For much of his life, Dannel Malloy has been an avid fan of hockey and rugby.
Both rough-and-tumble sports are highly physical and require quick movements, sharp elbows and fast decisions. A rugby player for 22 years, Malloy finally quit when his wife said it was taking too much time, but he hasn't left sports completely behind.
Stephen Dargan, a friend of Connecticut's first Democratic governor in two decades. "Hockey is a speed game. He's trying to accomplish a lot of things in the first year. He's not afraid to go into the boards with somebody. He's not afraid to move the puck out of the corner with someone who has dissenting views."
"Some people might not have liked the way he's done things, but what you see is what you get," Dargan said. "He's not afraid to mix it up."
Malloy has played his first year with speed and aggression, usually working seven days a week. He set the pace early in his term and kept it up, criss-crossing the state for 17 town hall meetings to hear citizen comments about his budget, while maintaining an ambitious public appearance schedule. In recent months, it's been more relentless, with trips to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Beverly Hills and Switzerland in a schedule not unlike the final weeks of a campaign.
In addition to his official duties, Malloy serves as the finance chairman of the Democratic Governors Association -- raising money for governors seeking re-election this year. That level of commitment has prompted insiders to theorize that he's angling to be chairman of the association just as John G. Rowland was chairman of the Republican group at the height of his career as governor.
Malloy, 56, has traveled more than any Connecticut governor in recent history -- prompting calls from Republicans who say it's time to stay home to get the state's fiscal house in order.
When asked how many days he took for vacation during his first year, Malloy thought for a moment.
"It would be easier for me to figure out the days that I didn't work. I think I took four [days] in September," Malloy said. "I work this way all the time. And when I'm not working, I'm working because I'm reading. I'm getting articles. If I'm not in the office, it doesn't mean I'm not working. I'm in the car, going to something, and I'm reading an article or I'm having a conversation."
As the 2012 legislative session opens Wednesday, Malloy is barreling ahead, ready to expand his agenda with plans to reform public education, increase affordable housing and allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays at supermarkets and package stores.
Supporters say 2011 was an unbridled success that included balancing the state budget and pulling Connecticut out of a deep deficit that Malloy calls the financial abyss. In addition to being the most pro-union governor in more than 20 years, Malloy enacted a series of initiatives that had been bottled up for years by Republican governors. He successfully pushed for an earned income tax credit for the working poor, protected transgender rights, and enacted two controversial executive orders that made it easier for workers to join unions. Other initiatives included allowing the children of illegal immigrants in Connecticut's public colleges to pay the same in-state tuition rates as longtime residents and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The supremely confident Malloy trumpets the achievements of his administration as governor of a state with more than 50,000 employees and an annual budget of $20 billion
"I think Connecticut is a far better place this January than it was a January ago," Malloy said in an interview with The Courant's editorial board. "We did grow 9,000 jobs last year -- the first year we've grown jobs on a year-to-year basis since 2008."
But to Republicans and political opponents, Malloy's inaugural year was a failure marked by the largest tax increase in state history and a well-publicized downgrade in the state's bond rating. That was compounded, they say, by an increase in influence for unions and paid sick days for service companies. Paid sick days were blasted by business lobbyists as a job-killing, anti-business move. Republicans charge that the state's finances are still unsteady, marked by inflated estimates of givebacks from the state employee concessions and purported pension savings that the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office said were wrong by $3.1 billion over 20 years.
Republicans also complain that Malloy blames everyone but himself for the state's problems, noting his criticisms of former governors, the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, and the independent Moody's Investors Service, which downgraded the state's bonds. He was the first governor who insiders could remember criticizing a respected Wall Street ratings agency, Moody's, which scrutinizes the financial nuts and bolts of balance sheets worldwide and carefully avoids any political agenda. He has pledged to get back the higher bond rating.
"Moody's comes out -- they're wrong," said House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk. "Then OFA comes out on the deficit -- they're wrong. Everybody's wrong. ... He's intolerant of anyone who disagrees with him. He doesn't have much patience for alternative positions, and sometimes that comes across to people as arrogant or condescending."
With Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Malloy was able to push through most of his agenda, gaining largely what he wanted on tax increases and spending priorities. Under Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the Capitol had been so gridlocked that the state budget took effect without her signature because she refused to accept the entire package passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
In the past year, Republicans and Malloy agreed on little other than a bipartisan jobs bill, and the disagreements included Malloy's recruiting Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to create 300 bioscience jobs at the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington. Malloy's supporters say it will attract highly paid scientists and generate thousands of spinoff jobs by creating a research triangle stretching from Farmington to Yale University in New Haven and the UConn main campus in Storrs. Republicans see the Jackson deal as a major giveaway to a nonprofit company on risky science that guarantees only 300 jobs for a state investment of nearly $1 million per job. State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, described it as "a $291 million bribe, plus interest."
Still, even Republicans concede that Malloy has shown who is in charge.
"No matter how you feel about his programs and policies, you have to marvel at the way he has completely taken control of the political agenda," said Republican strategist Chris Healy, the former state party chairman. "He has basically had everything pretty much his way. He has done what chief executives -- successful ones -- do, and that is steamroll. In terms of controlling the agenda and the debate, he should be given a level of respect for that. ... The reality of the policies on taxation and spending, as we found out with the Moody's downgrade, is it's going to require working with Republicans and Democrats on spending cuts."
ON THE ROAD
In a tight time frame recently, Malloy traveled to Davos, Switzerland, for four days at the World Economic Forum, rubbing shoulders with top business and political officials from around the world as he tried to recruit corporations to move to Connecticut or expand here.
From Davos, he held conference calls with Hartford reporters before returning to Connecticut on Sunday. The next morning, he chaired the State Bond Commission meeting and then late Monday night he headed to Bradley International Airport to welcome Connecticut troops returning from Afghanistan.
On Tuesday morning, he flew to Washington, D.C., for a keynote speech at the National Press Club and an evening fundraiser for a political action committee that supports Democrats.
On Wednesday morning he testified at a congressional hearing on job creation, flew back to Connecticut in the afternoon and held a news conference on his plans for affordable housing at 5 p.m. in Hartford.
On Thursday, he made stops in Danbury and Stamford before holding an afternoon press conference in West Hartford to unveil his plan for early childhood education.
Some question why a governor from a small state should travel to Afghanistan to see the fighting forces, but Malloy said he was honored to visit the troops.
He has also traveled several times to events for the Democratic Governors Association, including a conference at a four-star Beverly Hills hotel less than 24 hours after a rare Sunday afternoon press conference to announce that some state employees had misrepresented their financial status to fraudulently qualify for emergency food stamp benefits following Tropical Storm Irene.
To date, four of those employees have been fired and another four have retired.
Malloy's travels represent a sharp contrast to Rell, a low-key leader who routinely avoided trips, even to the National Governors Association and the Republican political association.
"The man started off wanting to be -- not the anti-Rell, but diametrically different than Jodi Rell," Cafero said. "He wanted to be hands-on, active, quick decisions, constant motion, moving forward. Certainly with his words and actions, he put forth that image."
Lowell Weicker was criticized for his travels as governor, but that came from opponents who said he was spending too much time out of state on vacation -- including at his second home in the Virgin Islands.
They charged that he should have run for governor of St. Croix. Before Weicker, Gov. William A. O'Neill was known as a homebody who enjoyed spending time with his wife, Nikki, in East Hampton at their lakefront home.
Malloy has also visited Washington multiple times, meeting with Cabinet officials and attending President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address soon after taking office in 2011.
Compared to recent governors, Malloy appears at far more state events. In fact, organizers have said publicly at some meetings that they have not seen a governor at that particular event in years. Malloy usually nods, smiles and acknowledges that when he reaches the podium.
Between Christmas and New Year's, when most people were relaxing at year's end, Malloy made a campaign-style swing one day through four towns in eastern Connecticut to make economic development grant announcements.
Malloy wants to attend as many events as possible. At the top of his official Web page, a link says: "Invite Governor Malloy." The drop-down menu asks for the time, place and date of the event as well as Malloy's role. "For example, would you like him to serve as keynote speaker?" the official form asks. "Attend a groundbreaking? Take a tour? Meet with students?"
The governor is so available because he wants "to reconnect state government to the people who pay for it," said Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy's senior adviser. "Every invitation gets the same review, whether it comes from a fourth-grader asking him to go to a school or an association that wants to give him an award."
But Occhiogrosso said that some politicians misunderstand Malloy's work ethic, thinking he has aspirations beyond the governor's office.
"This is the job he always wanted. He loves this job," Occhiogrosso said in an interview. "It was an honor for the state of Connecticut to be on a world stage [in Davos]. He travels because he believes it's good for the state of Connecticut."
Occhiogrosso added that he has "no idea" whether Malloy wants to become head of the governors' association, adding that he has "never had a single conversation" with Malloy about seeking higher office.
Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola criticized Malloy for the trip to Switzerland "at a time when Malloy's budget has quickly developed more holes than a Swiss cheese."
"In his correspondence from a foreign land, the governor has defended his economic policies by claiming that Moody's, OFA and consensus revenue numbers are all wrong. ... The governor's claims that everyone else is wrong simply fail to pass the 'duck' test. The only thing 'honest' about Connecticut's 'honest' state budget is that it is honestly, truly broken," Labriola said. "My suggestion to our absentee governor: Come back to Connecticut. Raise some money for Connecticut's broken budget -- and do it without more record tax increases. Please, Governor, do your job and do it right here in Connecticut, not by phone from Washington, Hollywood or Switzerland."
Malloy defended the trip: "I got to see people at levels of companies that might have taken six months to get to. Some of it, quite frankly, is bumping into each other."
The year 2011 will be remembered in part by the intense weather -- heavy snow that collapsed roofs around the state last January, Tropical Storm Irene in late August, which devastated homes at Cosey Beach in East Haven, and the pre-Halloween snowstorm that knocked out electrical power for hundreds of thousands of homeowners for as long as 13 days.
Malloy arrived at the State Armory in Hartford for twice-a-day briefings that were broadcast live on multiple stations throughout the state after the pre-Halloween storm. He received high marks on a bipartisan basis for his handling of the emergencies.
"This is the good piece of his leadership style -- clearly taking charge, giving clear directions," said Matthew Hennessy, a longtime Democratic strategist who supported Ned Lamont in the 2010 primary against Malloy. "His response was what a governor at a time of crisis should be. But in the fickle world of politics, those storms are over. People are asking now about the impact of the income tax increase and the job outlook."
The major scandal of the first year was the food stamp fraud investigation that has led to the firings of four state employees and the retirements of four others. The controversy erupted after more than 800 state employees received emergency food benefits following Tropical Storm Irene.
Malloy has noted that it was his administration that uncovered the alleged malfeasance. But others say the state Department of Social Services should take responsibility for its handling of the food stamp benefits, which some have called chaotic and marked by long lines and virtually no verification as millions of dollars were handed out to recipients who walked away with debit cards in their hands.
The scandal has led to public clashes with Rich Rochlin, an attorney for accused state employees who has been one of the Malloy administration's chief critics. Rochlin has been criticized, by both Malloy and his aides, as someone not "playing with a full deck" and who would fade away after enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.
A former partner at the Shipman & Goodwin law firm and a graduate of the University of Connecticut law school, Rochlin came forward with clients who said that the answers on the application forms were changed by state employees. Malloy said he has seen no evidence of that, despite statements by Rochlin and state employees who appeared anonymously with their faces obscured on TV.
"For somebody who made it a point as part of his platform to run the most transparent administration in Connecticut history, the way he's handled the D-SNAP program has been more in line with a star chamber than a transparent and open process," Rochlin said, referring to the food stamp controversy. "He's refused to take a look at the evidence I'm offering because his staff has vilified me from the beginning."
Rochlin says the Malloy administration tried to marginalize him from the start.
"The first response was to characterize me as an ambulance chaser and somebody who is not playing with a full deck," Rochlin said. "When the truth came out, I had represented Roy Occhiogrosso himself [in a private case in 2010]. The fact that Malloy would allow members of his administration to attack me personally was unprofessional. ... I went from being Roy's lawyer and conversing with him a couple of times a month to being an ambulance chaser who wasn't playing with a full deck. That's not a responsible approach to leadership."
Rochlin added, "He clearly has aspirations for higher office. His aides will clearly do anything to protect his reputation and besmirch me if I'm casting light on anything negative that happened on his watch. He's dining on meals [in Davos] that cost more than most of these people received in their D-SNAP benefits."
As Malloy heads into his second year, Rochlin said, the food stamp controversy will linger as state employees appeal their firings.
"They can't make me go away," Rochlin said. "My message has become louder, and it's going to become more public as we challenge these terminations."
Occhiogrosso declined to comment on Rochlin.
One of Malloy's strongest supporters in the legislature, Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, said that Malloy tackled the state's problems head-on in a way that Rowland and Rell did not.
"That was a huge change from what we've seen in the previous 16 years," Williams said. "Gov. Malloy is not afraid to tackle the tough challenges. In the past, the legislature was often given the burden of forcing the governor to acknowledge the problems we faced. Here, you had the governor and the legislature moving in the same direction."
Dargan, a conservative Democrat from West Haven who supported Malloy as far back as his first unsuccessful race for governor in 2006 against New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, has voted in favor of all of Malloy's major initiatives, including the largest tax increase in state history. A longtime Democrat, Dargan said he has not received heavy criticism for voting for tax hikes on income, sales, corporate profits, and cigarettes, among others.
"Last year, I had more phone calls on the in-state tuition than I did on the tax increases," said Dargan, who had originally voted against the creation of the state income tax in 1991.
Dargan, a friend of the governor, brought up rugby and hockey when he talked about Malloy's style. Dargan said Malloy doesn't mind being in the middle of a scrum.
"He's shown a different way of governing," Dargan said. "He has the feistiness. He's not afraid to get cross-checked, and he's not afraid to cross-check somebody back."