Give and Take
“The art of compromise, which is essential to democracy, seems to have gone out of style in recent years of angry, all-or-nothing politics.”
Those words appeared in Time 36 years ago, and things clearly have only gotten worse ever since. Compromise, as an art form, is as dead as vaudeville. Its home, the smoke-filled back room, and its most artful practitioner, the power-brokering political chief, are relics of an earlier day. Say what you will about the dark side of the process, it seems to me that a little closed-door give-and-take would go a long way in Hartford right now, as a new administration, the state legislature and state-employee unions try to crack a $3.5 billion walnut.
We have a long and even glorious history of understanding and practicing the art of political compromise in Connecticut. The evidence is literally all around us. The notch in our northern border, for example, is the result of an ancient border compromise with Massachusetts in which—to make a very long story short—we received the towns of Enfield, Somers, Suffield and Woodstock in return. Similarly, the panhandle of lower Fairfield County came to Connecticut in return for the town of Rye. Our own state Capitol dome represents a compromise between those who preferred a spire and those who wanted a clock tower atop the new building. One of the most famous compromises in American history was the Connecticut Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. That’s when native son Roger Sherman cut through a stubborn constitutional knot by proposing a bicameral legislature, with the House to be selected according to population, and the Senate giving equal weight to each state with two senators each.
When the words at the top of this page appeared in Time in 1975, Connecticut was facing a situation remarkably similar to the one it faces today. Ella Grasso was the new Democratic governor. Her main order of business upon taking office was to clean up a $70 million deficit (about $275 million in today’s dollars) in the state budget. Her controversial approach represented a compromise of sorts, or at least a balance. On the one hand, she tried to get state employees to work a longer week for their pay; they refused, so she laid off 505 of them. She reduced aid to cities and towns, and cut the welfare budget. On the other hand, she raised the sales tax to 7 percent. There was something for everyone to dislike, which is perhaps the very essence of compromise. And despite the voices of doom that rose up from every corner of Connecticut, the state returned to stable financial footing, the economy improved and Grasso was swept back into office in 1978.
As he completes his “Negative Feedback Tour 2011” of town hall meetings this month, perhaps Gov. Malloy can take heart from Grasso’s experience. It’s easy to bully and denigrate and make headlines (hi, there, Gov. Christie!). But, oddly enough, it takes backbone to compromise—and an eye that takes in the big picture as well as personal concerns. Who’s got what it takes in Hartford? The governor? The legislature? The unions? We’ll soon find out.