Neck and Neck

Dan Malloy Is Progressives’ Dream Governor. So Why Isn’t He Winning?

From immigration to gun control and the minimum wage, Connecticut’s Dan Malloy signed into law a wish list of lefty priorities. But he’s locked in a tie with his Republican challenger.

10.30.14 9:45 AM ET

Liberal Democrats like to say they are from “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” the Massachusetts senator serving as a stand-in for progressive values on the economy, civil rights, and governmental priorities.

But perhaps a better name for this crowd would be “the Dan Malloy wing of the Democratic Party.”

Warren, after all, has mostly been rallying the party faithful at campaign stops, her big ideas running into the immovable machinery of the U.S. Senate. Malloy, meanwhile, in his first term as governor of Connecticut, has delivered on a wish list of lefty priorities.

Higher taxes on the rich? Check. A state earned income tax credit for the poor? Check. A higher minimum wage? Connecticut was the first state to raise it to $10.10 an hour after President Obama called for it. There is more: mandatory paid sick leave, repeal of the death penalty, more liberal marijuana laws, easier ballot access, a transgender rights bill, strict new gun control laws, and massive new spending on public education, higher education, and infrastructure.

If liberals have looked on with alarm as deeply red states like Kansas and Texas, stocked with Republican governors and deeply conservative legislatures, have turned into something resembling a fever dream from the American Enterprise Institute, Connecticut should be the antidote.

And yet Malloy finds himself in a virtual tie in his reelection bid against Tom Foley, a former ambassador to Ireland who lost to Malloy in 2010 by half a percentage point.

The case of Malloy, then, is a vexing one for liberals. It is axiomatic among progressives that the policies they believe in and fight for are broadly popular and stymied only by conservatives’ ability to use their personal fortunes to tilt the policy-making playing field their way. Malloy has delivered, putting together a progressive record that could surpass any other politician’s in the country.

Why isn’t Connecticut grateful?

Less than a week before Election Day, the governor is, as one campaign adviser put it, locked in a “war of attrition,” with the race going deeply negative on both sides, as Republicans brand Malloy a less-truthful Ted Kennedy and the Malloy camp makes Foley sound like a less compassionate Mitt Romney.

And so on a day when the Quinnipiac Poll shows the race tied at 43 percent apiece, about two dozen Democrats cram into Arte Inc, a nonprofit art space in the gritty Fair Haven section of New Haven. Malloy arrives with the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, in town to rally Hispanic voters on Malloy’s behalf, and both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.

The three are among the only non-Latinos in the room, and after a few moments, it is hard not to see why Malloy isn’t more popular. For all the GOP’s attempts to paint him as a class warrior, Malloy comes across as less a bleeding heart raising a fist for social equality and more a policy wonk patiently explaining to a classroom of PoliSci students why a higher minimum wage boosts economic growth or why paid sick leave is a necessary public health measure.

At the art space, the mayor of New Haven declares, “If Governor Malloy is not elected, they will take it in our hide. We are the ones that stand to lose the most. We know what we have gained with Governor Malloy.” Blumenthal, a courtly gentleman of 68 in a perfectly crisp blue shirt, gets laughs by trotting out his rudimentary Spanish. Murphy, one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate, launches into an attack on Foley’s agenda, calling the former ambassador “dangerous.” Padilla, a 43-year-old firebrand, seems like he is about to jump out of his skin, describing Malloy in Spanish as a fighter for Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who gave in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants and who permitted illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“The other candidate is a multimillionaire and he doesn’t pay taxes!” the Puerto Rico governor says, punching the air for emphasis as the crowded room erupts in screams. “Puertorriqueños, salgan a votar en masa!”

Malloy mostly stands back, clapping quietly to himself, or, when one of his allies makes a particularly salient point on his behalf, arching his eyebrows upward in a look of surprise. When his turn comes to speak, the words out of the governor’s mouth are “I’ll wrap it up.”

He then adds, “It’s getting hot in here.” Not as in “The energy of this place is burning the roof off!” but as in “It is actually getting too warm.”

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“This poor guy has a pea coat on,” he says, pointing to a well-dressed youngster in the front row.

“You’ve got to come out. We need to win this election,” he tells the crowd, before giving a rundown of his record, including how voters are far less likely to be murdered on his watch.

“The lowest homicide rate in, uh, actually, let me be very specific. Murders down 23 percent in Connecticut, ’13 to ’11. And so far this year down another 26 percent. Actually it is up now, we looked at the figures, it is actually a 35 percent reduction.” At this point, it becomes hard to hear Malloy over the chattering of the attendees, who have begun to move on to other things.

The funny thing about Malloy, though, is that he has a pretty remarkable story to tell. The eighth of eight children, he grew up so severely dyslexic that to this day he does not write email or text messages and must memorize or extemporaneously deliver all of his public remarks. He was the first person in the country without a vision disability to pass the bar exam orally.

After the rally is over, Malloy joins Padilla for a stroll through Fair Haven. A Republican tracker with a video camera shouts questions, accuses the governor of inflating his economic record, and keeps asking if he is proud to be running alongside President Obama’s economic agenda. Malloy mostly ignores him, half-turning to the camera and saying, “You are being ridiculous.”

In the barbershops and boxing gyms of New Haven, however, it is mostly Padilla who is the star of the show, reminding voters to come out on November 4 and posing for cellphone selfies. At one point Malloy does the same and ends up with a cascade of a patron’s newly cut hair streaming down his blue button-down.

“It’s OK for you. As long as it is now a long, single blond hair, you are fine,” Padilla says as he dusts it off.

At a youth boxing gym up the street, Malloy tries to make small talk with the kids. One tells the governor that his favorite subject is math. “That is terrific!” Malloy says. “Become an engineer. You can be a boxer and an engineer.”

When Malloy is asked what the hardest part of the last four years has been, he says without hesitation, “Sandy Hook.”

After the horrific school shooting there, the families of the slain teachers and first-graders were huddled into a firehouse, waiting for news. Hours had gone by, and it was clear there were no survivors, but no one had yet told the families. That grim job fell to Malloy.

“I had to tell 26 families that their loved ones were not going to be returning to them that day,” he says. “That was the hardest thing, on human and personal terms. And then to have a fight to change the laws of Connecticut. It looked like we weren’t going to win that fight. We won that fight, as well.”

It is reasonable to assume, after such a horrible attack, that passing strict new guns laws would be easy. It was not, not least because Connecticut was home to gun manufacturers like PTR Industries, a maker of semiautomatic rifles in Bristol, and Stag Arms. The debate was wrenching, with parents who just lost their 6-year-olds being heckled in the legislative chamber by Second Amendment supporters. In the end, Malloy signed into law a bill that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

From a policy standpoint, Malloy’s biggest battle came just as he was sworn into office. Then he faced a $3.7 billion deficit, the largest in state history, and the largest per capita in the nation.

“They left me holding the 5-pound bag with the proverbial 10 pounds in it,” he says. “I was not going to balance the budgets on the backs of communities. I knew that could mean we were not going to get elected in four years, but I was not put on earth to get elected. I was put on earth to do the job.”

He raised taxes by $1.5 billion, including sales and gas taxes, even as he cut taxes for lower-income earners. Now Foley is pillorying him for it.

“This is the game Republicans play,” Malloy says. “It is absolutely the game they are playing. If that deficit could have been handled any other way, then my predecessor would have handled it another way, and that is not what they did. We could not cut 18 percent out of the budget and still recognize Connecticut.”

Now, all the other stuff—the minimum wage, the paid sick leave, the immigration measure—are relatively muted in the Republican attacks in favor of these two issues.

“That’s what this race is about. That is the heart of it. Guns and the budget.”

But if all of the progressive wish-list stuff isn’t getting incoming from the GOP, the Malloy camp is making sure that the voters hear about it. That is why Malloy is campaigning on a lonely stretch of barber shops and boxing gyms in New Haven a week before the election. Malloy was the first Democratic governor of Connecticut in 24 years, even though he ran 20 points behind unaffiliated voters in 2010. He isn’t doing much better this time out, instead focusing his firepower on energizing Democratic partisans.

It is a strategy that is dependent in part on the expansion of the Working Families Party, a New York based third party that serves as an umbrella organization for labor and liberal groups. It elected Bill de Blasio mayor of New York City—he recently hosted a fundraiser for Malloy—and slowly has pulled the state leftward over the last decade.

Malloy was the party’s first experiment outside the Empire State and part of the reason why he has been able to hew so closely to a progressive agenda. The party is known in particular for its ability to draw out voters on down-ballot races. This year, it has 50 field organizers working to elect Malloy and progressive legislators.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a governor who is stronger on the issues that we care about,” said Lindsay Farrell, the WFP state director. She spoke with The Daily Beast moments after Malloy stepped into a WFP field office to rally the troops. “Look at the amount of legislation that has been passed. There is a strong case to be made that he is one of the most pro middle class, pro worker governors in America.”

Malloy, though, will not have it. If there is a division in the Democrat Party, he insists he is not on either side. Standing in the parking lot of the boxing gym, he makes no mention, Robert Kennedy-style, of doing something about the poverty that surrounds the neighborhood, told no story of his own hardscrabble upbringing.

“We did some progressive things. They were good public policy,” he shrugs. “I have just been the man in the middle, trying to make sure that we steer the right course.”