold darkness like a cobalt-blue–neon mosque. From the back of the SUV, a man from Stamford gazes tiredly through opaque glass, munching on cookies for dinner and contemplating an alien landscape he hopes to make his new place of work this fall.

For the moment this man’s destination is Enfield, a Hartford suburb where members of the Democratic Town Committee are gathering to meet him and answer for themselves the question echoed now by other Democrats all across the state: Who is Dan Malloy, and why should we want him as our governor?

Malloy’s eager-beaver campaign staffers call Malloy the man who can reverse a sixteen-year gubernatorial drought for Democrats by courting moderates and business folk in the Republicans’ own backyard. Back in Stamford, where he has been mayor for ten years, allies claim he can grow jobs in the state just as he has there, focusing needful attention, too, on transportation woes that threaten to choke off lower Fairfield County’s success.

Malloy himself says he’s just someone trying to make a difference: “My mother told me a million times, ‘Dannel, you have an obligation to leave the world a better place for your having lived in it.’ I think in some sense, I took that very much to heart.”

Sitting down at a breakroom table before addressing the Enfield DTC, he powers up his cell phone while detailing a background of public service, beginning as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn from 1980 to 1984. With his crisp bearing, lean face, probing gaze behind rimless spectacles and cagey, steel-trap wit, Malloy could maybe spell Sam Waterston on Law & Order. When he is asked about his main Democratic gubernatorial opponent, New Haven mayor John DeStefano, Malloy mispronounces DeStefano’s name, with a long a instead of a short one. He grins when this is pointed out.

“I noticed and I’m enjoying it,” he chuckles.

Longtime backers throw up adjectives like “Kennedyesque” with hearty abandon when speaking of Malloy. You’d think he was the kind of guy who was always the smartest in the room, the kid with his hand raised, whom the teacher always selected to read aloud. You’d be wrong.

The youngest of eight children, Malloy grew up with a processing disorder that complicated his education and made him a magnet for teasing from fellow students and teachers alike. “I had perceptual difficulties, gross and fine motor control difficulties,” he says. “I couldn’t button a shirt or tie a shoe until I was in the fifth grade. Listen, I was thought to be mentally retarded as late as the fourth grade.”

Malloy credits his parents with helping him overcome his problem by encouraging him to focus on what he was good at. Still, his processing disorder remains with him. He was the first person without sight impairment to take his bar exams orally. The world of written communication, of Blackberries and e-mails, is unknown to him. “I could probably dictate a book to you, but I couldn’t write one,” he says.

So when he takes his place in front of the Enfield Democrats minutes later and tells them after a brief introduction that he much prefers answering questions to giving a long speech, it’s partly a way to engage them and partly born of necessity. “I’m just not a good guy to work from a prepared text,” he admits. If he does end up winning it all in November, he could be the first governor to deliver his inaugural address entirely off the cuff.

Enthusiasm for Malloy runs deep in lower Fairfield County, in and around his Stamford base. Democrats across the state’s panhandle are lining up to support him, months before their party chooses a candidate to face incumbent governor M. Jodi Rell.

“It’s wonderful to have a mayor in Fairfield County taking a run; the issues here have been ignored so long,” says Bob Duff, a Democratic state senator from Norwalk who also represents two-thirds of Darien. “He seems to have the whole package. He speaks well, he’s personable and he’s smart. Many times, with elected officials, it’s one or the other. Dan has all the qualities, and what makes him a successful mayor will make him a successful governor.”

New Canaan selectman Johnny Potts acknowledges some risk to his early Malloy endorsement. “But you’ve got to take risks in politics,” he declares. “The people on the fence now, what do they think they’re going to get? The ones who really support a candidate are those who come out early. Otherwise you’re chicken, and you’re not going to get anything out of that.”

As state Democrats prepare for their convention in May, both Malloy and DeStefano are crisscrossing the state, visiting each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities and asking the local DTC at each stop for its support. It is here that the battle for delegates is taking place, largely out of the public eye — “inside baseball,” a Malloy backer calls it. Some DTCs are more welcoming than others. Take Greenwich. You could detect signs of strain in Jim Himes as the Greenwich DTC chairman tried to maintain a neutral posture about Malloy. “There’s no question Dan has a geographic advantage here,” Himes says. “He knows a lot of people in Greenwich. He spends a lot of time in Greenwich.”

Edward Krumeich Jr., a ten-year Democratic member of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, is less circumspect: “I think there’s overwhelming support for Dan Malloy in our DTC and among Greenwich Democrats generally. We’re familiar with the work he’s done to revitalize Stamford. We also understand the importance of transportation reform, of which he’s a champion.”

In his speech to the Greenwich DTC, Malloy made clear he felt their pain in matters like congestion on I-95 and replacing Metro North’s thirty-year-old rail passenger fleet. “The rail cars the governor ordered won’t be ready until 2010,” he told them. “In Connecticut, talking about the problem is seen as solving the problem.” Noting that Governor Rell purchased some secondhand rolling stock that had yet to be completely deployed a year later, Malloy threw in a combative dig: “I hope we didn’t buy twenty-six cars from Virginia for the thrill of it.”

From Greenwich to Enfield, Malloy says his message never changes. He will talk about Stamford, which has seen a net increase of 5,000 jobs citywide; a significant drop in crime; and the creation of a pioneering citywide prekindergarten program, which he touts as a model for early education in the state. He will crack some of the same jokes about his professional background. (“As a prosecutor, I had twenty-three felony cases and twenty-two convictions, and every once in a while some wise guy will say, ‘What about the twenty-third?’ which is when I say to him, ‘You look very familiar.’ ”)

“In only one community have I been asked about my farm policy,” Malloy says. “Ellington. And I wasn’t sure whether the man said farm or foreign. Actually, I’ve been asked more about foreign policy than farm policy.”

His most persistent theme is about whom he wants to replace, Jodi Rell, or as he prefers to put it, “the Rowland-Rell administration,” as if Governor Rell’s disgraced predecessor, John Rowland, is regularly furloughed from prison to check in on his former running mate.

If Malloy sounds a little aggressive about Rell, perhaps it’s because he has to be. The incumbent governor is wildly popular, with opinion polls before the new year showing that 79 percent of the state’s electorate view her favorably.

There are theories about why Rell is so beloved, including her brave, triumphant battle with breast cancer and her aggressive embrace of stricter campaign finance reform. Malloy has one of his own: “People like her because she’s not John Rowland. Well, I’m not John Rowland either.”

As Malloy’s candidacy develops, attempts at linking Rell to her predecessor will likely intensify. “She spent ten years with John Rowland,” Malloy’s campaign manager Chris Cooney says. “If she knew what he was doing, that’s a bad thing. If she didn’t, that’s a bad thing.”

Meanwhile Malloy’s more immediate opponent, DeStefano, continues to raise money and build upon his greater name recognition statewide. While Malloy fights to be his party’s nominee this spring, Cooney concedes an August primary with John DeStefano is “pretty much understood.”

“I’m going to be the nominee, I don’t doubt it, frankly,”

Malloy says. “I don’t think DeStefano is as well positioned for a November election. He may be better positioned to win a primary, if we analyze primaries in the way we traditionally do, that the most liberal wing of the Democratic party and the most conservative wing of the Republican party dominate.”

Working against steep odds is familiar territory to Malloy, of course, from boyhood on. In 1995 few thought him capable of unseating then-mayor Stanley Esposito. “We expected it to be close, but it wasn’t,” notes Andrew McDonald, today a state senator from Stamford and then Malloy’s campaign manager. “Dan won by ten points, 55 percent to 45 percent.”

The margin was tighter last year, Malloy winning reelection with just 51 percent of the Stamford vote. DeStefano, who won reelection at the same time by a far more comfortable margin, wasted no time pointing out the disparity.

Malloy backers call it a false comparison. “Stamford is a true microcosm of the political landscape in Connecticut, a mix of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters,” Cooney says. “John DeStefano’s city has 80 percent registered Democrats, only 4.5 percent registered Republicans. He has never had a real competitive race against a Republican. This would be his first one. Is that what the Democratic party wants?”

Malloy points out that Stamford has the second highest total of registered Republicans in Connecticut, behind only Greenwich. He prides himself on being a pro-growth candidate with crossover appeal.

“I’m going to be a difficult guy for Republicans to paint in a corner as a tax-and-spend Democrat,” he claims. “I run a very conservative, very tight ship in Stamford. There’s a smaller local government on the city side than when I took office and lower rates of tax increase than in the Republican towns around me. If you did a survey of the business community in Fairfield County, I suspect you’d find a lot of Republican admirers of this Democratic mayor.”

Yes, Stamford already had a triple-A bond rating when Malloy arrived, and its proximity to Manhattan would likely pay corporate dividends for any administration to the right of Hugo Chávez, but business leaders say Malloy has made a difference during his ten years in charge. For example, while Swiss Bank’s decision to locate one of its main offices on Washington Boulevard predated Malloy’s election, he is credited with encouraging the growth of that office (now under the UBS umbrella and home of one of the world’s largest trading floors) to its present workforce of 5,000 employees.

“He’s been very aggressive, not just bringing in jobs, but keeping them, too,” says Chris Bruhl, president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “When Procter & Gamble bought Clairol four years ago and was going to move it out of Stamford, Malloy assembled a team that analyzed the problem, drew up a plan for Clairol to stay and got the decision turned around.”

Jack Condlin, president of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, calls Malloy “very hands-on” and a fiscal conservative. “Dan to me is the New Democrat,” Condlin says. “He is responsible for his spending. He does not fall in the category of tax and spend.”

For that reason, Malloy backers suggest Republicans are more eager to see DeStefano run against Rell in November. Republican State Senator Bill Nickerson, whose district comprises Greenwich, North Stamford and New Canaan, scoffs at that notion. “If the election was held now, it wouldn’t matter which one ran against Rell,” he says. “She has such a huge statistical advantage today. If you are judging horses now, one horse is ten lengths ahead of the others.” Nickerson adds that Malloy takes too much credit for Stamford’s economic revival, which he says has at least as much to do with proximity to Manhattan and assistance from Hartford. “The state has written some very large checks to make good things happen,” he says.

James Rubino, who spent twelve years on Stamford’s board of finance and eight on its board of representatives, dismisses the idea that Malloy works well with city Republicans like himself. “We don’t get a great deal of input unless we have the votes,” Rubino says. “When he did need Republican support, I found he did not have the personality for it. It was all or nothing. If he had the votes, he’d just steamroll you.”

Of course, as Malloy now vies for exclusively Democratic support, talk of not playing nice with the GOP is hardly damaging to his candidacy. Of more concern is Malloy’s difficulty with unions, which have lined up around DeStefano. “He’s stronger with unions, but I have union support as well,” Malloy says.

Malloy’s own union roots run deep. His mother, a nurse, organized a city union of nurses and dental hygienists. His father, an insurance salesman, tried to do something similar while working for John Hancock and was fired for his efforts. “My parents were very involved in community, in church, in politics,” Malloy recalls.

As he grew older and caught up on his educational development, Malloy emerged as a student leader. By the time he was in Westhill High School in the 1970s, he was addressing the city board of education about the need for a school lunch program. The bright teenager impressed board member Ellen Camhi.

“He stood out,” she says. “He was very articulate and passionate. There were kids who met the criteria for free lunches, and he wanted to make sure they got them. He was a very committed young man.”

“I probably had a flair for the dramatic,” Malloy says with a shrug. “I knew friends for whom the only solid meal they could count on was the one they got in school.”

More than thirty years later, Camhi chairs Stamford’s Democratic Town Committee and sees Malloy as the Democrats’ best chance of defeating Rell. “I’ve been a Democratic National Committee delegate since 1992; I’ve been active for Clinton, Gore and Kerry,” she says. “I know a good candidate when I see one.”

April 6, 1974, comes up frequently in Malloy’s campaign literature, that being the day when Malloy, then a Boston College freshman, met his future wife Cathy at a party. “It was the most important date in my life,” he says. “I almost get teary-eyed. She wasn’t the woman of my dreams, because she far exceeded my dreams. We’re partners. Not everyone in politics gets a partner, somebody as committed to my public service as I am.” (Cathy heads the Sexual Assault and Education Crisis Center in Stamford.) The Malloys have three sons: Dannel, twenty; Benjamin, eighteen; and Samuel, thirteen.
 
Malloy credits Cathy for being the wind beneath his wings, literally. “I wasn’t going to run for mayor in 1995,” he remembers. “I went home one night, while actively considering it, and said: ‘Cathy, I’m not going to do this. We’ve got to make money. You’ve already made enough sacrifices. I need to get out there and make more money.’ She said, ‘No, you have to run for mayor.’ Sometimes I joke I’m mayor because my wife made me do it.”

Malloy admits that his mayoral career has taken a toll on his family life, never more so than when the state investigated allegations in early 2003 that Malloy was awarding city work to contractors in exchange for home improvements — ironically, the same offense that put Rowland in jail. Made public in late 2004, just as Malloy’s gubernatorial campaign was getting underway, the investigation by Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano uncovered “no credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing” according to a statement Morano issued, which also thanked Malloy for going beyond his legal obligations in cooperating with the investigation.

Malloy says he believes that while valid in itself, the investigation was leaked “for political purposes.” “What’s past is past,” he says. “I knew what the results would be. I ran to it. I supported it. As a former prosecutor, I understood if someone was going to say these things, that the charges had to be looked into.”

Now the Malloy campaign touts the Morano investigation as a clean bill of health, and campaign manager Cooney touts a 2006 dream ticket of Malloy and Diane Farrell of Westport (she is running against Congressman Christopher Shays in the Fourth District) claiming Fairfield County for the Democrats after decades of Republican dominance.

“I think I’m the candidate with momentum,” Dan Malloy says. “Democrats are desperate to put forward a candidate who will have broader appeal perhaps than those we have nominated in the past. And if you ask people in Connecticut what city they’d like to live in, and gave them a choice, a very significant number would pick Stamford. I’m pretty proud of our record.”

Related Articles

Paying Attention

Old Greenwich resident Nancy Armstrong knows how debilitating Attention...

Drawing the Line

Many stores tout themselves as a “jewel box,” but...

Strike a Pose

A former urban planner, Jessica Newshel was a new...