The optimism of a reboot by Gov. Ned Lamont is waning for the new Democratic governor, in the midst of a divisive dispute over electronic tolls, a row over who can decide how much the state borrows, his resistance to raising taxes on millionaires and his cabinet picks.
Lamont is the fifth-most unpopular governor in the nation and the least popular first-term governor, according to a Morning Consult poll released last week, which gave the Greenwich telecommunications magnate a 33 percent approval rating and a 38 percent disapproval rating. Twenty-nine percent of respondents didn’t know enough to form an opinion about Lamont, who ran unsuccessfully twice before for statewide office.
That’s the kind of wrath usually reserved for well-established incumbents such as Lamont’s predecessor and fellow Democrat Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in January with an approval in the 20s.
But in contrast to the former two-term governor, who bristled at his popularity metrics, those who know Lamont best say that he’s not impervious to the criticism and wants to be liked.
They attribute Lamont’s rough start to a confluence of daunting fiscal realities and the struggle to find middle ground between the progressive flank of his party and the millionaire executive class that has been fleeing Connecticut for more tax-friendly states such as Florida. Lamont’s free-flowing, collaborative approach, some say, isn’t always suited to the no-holds-barred nature of governing, either.
Lamont said in an interview Friday that he’s not discouraged by his poll numbers and is tackling complex issues such as transportation funding head on. He favors tolls over a Republican alternative known as Prioritize Progress that relies exclusively on borrowing money by reallocating money from other construction projects, such as schools.
“Hey, everybody here around is anti [this and that]. What are you for? Are you for more bonding?” Lamont said.
Lamont has faced criticism from both the right and the left during his first four months in office, during which he’s grappled with a projected two-year $3.7 billion budget deficit, massive unfunded state employee pension liabilities and a transportation quagmire.
There was also intense scrutiny during the confirmation of Lamont’s economic development commissioner, David Lehman, a former Goldman Sachs executive who testified before Congress about the U.S. financial meltdown.
Lehman was ultimately approved and joined a Lamont cabinet that includes Ryan Drajewicz, a former Chris Dodd aide and one-time executive at the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates in Westport. The pick of Drajewicz also raised eyebrows among progressives.
“It’s one thing to be intellectually prepared to do unpopular things but then deal with the day-to-day unpleasantness of the public criticism,” said former state Attorney General George Jepsen, who played an instrumental role in Lamont’s candidacy last year.
Lamont’s critics say he did serious harm to his credibility and political brand when a month into office he abandoned his campaign pledge to only toll out-of-state trucks, a plan that the governor would not stand up to court challenges from the trucking industry and won’t raise the money needed to modernize Connecticut’s crumbling and gridlocked transportation infrastructure.
“You can’t tell people one thing on the campaign trail and turn around and do something else and not have a negative reaction,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a former chief of staff for the Connecticut GOP and political consultant from Fairfield. “Clearly, voters are not responding well.”
Tom Swan, who managed Lamont’s 2006 U.S. Senate campaign and is executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, said there’s a frustration among progressives.
“Even when he’s doing good things like the minimum wage and paid leave, his folks are trying to water those down in a way that would alienate key supporters,” Swan said.
For example, Swan said a bill raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023, which passed the House Thursday morning after a 14-hour debate, does not increase the tipped wage paid to restaurant wait staff and bartenders.
“So if you’re a restaurant worker, you’re going to not be happy with him on the minimum wage,” Swan said. “You can go through a bunch of these bills where he’s sort of trying to play both sides.”
Democrats in the legislature recently rebuffed many elements of a sales tax expansion proposed by Lamont on legal, real estate and accounting services. They also introduced a 2 percent surcharge tax on investment income for joint filers with incomes over $1 million, which Lamont opposes.
“Even the Finance and Revenue committee, not known as a bastion of progressive policies, said to him, ‘We can’t accept your tax package. We need more progressive revenue in here,’” Swan said.
Swan said it’s too early to write off Lamont, however.
“People want to give Ned a chance,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody can be prepared for the challenges of being a governor.”
Connecticut’s top tax rate for capital gains would rise to 8.99 percent under the the proposal of legislative Democrats, making it the sixth-highest in the nation.
“I understand symbolically where people are going, but it’s really the wrong policy if you want to get this state growing again,” Lamont said.
Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, said Lamont’s deference to the wealthy has come at a price.
“He took off the table the whole idea of a millionaire’s surtax and made it really appear that he wants to balance the budget by more taxes on the middle class and on Connecticut drivers,” McLean said.
McLean said Lamont has a penchant for floating trial balloons that aren’t always helpful, like in late January when his administration briefly entertained a 2 percent sales tax on groceries, which angered residents.
“I think he was floating these ideas to see how the public reacted without having a serious proposal,” McLean said. “I think that came across as indecisive.”
If there’s an upside to Lamont’s rocky start, McLean said, it’s that he’s confronted the most thorny issues first.
“Even though Lamont is a nice guy, it is a very Machiavellian thing to do all the hard things in the beginning,” he said.
Lamont suffered a setback earlier this month when the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee voted 46-4 to seize control of the state’s borrowing authority from Lamont, who had proposed a “debt diet” that would reduce annual bonding from $2 billion to $1.3 billion.
“I don’t think he realizes the legislature is as strong as it is and wants to be even stronger,” said Rep. Livvy Floren, R-Greenwich, a close friend of Lamont and 10-term legislator.
Floren said it not easy governing and putting together an administration.
“I think he was kind of feeling his way, trying to make it a different structure in the executive branch,” Floren said. “Will it work? I don’t know. His heart’s in the right place.”
Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to Malloy, said job approval ratings are not an indicator of effectiveness and that one would have to have “magical powers” to be popular as Connecticut’s governor.
“It means he’s doing his job,” Occhiogrosso said. “It’s tough medicine. It’s what the state needs. Ask them what the alternative is.”
One of Lamont’s Republican counterparts, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, tried to seize on Connecticut’s troubles in an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Wednesday morning, the same day the Morning Consult poll was released. Sununu has a 64 percent approval rating, the third-highest in the nation.
“I’d fix Connecticut in about 20 minutes,” Sununu said when asked what he would do if he had to change places with Lamont. “They don’t put themselves in a position to be successful.”
No singular issue has defined Lamont’s first four months in office more than tolls. In February, Lamont caught the state by surprise with a video message proposing tolls on all vehicles on Interstates 95, 91, 84 and Route 15. The following day, the governor dispatched Drajewicz to answer questions from the media about Lamont’s flip-flop.
Lamont said a number of lawmakers have expressed concerns about a backlash because of the unpopularity of tolls. “Our job is to lead,” he said.
Former State Democratic Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said Lamont understood what he was getting himself into when he ran for governor last year and that Lamont’s love for Connecticut is undeniable.
“Considering the economic state of Connecticut, people certainly will be angry unless you can turn it around quickly,” DiNardo said. “I think Ned understood what the state was like, and I think he felt that he could make a difference.”
Lamont senior adviser Colleen Flanagan Johnson, who previously worked in the Malloy administration, said it shouldn’t be a knock on Lamont that he’s inclusive.
“It’s nice to have someone that knows what they know and knows what they don’t know,” she said. “I think you see that he doesn’t rule with an iron first. And why is that bad thing?”
Neil Vigdor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org