Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s aggressive criticism of Indiana’s religious freedom law has propelled him to a leading role in the Democratic Party after years in the shadows.
The second-term governor on Monday became the first in the nation to boycott Indiana over the controversial law, which he called “incredibly stupid” and discriminatory toward the LGBT community. Connecticut’s ban on state-funded travel set off a national uproar, landing Malloy national headlines and appearances on cable news shows.
“To take a stance like he did is very smart politically,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to John KerryJohn KerryEllison comments on Obama criticized as 'a stupid thing to say' 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force Obama to attend Pittsburgh Steelers owner's funeral MORE’s presidential campaign. “It’s a big move for him and I think he’ll gain a lot of attention.”
Since Malloy announced his ban on state-funded travel, governors of Vermont, New York and Washington have taken similar stands, joined by companies like Yelp.
In response to the outcry, Indiana legislators hastily drafted a new bill specifying that businesses in the state cannot refuse service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The backlash was fueled in part by Malloy, who placed an op-ed in Time magazine urging state and local leaders across the country not to pass laws like Indiana’s, which he said are “rooted in so much hate” and allow people to be treated as "second-class citizens.”
“If we stand idly by while states legalize bigotry, we are responsible for allowing it to happen,” Malloy wrote in the op-ed, which was released the same day he signed the executive order.
To some, Malloy's national call to action sounded like a starting gun for a campaign, but the governor has repeatedly ruled out a presidential bid. His spokesman said Thursday that his current job is “his sole focus.”
Still, long-time Democratic campaign watchers say that Malloy could be angling for a future Cabinet spot, such as Health or Housing and Urban Development, or even a run for the White House down the line.
“If I’m an adviser to him, I like where he sits now,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America and a resident of Fairfield, Conn. “Looking at his track record, there’s no reason he couldn’t run for president right now.”
Malloy’s sharp words against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — calling him a “bigot” on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" — come about six months after he delivered a key reelection victory for Democrats during a brutal election cycle for the party.
His 3-percentage-point victory last fall was the rare bright spot for Democrats in a midterm year where the party lost governors' mansions across the country, including in blue states such as Massachusetts and Maryland.
With his own elections in the rearview mirror, Malloy is now pivoting to the national stage. He was recently named the 2016 head of the DGA, which gives him a powerful perch that allows him to travel the country, meet donors and champion his own record.
“I think he’s decided to turn up the heat and be more visible,” said Brad Bannon, a former New Englander who founded the Democratic polling group, Bannon Communications Research.
Malloy’s outward criticism toward Pence took some by surprise; governors rarely aim personal attacks at other sitting governors. But observers say the sharp jab reflects the governor’s style.
The former mayor of Stamford, Conn., has also publicly sparred with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, ripping him for Texas’s high murder rate and “low educational achievement.”
“When Malloy feels something, he feels it strongly,” said Bannon, who has advised campaigns in Connecticut. “He’s not a man who takes half measures. He’s the kind of guy who’s going to divide people.”
Though Malloy was recently dubbed the “progressives' dream governor” by the Daily Beast, he is rarely mentioned as one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars.
But that could change if liberal activists take a closer look at his record.
His list of liberal achievements runs long: the first-in-the-nation paid sick leave law, a repeal of the death penalty, a historic tax hike on millions and an extremely tough gun law.
“He’s not the sort of paradigm you might look for when people think of a progressive politician,” said Dean, who helped campaign across New England for his brother, former presidential contender Howard Dean. “But Malloy has been down in the trenches.”
An outspoken leader at the helm of the Democratic Governors Association could be a major asset in 2016, strategists say, particularly for the party’s likely nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonOMB director: Government shutdown not a 'desired end' America tensions with Russia won’t end after Putin’s gone Hannity attacks NY Times after report says he advises Trump MORE. They added that taking action on an issue like LGBT discrimination is a smart way to mobilize the base.
“For him to lead on this, and to get campaigns out around the country activated on this issue, I think politically is a really good,” Devine said.
Malloy — who was elected in 2010 as Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in 24 years — has already proven to be a tireless campaigner. He once gave 15 interviews in one day endorsing Obama, and was described as the president’s “surrogate general” for his 2012 campaign.
A spokesman for Malloy’s office stressed that Malloy was not seeking the national spotlight with his criticism of the Indiana law.
“This is not about starting a national conversation,” the spokesman said. “He’s a guy who’s going to stand up and do what he thinks is right. I think in this particular case, he saw an injustice happening.”