It’s a job situation perhaps best described as flying without a net.
Because when you’re one of the hundreds of state political appointees working in virtually every agency and elected office, as the saying among them goes, you can be fired at any moment if the boss doesn’t like the color of your shirt.
On the flip side, most appointees got the job because of their political connections and without having to satisfy any formal requirements about their qualifications for it.
What they all share is the daily visceral awareness that state law says they “serve at the pleasure” of their boss – and can be terminated at any moment without explanation.
And with none of the employment protections commonly available to workers that were hired through the traditional civil-service or “classified” route, there is little recourse to being canned other than a longshot lawsuit.
“We’re like pieces on a chess board,” is how one appointee put it in a series of interviews with current and former appointees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The expectation is that your job depends on your political loyalty.”
The number of political appointees has grown by about 15-percent over the past five years, and now numbers about 275 workers being paid a combined $38 million a year.
They include agency commissioners and deputy commissioners appointed by the Governor, as well as other executive administrative posts further down the ladder that are typically filled by commissioners with the Governor’s blessing.
High-level appointees like commissioners are often rewarded with the position after working on a Governor’s election campaign, or after retiring from elected office or running unsuccessfully against an opponent from the opposite party of the sitting governor.
Nominated commissioners must be approved after a confirmation hearing before the General Assembly, but in essence need no conventional qualifications related to the position.
“I think there’s always skepticism when anybody comes into a job as a political appointee,” and perhaps without a seemingly-suited resumé, said one appointee who has worked for both Democrat and Republican administrations. “There are those who are there to do the job and those that are calling in favors and got the job whether they have the skill set for it or not. I’ve seen really competent people come in and some people who didn’t have the qualifications or the experience for the job and were installed anyway in a plum position of great responsibility.”
A recent series of public moves among appointees in the administration of Democrat Gov. Ned Lamont has put a spotlight on the system.
Longtime Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton’s appointment early this year by Lamont to head the state tax department after declining to run again is one example of a retired politician being named to head a major state agency — although somewhat atypical because Boughton is a Republican.
Lamont also has nominated former State Senator Danté Bartolomeo – a Democrat who was on his 2018 campaign team – to take over the Department of Labor, where Lamont placed her as a deputy commissioner immediately after he took office.
Her confirmation hearing is pending.
Late last month, Kosta Diamantis, a former Democrat state representative and an appointed high-ranking budget official at the Office of Policy and Management, resigned after being put on paid leave by the Lamont administration based on an undisclosed “personnel matter.”
Diamantis was appointed to a separate post by Democrat Gov. Dan Malloy in 2015 before moving to OPM.
Other than commissioners, deputy commissioners and other top administrators, each agency and elected official is also allowed up to four “executive assistants” who can fill any role in the office from lawyer to secretary.
They often are hired to be communication directors who work with the media and serve as agency spokesperson, or as legislative liaisons assigned to shepherd agency bills through the Capitol labyrinth.
In 2015, the Malloy administration convinced the legislature to convert those two positions from “classified,” civil-service jobs to the ranks of political appointees.
Displeased at what it perceived as people in those positions not toeing the party line or speaking without first getting approval from above, Malloy’s office made the move as a way to more fully control how its policy messaging was handled in the media and at the Capitol.
The bill making the switch was passed in the final midnight-deadline rush of that year’s legislative session, drawing much ire from those affected, but ultimately no recourse.
“I went to bed a classified employee and when I woke up I was unclassified,” one former employee recalled with still-lingering exasperation.
And the action by the Democrat hierarchy quickly had consequences beyond just changing the employment rules on the books.
In a matter of months, at least five of the 32 employees affected were let go, many who affiliated as Republican or were hired under a Republican governor, and were largely replaced by appointees with ties to the Democratic party.
“That bill passed in the middle of the night allowed Malloy to dismiss people at will for no cause and install people more politically loyal to them into those positions,” said another appointee who has worked in both the legislative and communication roles. “It basically gave the Governor’s office a whole new group of political servants.”
As under Malloy, the Lamont administration summons those staff members to regular group meetings to shape and enforce the execution of the Governor’s proscribed messaging on any number of issues they are dealing with at a given moment.
The case of one appointee who handled both of those roles before being abruptly fired last year provides a window into how tenuous these appointments can be.
Av Harris, who had worked for several state elected officials as well as Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, was terminated on New Year’s Eve 2020 by the commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, who said he couldn’t be trusted after Harris reported to lawyers in Lamont’s office that he feared a planned fine by the commissioner against a Bridgeport bar may be illegal.
Harris filed a whistleblower lawsuit to get his job back.
But the case was dismissed last month after a Superior Court judge agreed with Lamont’s contention that Harris was not protected as a whistleblower because the action he was trying to prevent – the fine – had not yet occurred.
One former appointed communications director said Harris’ case demonstrates how even an apparent well-intentioned act can lead to an appointee being terminated at the whim of their superiors for any sort of perceived disloyalty.
“The system essentially gives the Governor an army of communications people to put out his message under fear of losing their job if they don’t do that to his liking,” the appointee said. “You basically walk in the door every day knowing that you’re flying without a net.”
Editor’s note: Jensen was a longtime spokesperson in Connecticut government prior to joining CT Examiner.