The incoming head of the University of Maine System is a former Connecticut governor whose tenure was marked by bipartisan disapproval.
Dannel Malloy, who will replace Chancellor James Page after he leaves office on June 30, angered liberals with his fights over changing tenure rules and support for austerity measures amid budget shortfalls and conservatives with his support for raising taxes and stronger gun regulations.
That bipartisan disdain left him with a 21 percent approval rating, according to a July 2018 Morning Consult poll, making him the second-least popular governor after Oklahoma’s Republican Mary Fallin. (Paul LePage, who left Maine’s Blaine House in January, had a 40 percent approval rating in that same poll.)
Popularity eluded Malloy, a former New York City prosecutor and mayor of Stamford, Connecticut, early on. His election in 2010 was the closest Connecticut gubernatorial race in 56 years, and he was re-elected in 2014 without ever breaking 50 percent in any poll, according to the Connecticut Mirror.
But Malloy, the first Democrat to win a gubernatorial race in Connecticut in more than 20 years, wasn’t dismayed over his notable unpopularity, telling the Mirror late last year that he was not going to sit around “wondering when I’m going to be loved.”
“I purposely chose to be unpopular,” Malloy told the Mirror in December 2018. “I did every time I took up an issue that someone else had failed to take up. I knew what the response was going to be. And you haven’t talked to a politician who can answer that question in that way. I wasn’t afraid of it. It doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. But I was absolutely not afraid of it. That’s the difference.”
Malloy left Connecticut governor’s mansion on Jan. 9, 2019. He was succeeded by Democrat Ned Lamont.
Malloy infuriated the state’s teachers in February 2012 when he called on legislators to revamp how Connecticut awards tenure, saying “tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away.”
“We’ve been too timid when the situation calls for boldness,” the Connecticut Mirror quoted Malloy as saying to a joint session of the General Assembly. “Now, I’m a Democrat. I’ve been told that I can’t, or shouldn’t, touch teacher tenure. … I do what I say I’m going to do, and do what I think is right for Connecticut, irrespective of the political consequences. So when I say it’s time we reform teacher tenure, I mean it.”
Malloy’s plan would have provided tenure two-and-a-half years only if teachers earned exemplary grades on two evaluations, based largely on student achievement, or in four years with three proficient evaluations, according to the Mirror. Teachers at the time automatically earned tenure after four years. The proposal drew strong pushback from unions and teachers, the Connecticut Post-Chronicle reports.
A compromise version of his proposal requiring annual performance evaluations for principals, administrators and teachers and linking tenure to a teacher’s effectiveness found approval in the General Assembly, and Malloy signed the bill into law in May 2012.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Malloy found himself in the national spotlight when 20 children and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Malloy championed tougher gun regulations in the wake of the mass shooting, and Connecticut passed some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation within five months of the massacre. Malloy’s stance on gun control has drawn the ire of conservatives, particularly after he likened the NRA to a “ terrorist organization” in the weeks after the Valentine’s Day 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“I said that the NRA acts like a terrorist organization. Webster’s defines a terrorist organization as one that uses fear to effect its goals. What organization in America has used fear better than the NRA?” told NPR in March 2018.
Fiscal problems also marked Malloy’s time as governor. He inherited a budget crisis, as the state faced a $3.7 billion budget shortfall, empty reserves and an anemic recovery from the Great Recession, and in his first year, he raised taxes $1.8 billion — one of the largest tax hikes in the state’s history — to make up for the shortfall, the Connecticut Mirror reports.
Malloy, like previous governor’s, faced mounting costs from public employee pensions, according to the Mirror. The state’s obligations to retired workers totalled $1.1 billion, about 6 percent of the state budget, the year before he came to office. By his last year in office, those obligations more than doubled to $2.5 billion, consuming 13 percent of the state budget.
But he was the first governor in modern Connecticut history to make required pension contributions. In 2017, he struck a deal with state employee unions to delay some pension obligations until after 2032, according to the Mirror.
Amid the fiscal problems, Malloy slashed 2,500 executive branch positions and slowed annual growth in spending, the Mirror reports. While Malloy left his successor a budget shortfall ($1.7 billion), it was half of what he entered office facing.
He was a target of criticism from Republicans, who have accused him of “wrecking” the state’s economy, but Roy Occhiogrosso, a political strategist who advised Malloy’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns, told the Mirror that such accusations are “ridiculous,” saying that “in so many ways he put the state in a position where future growth is possible.”
In 2016, Malloy was named the 2016 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for defending the U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and welcoming a family of Syrian refugees to New Haven, Connecticut, after they had been turned away by another state, according to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
“It was not easy, it was not always popular but it was a job to be gotten done,” Malloy said, reflecting on his tenure as Connecticut’s governor, Thursday morning at a press conference at the University of Maine in Orono.
BDN writer Eesha Pendharkar contributed to this report.