Connecticut's accidental governor needs to find his voice

Ned Lamont is arguably the accidental governor. When the 2018 election cycle began, it was not looking like a good year for Democrats to keep the governorship. In July 2018, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had a 71 percent disapproval rating. After two terms, constant budgetary fights and a lackluster economy had drained the Democrat of every ounce of political capital he once held.

Political physics suggested the chief executive position would swing back to the Republicans. Connecticut voters have a history of electing Republican governors even while opting for Democrats in other statewide offices. The two governors prior to Malloy were Republicans. The positive prospects for the GOP was why the fight for that party’s nomination attracted a large field of candidates.

Not so the Democrats. The field was small and not strong. Lamont was the willing soul to go for it despite the questionable outlook. In the primary, he only had to beat a mayor formerly jailed for corruption, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.

But then Connecticut Republican primary voters did it again. They chose a weak candidate, Bob Stefanowski, who had not even bothered to vote in many recent elections and whose absurd central theme was repealing the income tax, with no legitimate plan for offsetting the massive loss in revenue.

Even then, Lamont barely won, failing to get a majority with 49% to Stefanowski’s 47%, with the 4% vote for independent and former Republican Oz Griebel proving determinative. Stefanowski was also hurt by an anti-Trump mood in this blue state.

Lamont had not so much inspired his way to victory as stumbled into it.

Given those circumstances, post victory Lamont needed to send a clear message of where he intended to take the state.

Instead Lamont talked of working across political lines. That didn’t happen. And said he wanted to deliver the budget on time. The legislature did. And he planned a nicer brand of politics. None of it was inspirational.

The things he did take a strong stand on were politically problematic. He said the state needed electronic tolls, that they were the only way to raise the revenue necessary to fix and upgrade our transportation infrastructure. And he was right. But the problem was that to get elected Lamont had said he would impose a toll only on truck traffic. Republicans pounced on the flip-flop, the electorate collectively groaned about politics as usual, and the legislature balked.

The governor also announced he would not support another income tax increase on the rich arguing, with legitimacy, that it could be self-defeating if it drove more hedge-fund billionaires to relocate. But the approach pleased no one. Fiscal conservatives were not placated because, instead, the Democratic legislature raised other taxes and fees, including expanding the reach of the sales tax to more items. Meanwhile, progressives were displeased with Lamont’s reluctance to demand more of the super-rich.

All of this helps explain the dismal numbers in the Hartford Courant/Sacred Heart University poll released last week. It showed Lamont with an approval rating at 24 percent, stalled at the same low number seen in a May poll. Meanwhile, 47 percent disapproved of how Lamont is handling the job, a seven-point jump.

Most alarming for Lamont, only 40 percent of Democrats approve of how he is performing. He has no political base.

Lamont needs a message. He has said job growth is a priority. He needs to say clearly how. And he needs results. If he is going to renew his push for tolls, Lamont must better explain why and combine it with a proposed cut in the gas tax.

The governor may yet be able to turn things around, but if he has another year like this first, that window will slam shut.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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