For four decades, Mark Davis has been a mainstay of Connecticut broadcast journalism and one of the state’s most recognized media personalities. Based at WTNH-TV News 8 in New Haven, he’s covered six governors and been in the thick of every big political story of the last 30-plus years, winning a shelf full of local Emmy awards in the process. The 72-year-old Granby resident announced in late November his retirement as WTNH’s chief political correspondent, citing the dangers of the coronavirus to someone his age. Shortly after his announcement, we talked to Davis about his life, his career and the stories and politicians he’s covered. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
A lot of people think you are a Connecticut native, but you’re actually from Massachusetts. How did you get into broadcasting?
I was a competitive debater in high school. I decided right then and there, if I could make a living from talking, I would. My career started in Boston as a very young man. I got interested in radio and hung out at local radio stations. One day, they needed a guy to fill in on a Sunday, and I got a chance. I got my first full-time job in 1967 when I was18. I worked nights and went to Emerson College mornings. I remember one journalism class where several of us were trying to stay awake. One was Dave “Chico” Ryan who was playing gigs at night and later joined Sha Na Na. Another fellow always sleeping was Jay Leno. He was out doing clubs.
How did your career evolve? How did you end up in the Nutmeg State?
I had a lot of success at most of the major radio stations in Boston. Having a lot of success at a very young age is not a good thing. I was, frankly, a difficult employee. That’s what I’d call it now, and I got fired from one of those big jobs. I was sitting at home feeling sorry for myself and the biggest station in the market called and said, “Can you come? We need you.” That sort of undermined any humbleness, for a while, anyway.
All of the radio and newspaper guys told me I should do television and most of them said it was because I had good hair. [Laughs] The problem was I was successful enough in Boston that I was making more than the reporters in the market so there wasn’t any good launchpad for me. I did some part-time TV. Then in 1980, I got offered a radio gig at WTIC in Hartford and thought I’ll go down there for a couple of years and come back.
You started as a part-time reporter at WTNH in 1984 while still doing your WTIC radio show, became the TV station’s co-anchor in about 1985 and then moved on to full-time political reporting a few years later. What are the biggest stories you covered over the years?
The aftermath of the 1983 Mianus River Bridge collapse in Greenwich and the gas tax increase to pay for a major infrastructure repair plan; the income tax battle in 1991 and after that the four-way governor’s race in 1994; the John Rowland scandal and his resignation; the ascent of Gov. Jodi Rell, one of the most lovely people you’ll ever want to know; then Dan Malloy and all the problems with the budgets.
Another apex was Joe Lieberman running for vice president in 2000. I was on the campaign plane with Joe in the last days of the election. We did 12 cities in 96 hours. Nobody slept. I remember we got to Phoenix at like 4 a.m., checked into a hotel and all we had time to do was shower, get changed and get back on the plane.
I can still remember the last leg of that trip. We flew into Tweed airport in New Haven so Joe could vote for himself and then got back on the plane to meet Gore in Nashville. I can still remember, he said to me, “Mark, I’m confident the key to this election is going to be Florida.” What kind of foreshadowing do you call that?
You covered former Gov. John Rowland throughout his career and broke the news of his resignation. Many find Rowland an enigma, a very successful politician who threw it all away and has been to federal prison twice. What’s your take on him?
He was incredibly talented. It’s a shame. It started with a lie about a hot tub. He was a very gifted politician and I liked him, but he had a streak of arrogance.
He summoned me to his office around Christmas 2003 just as the scandal was breaking. He told me, “These gifts I got, they’re just gifts. There’s no problem with them. There’s no way I can be impeached for this, and I’ll never resign.” I told him we had consulted with an accountant and you have at the very least a tax liability. If they don’t get you on the gifts, they’ll get you on taxes. I’m not going to stop. The Courant isn’t going to stop. You are in difficulty. He wouldn’t hear of it. [Rowland resigned six months later.]
Of all the governors you covered, who was the most effective?
Most effective, that’s hard to say. Lowell Weicker got what he wanted, what he thought he needed. He remade state government by instituting an income tax through the will of his personality. You also have to look at the deal with the tribes [the 1993 agreement under which the Mashantucket Pequots got the right to operate slot machines at their casino in exchange for a cut of the revenue]. That was a brilliant stroke. The state got all of that money for years.
Rowland did pretty well. If he hadn’t gotten into trouble, people would remember him as one of the better governors.
What were they like as people?
Gov. Bill O’Neill was a lovely man and he and his wife Nikki were a lovely couple. Weicker could be a terrible grouch, but in a social setting he was charming. Rowland was nice most of the time. Jodi Rell was extremely likable all the time. Dan Malloy was difficult for some people and I think it’s because of his dyslexia and having been told he wouldn’t amount to anything. Ned Lamont is a very sincere guy. He got the bug and thinks he can help out.
Unlike a lot of journalists, you are not cynical about politics and politicians.
I don’t like it when people disparage elected leaders. Yes, some of them are in it for personal gain, although I can’t say I’ve really seen that many.
People say to me, why can’t the legislature and governor get more done? I say, when your family gets together for Thanksgiving, do you all agree on everything? People say, no, no. We have big arguments after dinner. I say, think about that with 187 people — 151 representatives, 36 senators — all having their own opinions and then you have to get the governor to agree with it. It’s remarkable that anything gets done.
Viewers see only Mark Davis, but people you’ve covered and your fellow journalists know it’s always been Mark Davis and Joe Sferrazza, your longtime cameraman. Tell us about Joe.
We were hired at WTNH on the same day, Aug. 6, 1984. Joe is so much more than a photographer. He’s a field producer. He’s politically savvy. He’s a good newsman in addition to being a superb TV photographer. I’d say any success that I’ve had or that people say I’ve had is at least 50 percent due to him.
Is there any chance of a return after COVID lifts?
I’m not ruling out coming back. The general manager at News 8 has said to me, you can come back on your own terms. We’ll see. Election night was the first time in more than 50 years that I was able to stay home and watch a movie on TV. The movie wasn’t that good, but being able to watch it was.