La­mont’s ‘out loud’ style tested

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Pazniokas CT MIR­ROR

Con­necti­cut’s new gov­er­nor, Ned La­mont, likes to think out loud.

It was a use­ful trait when he was gam­ing busi­ness sce­nar­ios in the late 1970s as an MBA stu­dent at Yale, de­vel­op­ing ideas for a dif­fer­ent kind of ca­ble com­pany he launched in 1985 or teach­ing in re­cent years at Cen­tral Con­necti­cut State Univer­sity.

“I think it’s sort of the only way I know how to do busi­ness,” La­mont said.

It is pre­cisely what he says new gov­er­nors are ad­vised not to do. At an ori­en­ta­tion by the Na­tional Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion shortly af­ter his elec­tion in Novem­ber, La­mont was warned there is no such thing as con­ver­sa­tions with­out con­se­quence for gov­er­nors, no safe ex­plo­ration of ideas that may be ex­am­ined, only to be dis­carded.

“They said, ‘Ab­so­lutely not. Keep your cards close to the vest. Any­thing you talk about will be im­me­di­ately leaked. You’ll be em­bar­rassed and it won’t move the ball at all,’ ” La­mont re­called, paus­ing a mo­ment be­fore adding, “I think you kind of know that’s not my style, right?”

Con­necti­cut’s law­mak­ers are try­ing to get a grip on what pre­cisely is his style — and what it por­tends about his abil­ity to rally a leg­is­la­ture and pub­lic around his bud­get proposal. It in­evitably will be the lat­est in a se­ries of dif­fi­cult bud­gets, a con­se­quence of need­ing to pay down one of the largest un­funded pen­sion li­a­bil­i­ties in the United States.

Last week, La­mont had back-to-back meet­ings at the Ex­ec­u­tive Res­i­dence with lead­ers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, then the Se­nate. He pre­vi­ously met there with la­bor lead­ers. He didn’t present a blue­print for how he in­tends to balance his first bud­get, which is due to the Gen­eral Assem­bly on Feb. 20. But he talked broadly about chal­lenges and ex­pressed an open­ness to con­sid­er­ing new ap­proaches.

“I talked out loud about what I was think­ing about, and the scale of the prob­lems, frankly. At least I want them to know what the stakes are. No­body said, ‘I sup­port this’ or ‘I op­pose that.’ It wasn’t that kind of a dis­cus­sion,” La­mont said. “I wasn’t ask­ing any­body to check a box.”

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and oth­ers de­clined to com­ment in great de­tail about their talks with La­mont, who made clear dur­ing his cam­paign that he would look to ex­pand the list of items sub­ject to the 6.35 per­cent sales tax, which now pro­duces $4.2 bil­lion of the state’s $20 bil­lion bud­get.

“We did talk a lit­tle bit, just in gen­eral, about the na­ture of the sales tax and the fact it was struc­tured when our econ­omy was some­what en­tirely de­pen­dent upon prod­ucts and goods, and now it’s heav­ily de­pen­dent upon ser­vices,” Looney said. “We did say, ba­si­cally, the two op­tions to ad­dress the sales tax are, one, a base ex­pan­sion and the sec­ond is a rate in­crease.”

La­mont al­ready has learned that even ex­plor­ing all rev­enue op­tions, even if you don’t widely talk about them, carry the risk of a po­lit­i­cal back­lash. A re­cent CT Mir­ror story re­port­ing that one of the op­tions be­ing con­sid­ered was tax­ing gro­ceries prompted a fast and fu­ri­ous out­cry.

La­mont, a self-de­scribed pol­icy wonk who has fi­nan­cially sup­ported the cen­ter-left Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and took a mid­ca­reer sab­bat­i­cal to study at the Har­vard Kennedy School In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics, said his of­fice never in­tended the re­search about tax­ing gro­ceries to go pub­lic — nor was it se­ri­ously con­sid­ered, at least not the part about food.

“But it was one of hun­dred dif­fer­ent op­tions that I asked ev­ery­body to look at,” he said.

The episode is a reminder that sell­ing ideas about taxes re­quire sound bites, not white-pa­per ex­pla­na­tions about how con­sump­tion taxes can be made less re­gres­sive. Asked if he learned any­thing from the out­cry, La­mont in­di­cated he is un­sure if there was a way to sell the idea, had he deemed it de­sir­able.

“Maybe I can say, ‘I re­duce the rate. I can give you a tax credit. I can make sure that mid­dle-class peo­ple are held harm­less. It’s a pro­gres­sive con­sump­tion tax.’ I can give you all my Brook­ings type of anal­y­sis on this stuff,” La­mont said, then smiled and added, “It was ab­so­lutely ir­rel­e­vant to any­thing that hap­pened, right?”

It is those mo­ments when La­mont still seems more like an arch ob­server of pol­i­tics, not a na­tive.

La­mont is hardly new to the game, hav­ing run and and lost two statewide races, fa­mously in a 2006 U.S. Se­nate race and for­get­tably in a 2010 pri­mary for the Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­na­tion. His chal­lenge to Sen. Joseph I. Lieber­man over the war in Iraq burned with a sense of pur­pose, one that drew him a na­tional au­di­ence. But he didn’t es­tab­lish a firm po­lit­i­cal iden­tity as a gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date four years later.

In both races, La­mont seemed amused by the at­ten­tion politi­cians give to op­tics. In 2006, he garaged his dark Lexus con­vert­ible for a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect Ford hy­brid, a ges­ture that he reg­u­larly un­der­mined by jok­ing about it.

La­mont was will­ing to play the op­tics game in 2018, open­ing his cam­paign with an ad show­ing him driv­ing a Chevy Equinox leased by the cam­paign, not the blue Tesla the fam­ily owns. “So, I turned 64 this year,” La­mont said in the ad. “Kind of lib­er­at­ing, ac­tu­ally. I’m not run­ning for gov­er­nor as a step­ping-stone, not think­ing about re-elec­tion, not go­ing to take a salary and I don’t need a gov­ern­ment car. This one’s go­ing to do just fine.”

La­mont, a Green­wich busi­ness­man who spent $12 mil­lion on his own cam­paign, is not col­lect­ing a salary. And no one thinks he is gun­ning for higher of­fice. But as was the case with his pre­de­ces­sors, La­mont is driven by a state trooper in a gov­ern­ment car.

Whether an as­set or li­a­bil­ity, La­mont ar­rived in Hart­ford for his in­au­gu­ral on Jan. 9 with few deep po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships and no sen­ti­ment among Democrats that they owed their newly solid leg­isla­tive ma­jori­ties to the new Demo­cratic gov­er­nor. He is walk­ing a dif­fi­cult line, vow­ing to im­prove Con­necti­cut’s tat­tered rep­u­ta­tion as a good place to do busi­ness while in­sist­ing he is a friend to la­bor.

His eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment com­mis­sioner is a Gold­man Sachs part­ner, a man listed as one of the most in­flu­en­tial voices in com­mer­cial real es­tate. His com­mis­sioner of ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices is a for­mer tech en­tre­pre­neur whose in­vestors in­cluded La­mont’s wife, An­nie, a suc­cess­ful ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist. The for­mer CEOs of Pep­siCo and Webster Bank are lead­ing a new pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship to pro­mote the state.

“They’re all 100 per­cent in. I just think they bring a whole dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to, cer­tainly, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, maybe more broadly in terms of what we’re try­ing to do,” La­mont said. “But I also have got to make damn sure peo­ple re­mem­ber I’m here fight­ing for my friends in la­bor. I un­der­stand they want to make sure that they’ve got a gov­er­nor who’s look­ing out for them, cer­tainly look­ing out for the mid­dle class and look­ing out for an econ­omy that works for ev­ery­body. I think you can be in­clu­sive and also re­mem­ber that it’s a wide net.”

A gov­er­nor for one month, La­mont is get­ting pre­dictably good re­views for sim­ply reach­ing out to a wide range of po­lit­i­cal play­ers, mostly in small gath­er­ings he is host­ing at the state-owned Ex­ec­u­tive Res­i­dence, a 110-year-old brick Ge­or­gian Colo­nial-style man­sion in Hart­ford’s West End. With his wife run­ning a busi­ness in Green­wich, the gov­er­nor is free most week­nights to en­ter­tain in Hart­ford.

“I like it. I like it a lot. He has this gen­uine in­ter­est in other peo­ple’s opin­ions, other peo­ple’s per­cep­tions,” said House Speaker Joe Ares­i­mow­icz, D-Ber­lin. “He hasn’t re­ally come down with how it will in­flu­ence his de­ci­sions, but the gen­uine­ness to ask the ques­tions and to lis­ten from both sides of the aisle, peo­ple in the pri­vate sec­tor, pub­lic sec­tor. I think it’s re­ally re­fresh­ing, and it’s gen­uine. You can tell it’s gen­uine.”

“He is a very pleas­ant man,” said House Mi­nor­ity Leader Themis Klar­ides, R-Derby. “He wants peo­ple to get to­gether, and that things things are best when peo­ple get to­gether.”

More likely is that La­mont will be judged as gov­er­nor by how and when he chooses to dis­agree with leg­isla­tive lead­ers, whom he read­ily con­cedes have far more ex­pe­ri­ence in the busi­ness of craft­ing po­lit­i­cally vi­able bud­gets, though he dryly notes that bud­get ex­pe­ri­ence in Con­necti­cut should not al­ways be viewed as a pos­i­tive.

“I’ve never done a bud­get like this. I’ve never done any­thing close to this. Th­ese guys have done it 10 times,” La­mont said, adding sotto voce, “with mixed suc­cess.”

He smiled. The new gov­er­nor is will­ing to dis­play a car­toon de­pict­ing him­self as a deer in the head­lights. He’s happy leg­is­la­tors find him to be pleas­ant. But he sug­gests no one should as­sume him naive.

“I’ll take some ad­vice. I want a lit­tle bi­par­ti­san buyin. I just think it’s bet­ter for the state. That prob­a­bly is wish­ful think­ing,” La­mont said. “Why not try? Why not? What do I lose by try­ing?”


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