OK, it’s an obvious choice today, perhaps a brilliant one. But the story of how Connecticut’s governor quietly committed to Joe Biden on the very first day of his 2020 presidential campaign 19 months ago is not one of political calculation, guile or acumen. It’s a Ned Lamont story.
On April 25, 2019, Biden formally became a candidate for president. On the same day, Lamont sent him an unsolicited contribution of $3,000, a significant political act for a sitting governor that he failed to mention to senior staff for days, if not weeks.
“There wasn’t any real calculus,” Lamont said in an interview Friday, a day when he periodically checked his phone for updates, news that would finally come on Saturday. “I just thought he was the most real, genuine guy who represented the best values of this country.”
So, he pulled out his credit card.
The contribution, and one sent the next day by his wife, Annie Lamont, went unnoticed. Lamont’s public endorsement of Biden didn’t come until July 2, 2019 as the Biden campaign was filing its first finance report — and the contributions by Connecticut’s governor and first lady would become a public record.
“Joe Biden is a friend to me, a friend to Connecticut,” Lamont said Saturday in a congratulatory tweet, “and our nation will be in great hands with him as the 46th president of the United States.”
He celebrated Biden as a conciliator, a man who can “recapture the soul of our country.” On Friday, Lamont said, “This is just four years of a nightmare this country could never imagine.”
Lamont, a product of Harvard and Yale, said he decided early last year he preferred the candidate who called himself, “Middle-Class Joe.” It didn’t hurt that Biden campaigned for him in 2018, or that former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut was a mutual friend.
“You look at a Trump, pretending to be fighting for the middle class, I thought Joe measured up really well,” Lamont said. “I thought in the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, he gives us a little chance to lower the temperature.”
Lamont looks at coming reelection cycle
Even if there was no calculus to his endorsement, Lamont’s political fortunes have improved in 2020. He is on good terms with a man who will be the next president; Connecticut Democrats did well on Tuesday, and Lamont’s approval ratings have bounced from some of the worst in 2019 to among the best of 2020.
Until he signals otherwise, the default assumption among many Democrats is that Lamont will seek reelection in 2022.
For now, he is signaling nothing — other than a dislike of Washington, even if he once spent $20 million on a campaign to get there.
“I love the job. I think you can sort of sense that,” said Lamont, who became governor in January 2019. “But I hate the politics. I’ve had a little bit of an opportunity here with COVID to be above the politics.”
His posture toward reelection is political astute. Right now, the public sees him as a governor managing a public health crisis and expected surge of COVID-19 cases as the weather cools and social life moves indoors, where transmission is easiest.
“I’m staying away from politics,” he said.
But his public and private schedules say he is, at the very least, keeping his 2022 options open. Almost every public stop is matched with a private one, a lunch or coffee with local officials. They are the networking gestures that tend to be remembered.
“I don’t do that for politics,” Lamont said. “I suppose it’s helpful.”
On Friday, Lamont had a late lunch scheduled in the Naugatuck Valley with three winners in Tuesday’s election: Sen.-elect Jorge Cabrera, Rep.-elect Mary Welander and Rep. Kara Rochelle, D-Derby, a freshman. Lamont had campaigned for all three.
“We’ve got some really big decisions you’ve got to make. And if you’re constantly worried about the next election, you’re not going to get it done,” Lamont said. “So, I’m staying away from that.”
Democrats made net gains of two seats in the Senate and seven in the House, giving them majorities of 24-12 in the Senate and 98-53 in the House when the legislature opens its 2021 session in January.
I love the job. I think you can sort of sense that. But I hate the politics. I’ve had a little bit of an opportunity here with COVID to be above the politics.”— Ned Lamont
Tighter margins were a benefit for a governor wary of tax increases and cautious about new spending. He was noncommittal when asked to assess the opportunities and challenges posed by larger Democratic majorities.
“Let’s see,” he said.
He said the gains Democrats made in 2018 broke an 18-18 tie in the Senate that helped him deliver on promises to create a paid family and medical leave program and pass a law raising the $10.10 minimum wage in annual steps to $15 in October 2023. It rose to $11 in 2019 and $12 this year.
“Now the Democrats are so big, we’ll see what those coalitions will look like,” he said.
His one big play in 2019 — pitching highway tolls as a way to modernize Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure and stabilize a Special Transportation Fund teetering on the edge of insolvency — was a spectacular failure.
The big decisions awaiting the legislature include finding funding for the Special Transportation Fund, which relies on fuel taxes to pay for transportation debt service and operating costs at the Department of Transportation.
Another is controlling health costs that are choking small businesses and state government. Lamont said he is working with Comptroller Kevin Lembo on bringing transparency to opaque pricing of health care.
“You ever see the difference in prices? We have guys who are 50%, 100% more than other places and there’s just no rationale for the system,” Lamont said. “So, I’m pushing very hard in terms of preferred networks and showing you where you get the best value.”
An admiration for small steps, not ‘Hail Mary passes’
Lamont said he is comfortable with Biden’s deliberate, if incremental, approach to major policy issues like health insurance.
When Lamont sent his first contribution to Biden’s campaign, the former vice president was locked in an uncertain fight for the Democratic nomination in a large field that included two politicians popular with the party’s activist left, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Sanders and Warren both supported Medicare for All, a mandatory single-payer health care system. Biden favored a more cautious approach of preserving the Affordable Care Act and creating a public option — a government-funded insurance program that would be available as an alternative to private insurance.
“Let’s face it. On health care, he feels like moving the ball forward 10 yards at a go is not bad,” Lamont said. “You can sit around throwing Hail Mary passes — that’s what you do in a campaign — but he’s also a guy who knows how to govern.”
Lamont said incrementalism is not a bad word.
“It’s called progress,” he said.
His own approach to transportation revenue in 2021 will be incremental. Lamont said he has no intention of proposing tolls, nor does he expect lawmakers to do so. No tolls bill, including one final compromise that only would have applied to trucks, ever came to a vote.
“I don’t think they have any appetite to do something like tolls, and I want them to take a lead on something,” Lamont said of lawmakers.
He now speaks of “intermediate solutions” that could keep the special transportation fund solvent for another couple years. With interest rates low, Lamont the debt diet he imposed on the state his first year might no longer make sense. More borrowing might be an answer.
And he is staking much on Biden.
“We’re going to have an enormous transportation infrastructure opportunity coming out of the Biden administration,” Lamont said. “You’ve got interest rates as close to zero as we’ve ever had. And everybody on both sides of the aisle agrees we have to do something to fix our infrastructure, perhaps now more than ever.”
Lamont emerged during the campaign as one of the rainmakers listed by the Biden campaign as a bundler of contributions. The governor and first lady hosted a hastily organized fundraiser at their Greenwich home in October 2019. It quickly sold out, with a surprising guest list.
“You have as many Republicans and independents as you have Democrats in this room,” Lamont recalled telling Biden. “That ought to tell you something. It told me something.”
Biden intends to raise taxes on those donors.
Lamont is opposed to raising state income taxes, preferring to keep Connecticut competitive with other northeastern states at a time when thousands of New Yorkers are relocating to Connecticut. But he supports Biden’s plan to raise federal taxes on the wealthy, more than $2 trillion over a decade.
“Part of that, he’s doing it so states don’t have to raise taxes. And he’s doing that so that he can provide state and local support we need to make up for our lost revenues, right?” Lamont said, referring to COVID’s impact on state budgets. “For us, that’s a billion and a half bucks on an annual basis, for probably a couple of years.”
Lamont said Biden’s insistence on reversing some of Trump’s tax cuts, which were not offset by spending cuts, is a necessary corrective.
“Trump was running a trillion-dollar deficit before there was COVID. So I don’t want to take any fiscal conservative grief from any Republicans,” Lamont said, bemoaning how the GOP’s deficit hawks have fallen mute under Trump. “I didn’t hear one of them speak out, except perhaps for Paul Ryan, who promptly retired.”
Lamont ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, briefly becoming a national icon of the anti-war left as he challenged Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary. He was miscast. At national governors’ meetings, Lamont said he gravitates to the governors with similar backgrounds, a mix of Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s all the business guys that get together. It’s me and Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker and Gina Raimondo,” Lamont said.
His own effort to go to Washington seems mystifying to him today.
“I hated the war in Iraq,” Lamont said. Then he smiled and added, “And I thought Joe Lieberman was tiresome.”