One-Party Politics in Connecticut: The Elephant Not In the Room
From the moment President Barack Obama called for the government to “give America a raise,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other Connecticut Democrats stood waiting at the base of the mountain to carry out the newest commandment.
The stump speech for raising the minimum wage borne in the President’s State of the Union address was repeated in the William Detrick Gymnasium on the campus of Central Connecticut State University a month later, punctuated by the cheers of students and Democratic legislators.
Obama visited Connecticut, traveled with other New England governors and broke bread at New Britain’s Café Beauregard (the site where Malloy would later sign a law raising the minimum wage to Obama’s standards by 2017). He didn’t need to push for raising the minimum wage in Connecticut—the deep blue stronghold of the Democratic Party already approved raising it, 71 percent to 25 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released days before his speech.
Obama came here to send a message to Congress that if it couldn’t get it done, then the states would. And the New England governors assembled on the stage behind Obama echoed that sentiment, showing that they were willing to set polices that stretched across their borders in tandem with each other.
Obama’s selection of Connecticut was pretty clear. The state has had a trifecta of Democratic rule, with an absolute majority in the House and Senate, and a Democrat in the governor’s office since 2011. Even before then, while Republicans controlled the governor’s office since the 1980s (and a few years in between), Democrats have controlled both chambers of the assembly for decades. Except for pockets of municipal races, Connecticut Republicans have been absorbed and muted by the loud clamoring of liberal Democratic policy.
Since 2011, the state has continued to act as an incubator for Democratic principles. Connecticut has passed liberal policies and risen to the top as an example for other states in such initiatives as health care—while Republican-controlled states left the creation of insurance exchanges up to the federal government and rejected funds to expand Medicare, Connecticut’s health insurance exchange is universally cited as one of the best in the nation.
Ask a Democratic legislator if all this is a good thing, and they’ll rattle off a list of liberal ingenuities that have been passed since 2011. Every reporter is forwarded an “in case you missed it” chain to show the White House’s statement praising Connecticut for acting as a leader, as they did after the minimum wage was raised.
Ask a Republican legislator and they’ll speak of their efforts to take back both chambers and the governor’s office to “fix” what’s been done by the Democrats.
An analysis by the New York Times found 36 states are now controlled entirely by a single political party—the largest number of one-party ruled states in six decades.
Connecticut is one of 13 states controlled by Democrats, compared to 23 run by Republicans. States are continuing to decide issues that members of Congress can’t agree on—but the extreme polarization also means states are moving further and further apart. Representatives those states send to Washington, D.C., have also become more polarized.
One-party rule is the current lay of the land here—but an added dynamic is geography. Situated in cozy New England and among the historically blue states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York, Connecticut has the advantage of being surrounded by states with the same mindset.
The closeness of other Democratic-controlled states means that there’s more regionalization of policies. “Take minimum wage—that new policy doesn’t really work unless you have pretty much all of the New England states controlled by Democrats—and now the governors of these different states are pledging to do this,” says Quinnipiac University political science professor Scott McLean. “It’s interesting that not just a state becomes tilted in one direction—it’s interesting when an entire region becomes that entire way—they start to cooperate to fill in the gaps where Congress doesn’t fill it in. It leads to much more of a sense that we’re not so much talking about 50 different states, but we’re talking about five or six different regions as kind of economic policy laboratories.”
Hartford, when viewed through the lens of politics, looks nothing like Washington, D.C. Despite the occasional threat toward the end of a session of the General Assembly, there aren’t serial filibusters or the promise of gridlock on every vote.
Democrats say one-party rule has allowed for things to get done, and claim that Republicans aren’t shut out of the process. Republicans disagree on that notion—but not everyone’s opposed to one-party rule. They’re just opposed to the party in power.
“One-party dominance in Connecticut has allowed the state government to step in where the gridlocked federal government is unable to act,” says McLean. He points to the state’s health insurance exchange and gun-control laws as evidence. “I think the whole series of issues like that we’re starting to see the state, or at least our state, pick up a lot of these initiatives that the nation has talked about pursuing. It’s really the old idea of states making policies.”
The current U.S. Congress has been rated among the most ineffective in history. You can’t say the same for Connecticut. If graded on a scale where just change is measured, and opinion on that change is muted, Connecticut’s Democratic majority has accomplished much.
In the three years since Malloy took office, Connecticut’s legislature has repealed the death penalty, raised the minimum wage, allowed drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, decriminalized marijuana, mandated paid sick leave and enacted stricter gun control—all in a time when Congress couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the same.
Democrats say that’s reason to celebrate—that one-party rule has worked to create progressive policies wanted by constituents.
“Look at the complete gridlock that exists at the national level, where Congress has been basically reduced to being a debating society and not doing any business,” says Democratic Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney. “Here in Connecticut, we’ve been able to do a number of things that have been important.”
That’s because Republicans, outnumbered in the Senate 22 to 14 and in the House 98 to 53, don’t have the votes to do such a thing. It also means the Democrats don’t have another party to blame for any failures.
In Washington, when Democratic-sponsored votes are stymied and Congress is at a standstill, there’s Speaker of the House John Boehner or Tea Party Republicans in the House to point the finger at. When Connecticut residents are unhappy, Democrats have no choice but to look in the mirror—a fact Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. is hoping voters will remember the next time they go to elect their state legislators and governor.
“The Democratic party owns Connecticut’s economy,” Labriola says, who concedes that one-party rule might not be a bad thing if Republicans were in charge. In fact, he acknowledges that it might be necessary “to correct the excesses” from Democratic rule. He and his fellow Republicans offer a litany of studies to point to and argue that Connecticut’s economy isn’t doing well.
Democrats refute such allegations, suggesting that they’re doing the best with what they inherited.
Gov. Malloy noted this during his state of the state address in February. “Our work hasn’t been easy. No person—and certainly no government—is perfect. Lord knows I’m not. All of our progress has come with setbacks along the way,” he said. “But together we’ve proven that positive change, while hard, is possible. That progress is possible.”
Democrats can point to legislation and “progress” to show their way is effective. Republicans counter that Democrats are acting like greedy children, overzealous to change policies that don’t help residents.
“Clearly Connecticut is out of balance and is suffering from one-party Democratic rule,” says Labriola. “They have given us massive tax hikes and bad policies which have retarded job growth. These self-inflicted wounds have put us in a state where more than half of Connecticut families live paycheck to paycheck.”
Despite being outnumbered, Republicans do play an important part in the process. “Their role is to point out alternate perspective in their point of view and criticize the majority’s proposals and campaign on that critique,” says Democratic Majority Leader Looney (New Haven). “If they think they can convert people, to make changes based on their critiques, that’s what our process is all about. But if you did have divided government, you would likely have more gridlock.”
That’s the way the voters have decided, says House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden). “Voters ultimately decide who is elected,” Sharkey says. “The fact is that before Dan Malloy the last Democratic governor was in the 1980s. I certainly don’t believe residents want us to be like Washington, where gridlock rules the day.”
Sharkey says he’s set a tone, and wants to ensure that bills are passed on a “bipartisan basis.”
He adds: “One of the most important examples is the historic gun-safety bill passed just one year ago, one of the strongest in the nation. No other state legislature of Congress have been able to accomplish this.”
Some argue those examples of bipartisanship demonstrate that one-party rule isn’t the only way to get things done.
The minority party has “had a long tradition in Connecticut of being ready, willing and able to walk into a room with the majority and try to find out where there’s common ground,” says State Sen. John McKinney (R-Fairfield), who is currently running for governor. “With one-party rule our ability to walk into that room is limited.”
McKinney compares the period when Republican Jodi Rell was governor to when Malloy first took office. McKinney says state Republicans aren’t invited into the room or conversation to talk about the budget, though when Rell was governor and there was still a Democratic majority, Republicans were included. “It’s extremely frustrating to know that Republicans represent roughly 35 percent of the people in Connecticut, over a million people in this state, and yet those voices are silenced by the Democrats,” he says.
McKinney claims those budget examples show that Connecticut wouldn’t be like Washington, D.C., even in the event of Republican leadership. “The reality is, it’s just the opposite,” he says. “We have had a long tradition of not engaging in bitter partisan gridlocks for the sake of gridlock, quite frankly. And I gave you what is perhaps the most important issue—our state budget—solved without any gridlock. I think what the Democrats mean to say is, ‘When we had a Republican governor we didn’t get to pass every liberal progressive policy that we’ve been wanting to pass.’”
If a Republican wins the governor’s race, the party will need four more seats in the Senate to flip at least one chamber. “This is doable,” says Labriola. “I believe momentum is growing for a big course change in Connecticut because people are focusing.”
Obviously, state Democrats don’t agree.
“I don’t see that happening. We’re going to do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” says Looney. He says they’re working to find good candidates for seats where incumbents are retiring, solid candidates to challenge where strong Republican incumbents are running, and “aggressive” candidates running in Republican districts.
“We’re going to work hard to keep our majority,” he says.
McLean foresees a tough battle for the governor’s office. Current polls have the 2014 governor’s race looking like a rematch of the 2010 race between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and rival Tom Foley. Republicans need to find a clear leader though, McLean says.
“It could all change. It was a close election last time, and I think once there is a clear state leader of the Republicans who can sort of bring together the more pragmatic conservative and the really strong libertarians in the state, if they can find someone like that they might be able to do it,” he says.
Ultimately, McKinney isn’t a fan of one-party rule if its Republicans or Democrats.
“It goes back to that age-old saying—absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he says. “When you have no checks, then there is no ability to engage in checks and balances. The system tilts too much. I don’t say that as a partisan Republican, I say that as an elected official.
“I don’t think it’s about the Democratic party or the Republican party,” he adds. “If one party has too much control of anything, things don’t work as well as they should. The simple fact that it’s easier to pass a piece of legislation doesn’t necessarily mean the system is working better.”
One-Party Politics in Connecticut: The Elephant Not In the Room