Last year, in the wake of a controversial anti-gay law in Indiana, Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy became the first governor to sign an executive order banning state-funded travel to Indiana. Malloy tweeted, “When new laws turn back the clock on progress, we can’t sit idly by. We are sending a message that discrimination won’t be tolerated.” The stand prompted a brief media flurry, but for the most part, Connecticut has been out of the public eye. But while coverage has been sparse, the state is home to a battle over the future of progressivism.
Connecticut may not be the first state that comes to mind when most Americans think of progressivism. In 2012, 58 percent of the state’s voter cast their ballots for Obama. But the state isn’t known for being blue the way California, Washington and Vermont are. Connecticut has, for a long time, been a bastion of east coast centrism. The socially liberal but fiscally conservative ideology of the elite class dominated politics in state that ranks third in millionaires per capita. Liberal lions like Senator Chris Dodd (whose name is most associated with the recent Dodd-Frank regulatory bill) were less typical than moderates like Senator Joseph Lieberman (known for his support of John McCain in 2008) and centrist Republicans like Representatives Nancy Johnson and Chris Shays. The legislature was solidly Democratic, but from 1991 until 2011, the state elected Republicans to the corner office. Its previous governor, Jodi Rell, ascended to office when her predecessor, John Rowland, resigned amid corruption charges that eventually landed him behind bars. She put into place public funding for elections and stronger campaign finance laws. On the other hand, Rell also vetoed a minimum wage increase and strongly supported the death penalty. Dana Houle, a Democratic political consultant, tells me that the state is full of “the kinds of people who would vote for a Democrat for President but didn’t see themselves as a Democrat, they wanted to see themselves as moderate.”
The state has shifted dramatically in recent years, though. The last Republican in the congressional delegation, Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., lost his Senate seat in the 1988 election. Joe Lieberman is gone, replaced by the more progressive Richard Blumenthal. In 2012, 58 percent of the state’s voter cast their ballots for Obama. This set the stage for Malloy’s rise. After more than a decade as Mayor of Stamford where he was re-elected four times, he ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic nominee for Governor in 2006. However, in 2010 he gained the Democratic nomination and won the general election against businessman Tom Foley by a razor-thin margin, putting a Democrat in the Governor’s office for the first time in two decades.
His supporters praise his savvy, and applaud his ability to build support for his favored policies. He’s “the most instinctual politician I’ve been around,” Houle told me. Malloy racked up numerous progressive accomplishments quickly: gun control, transgender rights, a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and prison reform. He recently received a “Profile in Courage” award for opening Connecticut to refugees. Even critics like David Walker, a former comptroller general who ran for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary, acknowledge his achievements, “I respect Governor Malloy,” Walker said, “who is a leader and has overcome a significant learning disability and accomplished a lot.” Possibly the clearest evidence of his progressive vision is the vehement criticism he receives from the right. The National Review has branded him “America’s Worst Governor,” and alleged that he is “governed by spleen.” While numerous progressive stars have risen in the Senate (like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand), House (Keith Ellison and Tulsi Gabbard), the White House (Thomas Perez) and municipal government (Bill de Blasio and Julian Castro) Malloy set himself up to make the case for a progressive governorship. But it’s unclear whether he has made that case.
Malloy has held himself out as a champion of progressive causes. “When we run as Republican-lite we lose,” he recently told a national gathering. “Let us be Democrats once again.” In our phone conservation last year, when I was originally reporting this piece for The Atlantic, I asked Malloy how he would focus the Democratic agenda as chair of the Democratic Governors Association (a position he had not assumed when I interviewed him). He told me, “Democrats have been all over the place with their message. What I’m saying to Democrats is, 'Hey, we should be for raising the minimum wage, we should paid sick days, we should be for gender equality, not just gay marriage, but gender and transgender equality.'” Though the interview was conducted before Trump had risen to national prominence, the themes are increasingly relevant. Malloy told me,
"We’re on the right side of that, but speak to those issues. Let there no be confusion about the party that wants to end all forms of discrimination. Let there be no doubt that we’re the party that understands that trickle-down economics, they’ve worked, they’ve worked perfectly if you’re wealthy, because you’ve got the whole pie. All the additional wealth in America has gone to the wealthy. And the middle class and poorer individuals have not seen a gain since 1980. That’s the reality, let’s tell people that. Let’s fight back."
Malloy focused on women, whom he argues are particularly impacted by policies like sick leave – suggesting a possible strategy for 2016: turning high voter turnout among women in 2016 into gains at the state level.
These aren’t just words; since taking office, he has racked up an impressive list of policy victories. Connecticut was the first state to pass a $10.10 minimum wage, now one of the centerpieces of the liberal anti-inequality agenda. Malloy also ended the death penalty in 2012. He signed legislation that added transgender protection language to the state’s anti-discrimination law. He successfully championed a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to acquire a driver’s license in Connecticut. Malloy pushed for and later signed a paid-sick leave law, the first in the country, a policy that is now a national rallying cry for progressives and may well become a core part of a future progressive agenda.
Unlike some other Democrats, Malloy has been full-fledged in his support of the Affordable Care Act, which has halved the uninsured rate in Connecticut (from 7.9 percent in 2012 to 4 percent in 2014). Kevin Counihan, the CEO of Access Health, Connecticut’s version of the state exchange, was tapped to be CEO of the federal healthcare exchange. One motivation may be the fact that Access Health CT has among the lowest spending per enrollee and among the highest enrollment numbers. Jim Wadleigh, who now directs Access Health said that before King v. Burwell, many states reached out to Connecticut for information about contingency plans, and strongly hinted many where red states. Jodi Kwarciany, a research associate at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, tells me, “Malloy deserves some credit. You need pretty serious onboarding to make the law work, and he’s been pretty instrumental in that respect. He is in no way afraid to applaud and promote the law.” She cited his request to religious leaders to discuss the Affordable Care Act as an example of his enthusiastic support for the law.
One of Malloy’s most impressive victories have come with respect to gun control. The Connecticut River Valley is the traditional heart of the American gun industry, and the issue has long been anathema to Connecticut politicians. In the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, though, the legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive gun control regimes. It made background checks universal, and banned more than 100 models of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. In 2014, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Connecticut second in its review of the strength of gun control policy, up three places from 2010, the year before Malloy was elected. Gun homicides in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven dropped from 69 in 2011 to 34 in 2014. Nationally, the firearm death rate is 10.4 per 100,000 people. In Connecticut, it’s 4.4, the fourth lowest rate of gun violence in the nation. It’s certain that the shooting, which horrified the nation, bolstered the chances of the legislation passing, but as the experience of other states shows, it’s far from inevitable that a tragedy will lead to action. As Joaquin Sapien notes in ProPublica, while states “sometimes contemplated tightening rules after rampage shootings, few measures gained passage. In fact, several states have made it easier to buy more guns and take them to more places.”
Second chance society
Malloy has also begun implementing progressive de-incarceration reforms in Connecticut. Like all states, Connecticut’s prisons disproportionately cage Black and Latino men. A 2007 study by the Sentencing Project found that Connecticut was one of only seven states where the Black-to-White ratio of incarceration (based on the rate of incarceration per 100,000 people) was greater than 10 to 1 (12.4). His Second Chance Society initiative, signed into law July 9, 2015, makes possession of drugs a misdemeanor, with no mandatory minimum and a one-year maximum in prison; re-classifies the possession of drugs as a misdemeanor; and helps previously incarcerated people integrate back into society. The bill includes $3 million in additional funding over two years for Connecticut Collaboration on Re-entry, which provides housing to individuals who would normally cycle in and out of the justice system, with each individual costing nearly $400,000 in public services over their lifetime. Similar programs have led to dramatic savings across the country. Second Chance Society also allocates $1.4 million to expand a related program which offers adult education and employment assistance to former inmates. To close the school to prison pipeline, the bill expands the School-Based Diversion Initiative (SBDI). Connecticut is one of only two states that has a law explicitly running any change to sentencing laws through a racial-justice impact assessment.
Under Malloy, the incarcerated population in Connecticut has fallen much faster than in the country as a whole. The most recent projections suggest that the incarcerated population in Connecticut could fall to 15,686 in January 2016, the lowest since September 1997 and significantly lower than the 17,746 people incarcerated in January 2011, when he took office, a nearly 12 percent decline. How much credit Malloy can take for this decline is a matter of debate. Early in his tenure, Malloy signed legislation to decriminalize marijuana and give inmates time off their sentences if they participate in education, drug rehabilitation and other classes that are intended to reduce recidivism. Such programs have, and will likely continue, to benefit people of color the most. “Connecticut has very high racial disparities in sentencing, though they have fallen a bit in recent years,” said Vesla Weaver, a professor at Yale. “The diversion programs and the emphasis on both decriminalizing and diverting is huge.” Weaver is also a faculty fellow at the Institute for Social and Policy Studies, which advised Malloy on the program. However, more complete reform will have to “happen across institutional domains,” connecting de-industrialization to the rising prison population. “Nobody’s talking about investing in the manufacturing sector, nobody’s talking about how to make these communities less segregated.”
All governors face constraints, but progressive governors have a particular difficulty. It’s far easier to abolish government than make it work, and it’s far more difficult to fund progressive programs without the advantage of being able to run deficits and raise taxes. Malloy has pursued policies favored by more centrist policy wonks. Early in his tenure, he consolidated the 81 state agencies into 57, which will save money over the long run. While the move garnered little press, it’s a symbol of the sort of progressivism Malloy pursues: not big government, but good government. Indeed, the first executive order Malloy signed was not to raise wages, but to mandate Connecticut use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), which prevents him and future governors from using accounting gimmicks to hide the true state of a state’s finances. It’s a rare politician whose first move in office is to make the budget seem half a billion dollars worse because of honest accounting, but it’s what Malloy did. The final budget included almost $1.5 billion in tax increases, $178 million below what Malloy sought. However, it also included $100 billion in transportation investment over 30 years, higher spending on community colleges, tax cuts for the middle class and more spending to pay down the debt. Some in the state question whether he has moved quickly enough to right the state’s budget. David Walker, the former comptroller general for the United States Federal Government worried of Malloy’s initial proposal, “Malloy's budget constrains spending, increases revenue, borrows more money, and still doesn’t balance the budget.” However, the Hartford Courant notes that under the budget that was passed, “debt service under Malloy's budget rises to $2.05 billion in fiscal 2017, up $330 million from this year's estimate. That amounts to 9.7 percent of the budget, the highest in a decade.”
Early in his tenure, Malloy also restructured the state’s taxes. As the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy has shown, state taxes tend to be deeply regressive. Malloy’s tax plan boosted taxes on the wealthiest residents, lowered the taxable threshold for the estate tax and included an Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits the working class. In our interview, Malloy highlighted the achievement, noting “we passed an Earned Income Tax Credit after 23 years of trying.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 69,000 Connecticuters (that’s the official term) were lifted out of poverty each year between 2011 and 2013 by the EITC. Meg Wiehe, a senior policy analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, produced an analysis of the tax changes for showing that Connecticut’s tax system has become modestly more progressive since he took office. “The tax changes enacted in Connecticut in 2011 under the leadership of Governor Malloy improved the progressivity of the state’s tax system and included many sensible reforms,” Wiehe said. She also noted, though, that even with these changes in place, the distribution of Connecticut’s tax burden remains in line with the national average.
Some critics have complaineed that the EITC boost was not as large as originally promised (originally it was supposed to be 30 percent of the federal EITC; it ended up being set to 25 percent in 2014 and 27.5 percent in 2015). Ellen Shemitz, Director of CT Voices said,d “The big story in Connecticut is not just the child poverty rate, which has doubled since 2000. It’s the discrepancy in child poverty between racial groups.” She cited data showing that in 2013, white non-Hispanic poverty in Connecticut was 5.6 percent, for Black children it was 28.2 percent and for Hispanic children it was 32.9 percent.
Some have advocated even more progressive measures to reduce the deficit. Tom Swan, the Executive Director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group and Ann Pratt, the Campaign Manager for the Worthy Wage Campaign, are advocating for a fee on large employers that do not pay their employees a $15 dollar minimum wage. Their proposal highlights another tension regarding Malloy’s governorship: Many of his progressive policies have been overshadowed by those of other states, and progressives want to see bigger victories in a solid blue state like Connecticut.
Many progressives have faulted Malloy for moving too slowly and cautiously on their issues, and the poor have suffered for it. Data from the Economic Policy Institute suggest that wages for the bottom 10 percent of workers have fallen from $9.51 in 2011 to $9.08 in 2014, while wages for the median worker have also declined, from $21.26 to $19.89. Nationally, those numbers are roughly stagnant over the same interval, with wages for the bottom decile increasing by two cents to $8.61 while the median wage dipped by two cents to $16.89. While Connecticut still has higher wages than the rest of the nation, this advantage is slipping. However the Northeast and New England region have broadly seen a decline of wages at both the bottom ten percentile and the median, though not as deep a decline as Connecticut.
These numbers are wages, not income, so they exclude the benefits that low-wage workers receive, which are substantially more generous in Connecticut than they are nationwide. A family of three on TANF benefits, for example, would receive $698 each month in Connecticut, a number that has increased under Malloy, while the national benefit is just $436.)
A recent report from Demos, where I work, examining state funding for education finds that government higher-education spending in Connecticut has fallen from $13,735 per student in 2008 to $10,655 in 2013, although it has stabilized somewhat in 2013. Even so, Connecticut’s spending on higher education still leaves it ranked fifth in the nation, far above the national average. These cuts are a major driver of rising tuitions, with Demos’ Robert Hiltonsmith estimating they may account for 80 percent of the increase in tuition costs at public universities (dwarfing increased spending on administration or higher instruction costs). However, Malloy also recently signed a bold law to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for state college. In addition, after a $1.1 billion investment in biotechnology early in his tenure, he signed legislation to encourage students to pursue biotechnology, creating a pipeline for Connecticut-based jobs.
The minimum-wage hike Malloy passed is also slightly less exciting on second glance: it won’t hit $10.10 until 2017, and it isn’t indexed to inflation. The tipped minimum wage remains at just $5.78. While employers are supposed to supplement that so it reaches the minimum wage, this often doesn’t happen, leaving many workers, disproportionately female, without a living wage. In 2013, the minimum wage in Connecticut was only 34 percent of the median wage, lower than the national average of 39 percent. Already, New York and California have dramatically surpassed Connecticut’s minimum wage hike (and indexed the hikes to inflation), and other states have implemented more generous paid sick leave policies.
More recently, Democratic legislators and Malloy negotiated a budget that includes $830 million in spending cuts (out of a nearly $20 billion budget), but no tax increases. The state has already cut 776 public sector jobs, and it may cut as many as 2,600. Some have called for even more cuts. As of this writing, it appears the budget will not be passed in the current legislative cycle, but Malloy’s willingness to slash spending has upset many progressives. Indeed, it’s not progressives, but Republicans, who are celebrating Malloy’s budget. Republican Arthur O’Neill told the CT Mirror that, “I almost expected him to turn to his left and say, 'My fellow Republicans,' and I wish I had one of those change-in-enrollment cards I could have given him on the spot before the mood changes.” The CT Post reported that the move by Malloy was aiming to take “away a potential marquee Republican campaign issue.” The story quotes Rep. Dan Carter saying, “I want to know if Dannel Malloy is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, or better yet, is he going to switch parties and run for vice president?” The glee among Republicans is matched only by the fury among many progressives.
Many progressives who were optimistic about Malloy’s future have grown disenchanted. In April of last year, Dan Cantor, National Directors of the Working Families Party told me, “Malloy has the opportunity to emerge as one of the most important leaders in the country.” But he noted that since Malloy’s major victories, many states have not only followed his lead, but actually gone a step further. Today, Cantor is far more critical, telling me that,
“Malloy is a disappointment at this point. He was a genuine progressive in his first term, setting the pace nationally on minimum wage and paid sick days. But he has reversed course on the most important decisions that any governor makes: who to tax and how to spend. On this front, Malloy is pulling from the Republican playbook.”
While progressives worry that not enough has been done for the poor, conservatives argue that Malloy’s policies have done little to boost the economy. “Connecticut is in the worst financial shape of any state in the union by some measures,” David Walker tells me, “It has a very poor competitive posture and is a net outbound state, with more people moving out than moving. Unfortunately, I think a lot of his policies are going to exacerbate that problem.” The National Review warned that “Liberal policies are driving a great state to economic suicide.” Slack labor markets are a key part of the explanation for why the middle class has yet to benefit; Connecticut’s job growth since 2011 has been notably weak compared to the rest of the nation. However, compared with its past, Connecticut has been performing better: 2014 was the best year for job growth since 1998. Further, a better comparator for Connecticut is the region, rather than the nation as a whole, and compared with New England. As the chart below shows, Connecticut job growth has largely been in line with other New England states. Between 2011 and 2014, Connecticut was 39th in terms of GDP growth (of the 50 states and District of Columbia). But the New England region also grew slowly over that period.
David Wise, a former business executive, recently produced data suggesting that blue states perform better on a range of economic and social indicators. That makes Connecticut’s dismal recent performance even more striking, “On one hand the state has produced great wealth and a highly livable state,” Wise said, “but also the highest level of inequality and poor job creation.” Wise notes that strength of the education system in Connecticut, but wants that the high rate of young people exiting the state leaves it facing a brain drain. However, Fred Carstensen, Director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, based at the University of Connecticut, cautions against too gloomy analysis of Malloy’s term. He argues that since the end of 2011, Connecticut has grown faster than any New England State except Massachusetts. He tells me,
“Once you put it in that context, Malloy’s record, it’s not great, but given the trough out of which he’s digging the state, he’s done a moderately good job of addressing it.”
Las year, when I asked Malloy about growth, he said, “We’ve seen the most robust job growth on a four and five year basis that we’ve seen in modern times in Connecticut on a sustained basis.” Further, he focused on what he sees as one of the most important question, “The Earned Income Tax Credit combined with raising the minimum wage has moved tens of thousands of families out of poverty, that’s what we did. Not far out of poverty but out of poverty nonetheless.”
The rise of pragmatic progressivism?
Malloy’s style of pragmatic progressivism is broadly in line with other Democratic governors, who want to be seen as putting good governance ahead of ideology. In California, Governor Jerry Brown is currently deciding how to spend a massive surplus. Brown signed into law a $15 minimum wage and a bill to reduce the gender pay gap. He’s pushing for an expansive renewables agenda and Democrats in the state, which has already halved its uninsured rate, are looking for ways to expand its state exchange to cover undocumented immigrants. In New York, though Andrew Cuomo has allied with Republicans and alienated progressives by openly feuding with de Blasio, he recently signed into law paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage. Although he has been liberal on social issues, signing same-sex marriage and implementing strict gun control, he has been hesitant to embrace economically progressive policies. Until recently, Cuomo eschewed a minimum wage and his bitterly opposed a tax on millionaires, comparing his opposition to his father’s trenchant opposition to the death penalty.
In many ways, Malloy enjoys a political environment that should lead him to be more progressive than Cuomo and Brown. The public financing and strict campaign-contribution limits put in place by Rell free Malloy, to a degree, from the influence of big donors. Cantor tells me,
“Public financing is tremendously important. That allows candidates who want to do good stuff to not have to worry that they won’t be able to run for re-election because the people with money will abandon them.”
Malloy noted in our interview, after discussing the accomplishments of his first term,
“I think public financing helped in all of those things or the fact that we had based on public financing. Public financing gave me enough money to win the race by 6,400 votes when I was being outspent 2 to 1.”
Other politicians in Connecticut have also said that public financing freed them to be more responsive to constituents. Research by Demos finds that public financing enables candidates to spend more time with constituents and reduces the power of lobbyists. One former public official told Demos, “before public financing, during the session…there were “shakedowns” where lobbyists and corporate sponsors had events and you as a legislator had to go. That’s no longer a part of the reality.”
In addition, Connecticut has relatively high voter turnout: 43.3 percent of the eligible population of Connecticut voted in 2014, compared with 35.9 percent nationwide. Numerous studies indicate that higher voter turnout pushes policymaking in a more progressive direction. In a composite measure of ease of access to voting developed by Ian Vandewalker and Keith Bentele, Connecticut ranked in the worst 10 states in 2010, but had climbed to the top 20 by 2014. Much of that improvement was due to a 2012 voting-rights law championed by Malloy that brought same-day registration to the state. Christopher Witko, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina who is an expert on voter turnout and policy, tells me that, “There are a lot of reasons Connecticut has progressive policies, but based on the literature we could assume that the policies would be somewhat less progressive if turnout were lower.”
However, states face constraints that the federal government doesn’t. Most states, including Connecticut, have balanced-budget amendments, meaning that they are less free to spend, a problem that’s particularly acute during economic downturns. They also must worry about corporations or wealthy individuals leaving the state. The New York Times recently reported that a single billionaire leaving a state can often leave a hole in the budget. Recently, Connecticut officials have worked to dissuade billionaires from leaving, with the commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services noting that half a dozen leaving could have, “measurable impact on the revenue stream.” Companies frequently leverage this to extract benefits from states, by threatening to move factories unless they receive preferential benefits.
Key questions remain for Connecticut: The state is still unequal, job growth is anemic and the economy is only recently beginning to emerge from the recession (now nearly a decade in the past). While there is quite a bit to be done distributing benefits, this will be easier if the economy is growing robustly.
Progressive governors cannot put ideology before governance, a unique luxury for conservatives, who often sacrifice the poor on the mantle of “experimentation.” (Consider the savage tax cuts in Kansas or failing to pass the Medicaid expansion.) Further, while conservatives have weaved a coherent (if empirically dubious) narrative about unleashing the private sector through tax cuts, progressives have failed to create a similar narrative about the benefits of their policies. Progressivism is seen as an indulgence, and when budgets need balanced, elites turn again to austerity politics. The result is that when budgets need to be balanced, workers, women, people of color and children often suffer first, even when Democrats are in power.
Malloy and other Democratic governors walk a thin line – they work to push progressive policies, but also maintain support from business and balance the budget. Pragmatic progressives are deeply aware of how the political system as it exists – deeply biased towards elites and business – constrains them. They both work within those constraints and try to push them outward, policies like public financing and same-day registration. Pragmatic progressives are more concerned with who government serves than how big it is. They believe that for government to be progressive, it must first be good. And finally, pragmatic progressives prefer big change on social issues, but are willing to push populist policies, though they are wary of upsetting the business community and entrenched elites. Pragmatic progressives want change to be slow and measured, rather than dramatic.
Yet there is a dark side to the pragmatic style of politics. Too often, the constraints on progressivism are fictional, or exacerbated by elite demobilization. A focus on wonkery can obscure the benefits of progressive programs and push activists to the sidelines. Pragmatic progressives take an inch when they could have the mile.
Pragmatic progressivism also leaves the existing power structures in place. Capital retains its veto over policy. The very idea that progressivism needs to be tempered by pragmatism can be delegitimizing. Few conservatives are as eager as powerful progressives to artificially limit their own policies. Malloy represents a both sides of this pragmatic strain of progressivism, and how he fares may be a sign for its future. Though Democrats will likely be united going into the 2016 election cycle, the rise of Sanders has revealed deep tensions.
Malloy entered office leading the charge for a state-level progressive agenda. Policies like a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave poll well were ground-breaking victories. But while Malloy has won applauds for implementing these policies early, they have been quickly surpassed by other states. Some of the victories ring hollow, and the more recent defeats sting. Connecticut has demonstrated the benefits of pragmatic progressivism, as well as exposing its deep limitations.