Lamont's upbeat approach will be sorely tested

Ned Lamont almost seemed uncomfortable with the trappings of his new office — governor — as he walked into the House Chamber at the State Capitol in Hartford, just three hours after taking the oath. Hands thrust into his suit jacket pockets, he stood off to the side of the podium awaiting the applause to stop so he could deliver his address.

If a governor can be described as unassuming, that’s Lamont.

In a fashion, this could serve the state’s 89th governor well. His affable approach, even if sometimes delivered awkwardly, could come as a relief to a Connecticut public worn down by the cantankerous battling approach of Lamont’s predecessor and fellow Democrat, Dannel P. Malloy.

While Malloy strode into the chamber for such events as if he owned the place and instructed rather than motivated lawmakers, Lamont demonstrated a much lighter, let’s-all-work-together touch.

Lamont frequently went off script from his prepared remarks to joke with his political audience.

He read off a list of past Connecticut technological achievements. Where was the first submarine developed? Old Saybrook. First nuclear submarine? Groton. How about the invention of durable rubber? Naugatuck.

The governor, noting Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and legislative leaders sitting behind him were shouting out the answers, good naturedly called them out.

“Hey, you’re reading the teleprompter. That doesn’t impress anyone,” Lamont said.

It was likeable.

Expectations that this State of the State Address would be short on specifics and substance proved true. The exception was his direct call for phasing in a $15 minimum wage and instituting paid family leave.

Concerning the budget problems that plagued Malloy and successive legislatures through his eight years, the still grossly underfunded pension obligations, and the continuing deficit projections, Lamont offered this: “Let’s fix this damn budget, once and for all. You with me?”

There was applause, but it would not be described as thunderous.

Six weeks from now, he promised to present a spending plan “which is in balance not just for a year, but for the foreseeable future.”

Details, however, were lacking.

Concerning the fiscal crisis, Lamont did cite the necessity of making “hard and difficult choices” and “to right the wrongs of the past,” though he did not say which wrongs.

Lamont alluded to the perspective that further labor concessions will be needed, though he avoided the word.

Addressing “state employees and labor leaders,” the new governor said, “As our liabilities continue to grow faster than our assets, together we have to make the changes necessary.”

More tepid applause.

He called for regional delivery of services and combining back-office functions to improve efficiency and lower the cost of local government. This newspaper strongly supports such moves. However, the political will for such change has proved elusive.

Lamont seemed most energized when calling for economic revitalization. Coming from the telecommunications field, Lamont promised to create “the first all-digital government. We will be online, not in line.”

To bring business development, Lamont said he will work to vastly improve the transportation system, though he didn’t mention tolling to pay for it.

He called for investment in the city’s urban centers, vital to attracting young professionals and the tech employers that target them.

And he wants multi-millionaires like himself, “philanthropic leaders,” to invest as partners in such efforts.

“Ask what you can do for your state,” said Lamont, again going off script to mimic a John F. Kennedy Bostonian accent.

There are parallels to M. Jodi Rell’s sunny ascension to governor after the dark days of corruption that drove John G. Rowland out of office and into prison. Rell got a popularity bounce simply for not being Rowland. Lamont will benefit from not being Malloy.

But Rell’s tenure did not end well, with the state descending into a budgetary crisis it has never fully recovered from by the time she left office in 2011, making way for Malloy.

The continuing fiscal problems make Lamont’s task more difficult than Rell initially confronted. At some point he is going to have to make people unhappy, say no, draw lines — things the Republican Rell was never good at when dealing with Democratic legislatures.

Time will test whether the earnest, affable Lamont is more up to the challenge.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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