By Rick Green
As he faces one of the toughest political jams of his career, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's challenge is to duplicate his gutsy performance during the crises that have marked his first two years in office.
Whatever you care about his tax increase, that deal with state employee unions or those much-argued-over education reforms, Malloy was the governor-in-the-foxhole during some of the toughest times in recent memory -- when the first two storms hit, when Long Island Sound waters began rising during storm Sandy, and when somebody had to tell the Newtown parents that their children were gone.
Wednesday morning, however, a more traditional problem resurfaces: The mundane reality of a $1 billion budget deficit and a stagnating state economy will move back to center stage when the General Assembly convenes. It's a problem that can't be solved by appointing an expert commission, opening the emergency operations center or holding a frank press conference.
To succeed, this ardent Democrat who believes that government is a big part of the solution must behave more like a budget-cutting Republican. Instead of the governor who wants to help, he must become the governor who takes away.
At noon Wednesday, Malloy will deliver his third State of the State speech at a moment very different from his first two years on the job. It is not his what-must-go budget message -- that comes during the first week of February -- but a speech in which Malloy has a chance to set a tone for the difficult choices coming during the next few months.
"There is no way for me to address the people of the state of Connecticut without continuing the discussion of what happened in Newtown. I have to acknowledge that, the good and the bad. Obviously it has implications for the state,'' Malloy said during a conversation in his office Tuesday afternoon.
"We need to take stock of where we were two years ago and where we are today. We are not where we want to be,'' Malloy said. "I want to set the stage for what we need to do in the next two years."
Malloy says there will be no tax increases. He promises "everyone's ox will be gored" as the state slashes spending to find hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. He remains unapologetic about the tax increases during the first half of his term or the deal with state employee unions that continues a no-layoff provision for years to come.
He told me that the only things he would do differently would be to soften some of the tough language that has stirred deep emotions, most notably his comments a year ago about teachers earning tenure.
Despite the rumors that a job in Washington awaits, Malloy says he's more interested in being -- and staying -- governor of Connecticut. "I am as excited about the job I am doing today as the day I was sworn in. I've never hidden the fact that I enjoy this job," he said, brushing off a question about whether he planned to run for another term.
"We have to continue the process of changing our habits. We began that in a big way a couple of years ago. A lot of people serving in the legislature and a lot of people in the Democratic Party hope that was a one-time event,'' Malloy said. "It was never a one-time event."
"People say, 'Why didn't you cut the hell out of the budget [in 2011].' Because we weren't ready to cut the hell out of the budget,'' he said, "All of the things that other states had done we had failed to do," pointing to investments in technology and staff that had to be made in agencies like the Department of Social Services, which administers the costly federal Medicaid program.
"You have to stop thinking about our ability to expand everything year after year after year. Because let me assure you there will be those kinds of proposals,'' Malloy said. "We have a spending cap. We have, effectively, a revenue cap. Let's make some decisions. That's what my job is."
I asked whether the first two years of his term had changed his governing style in a way that will make this year different from the past.
"I think I am a manager and I am a wonk,'' Malloy said before getting to what seemed like the heart of his style as governor. "But I am also a person who has feelings who struggles to express those feelings."
Fixing a projected budget deficit of $1 billion will cause unending hours of arguing, posturing and drama between now and summer. But perhaps as much as anyone at the state Capitol this winter, Dannel Malloy knows this doesn't seem like much at all when compared to the unimaginable loss experienced by Newtown.