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Charm Offensive Governor ned lamont

During a political campaign it is easy to make policy promises based on what you think you know or what you think should be possible with competent management. When winning candidates take office, as elected officials, they are often forced to change their views once they have all the facts. Ned Lamont, the first term Democratic governor of Connecticut, has learned this lesson during his first two months in office.

His budget proposal to the legislature argues for new taxes in the form of tolls on Connecticut highways and the expansion of the sales tax. He has embraced the idea of legalizing marijuana, mainly as a way to increase revenue to the state. He has pledged to curtail state borrowing and he is asking state employee labor unions to consider givebacks. All these proposals are made in an effort to balance the state budget, improve the business climate, and put the state on a sustainable financial path.

Lamont visits Trinity College in Hartford to meet with environmental advocates in advance of his first major policy address.

During the month of February, I was granted exclusive behind the scenes access to the Lamont administration, as the governor and his team struggled to understand the challenges facing the state and develop a plan to meet those challenges consistent with his campaign promises.

The ground rules for this project meant anything said in my presence was strictly off the record. However, close observation of Lamont and his team - when combined with his public statements and conversations with knowledgable sources inside and outside of the administration - reveal a governor determined to fundamentally alter how the state is managed. To make this change Lamont intends to rely primarily on goodwill and a willingness to compromise rather than the brute force available to any sitting governor.

Clockwise: Lamont gestures during his Trinity speech. The governor answers questions from reporters several weeks prior to his budget address. Press secretary and traveling aide Rob Blanchard briefs Lamont before his remarks.

Lamont, 65, is a successful businessman who self-financed his campaign which emphasized his credentials as a chief executive officer and entrepreneur.

In the closed door meetings I attended, Lamont identified the big issues and provided general guidance to his staff about how he would like to see each problem approached. Staff was then empowered to study each issue further and bring back a menu of possible solutions along with informed recommendations.

It is an efficient way to make executive level decisions, but it can lead to recommendations with adverse political implications. It is up to Lamont's team, and ultimately the governor himself, to weigh which risks are worth taking based in part on their chance for success.

Perhaps with the confidence of a man who does not need the job to pay his bills (he has chosen to serve without taking a salary), Lamont seems very willing to take risks previous governors have refused.

Most notably, his proposal to install tolls on Connecticut highways as a way to fund and upgrade the state's decaying transportation system. Tolls were removed from Connecticut highways in the 1980's over safety concerns, but have remained off the table ever since because they are seen from a political perspective as a major new tax.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, most Connecticut government insiders have long believed the only way to properly pay for the state's transportation needs is through the implementation of tolls. Lamont is the first governor to forcefully make the argument.

Clockwise: Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz. Drajewicz, policy director Jonny Dach(center), legislative director Chris Soto. Marc Bradley, constituent services. Paul Mounds, chief operating officer.

Making a public case in favor of difficult policy decisions is one job Lamont seems eager to take on and his approach is soft.

Communications Director Maribel la Luz explains budget rollout plans during a senior staff meeting.

Lamont naturally seeks to avoid confrontation. He is more than willing to express his strong feelings about how a problem should be solved, but he is equally willing to listen to alternatives. During his budget address to lawmakers in mid-February, he urged them to come directly to him with their concerns, to work with him to find common ground, and to view his budget proposal as a starting point for a serious discussion.

His only priority: "...the numbers have to add up at the end of the day."

This approach sounds refreshing in today's political climate, but carries with it considerable risk for any elected chief executive, because it may be seen as a signal to political adversaries that the governor is not willing to fight for what he says he believes in. In recent years Connecticut lawmakers have shown a willingness to cut the governor out of the budget process.

Lamont leads a meeting during which finishing touches were put on his budget plan.
Top left: Budget director Melissa McCaw briefs Lamont.

Lamont and his team were fully ready for the criticisms directed at the administration's budget proposal. They realized their post-election honeymoon would end as soon as the budget was delivered and began preparing weeks in advance.

The tolling proposal and the request for employee concessions were revealed early in an effort to control the reaction. Every communications tactic employed in the days before the governor's budget address was carefully planned with full anticipation of the consequences. The goal was to begin an honest conversation about Connecticut's economic health and long term prospects.

Lamont discusses legislative strategy with Drajewicz, Soto and legal counsel Robert Clark.

More than any other message, the signal Lamont and his new administration want to send is that they are the clear-eyed, reasonable, adults in the room, interested in talking with anyone at any time about how to meet the state's challenges. Lamont will only insist that they be met. Without judgment of those who came before (in the legislature or the governor's office), or decisions made in the past; they are here to clean up.

If at the end of four years, Lamont has made substantial progress in the areas of financial management, debt control, transportation, education, and ultimately job creation - he will have succeeded. He knows these problems will not be solved in four years, but he does believe he can put the state on the right path.

Working on post budget scheduling with senior aide Colleen Flanagan-Johnson. Below: Speech prep.

As the governor delivered his budget address on the afternoon of February 20, the typical crowd of lobbyists, all representing clients with a special stake in how the state spends its money, gathered around television monitors in the halls of the Capitol to listen to his remarks and plan their counter-attacks.

Cities and towns said they didn't like the governor's plans to emphasize cost sharing. Conservative groups came out against tolls and sales tax expansion. Unions came out against concessions. Republicans in the legislature, said whatever happens next is up to Lamont and his fellow Democrats. They did so because they expect whatever happens next to be politically painful.

It should also be noted that nearly every critic of a specific spending cut or tax increase also praised the governor for his honesty and his sincere effort to address very difficult issues. Other than protecting their own part of the budget pie, few offered alternatives - a sign that they understand Lamont faces a series of challenges with no easy answers.

Left: Special interests. Lobbyists watch a feed of the governor's address. Right: Back in the office, Lamont and staff review the highlights of the speech and what's next.

It is all fine with Ned Lamont. He is on a charm offensive. His plan is to convince the legislature - and you - that it is time to make hard choices and once they have been made everyone will benefit. The administration's motto could be, "We are all in this together."

Governor Lamont will soon find out whether anyone shares that view.

dean@deanpagani.com I DeanPagani.com I ThisDecisiveMoment.com

© Dean Pagani 2019

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