A self-styled ‘Rookie Governor’ Lamont talks politics with a former GOP titan

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Fresh from the passage of a new state budget hailed for winning Republican support, Gov. Ned Lamont sat down Friday to interview a consequential and controversial figure in GOP politics, former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

The online conversation by the Wesleyan RJ Julia book store in Middletown, billed as a bipartisan discussion between two politicians of diverging parties, was also an opportunity for Boehner, who left Congress in 2015, to plug his new memoir. “On the House” is filled with colorful stories from his time in Washington.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, was known for strongly conservative views mixed with old-style tactics of compromise, or at least congeniality across the aisle. Lamont is preparing to campaign for re-election as a dealmaker and unifier with moderate politics, willing to disappoint the progressives in his Democratic Party.

One of the first questions Lamont posed to Boehner was about his relationship with President Barack Obama.

Boehner, who became House speaker in 2011, midway through Obama’s first term as president, said the key was finding common ground without either side going against his principles.

“I never expected President Obama to violate his principles. and I don’t think he expected me to violate mine,” Boehner said. “I knew what he couldn’t do. He knew what I couldn’t do. The question was what could we do.”

Lamont knows something about competing principles. The governor had to deal with liberal members of his own party pushing him to add taxes on the rich and spend more state money to help the working poor, as Republicans prepared to wage a battle against any proposals to raise taxes.

In these days of governing, with a 24/7 news cycle and the flood of information — much of it false — on social media, the loudest voices, Boehner said, get the most attention.

“I’d go see the president, oh my God the media would go crazy. They would go crazy on the right side on me, and then the left side would go crazy on President Obama. Before we ever came to any agreement on anything, we had both sides ready to kill each other,” Boehner said.

Boehner said his approach to politics stems from his upbringing — the second oldest of 12 children raised in small-town southern Ohio. By mopping floors, waiting tables, and eventually tending bar at the pub owned by his dad, he “learned the art of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Despite that, the former speaker, who calls himself “a regular guy who used to have a big job,” has certainly had his share disagreeable moments.

When he got to the House in the 1990s, he joined a group of young conservatives “who promoted a dangerous style of smashmouth partisanship that ignored traditional norms of governance,” the New York Times reported. That group took control of the House under Newt Gingrich, who became speaker in the Clinton era.

In 2013, Republicans, with Boehner by their side, would not hold a vote on the debt ceiling until the Democrats repealed Obamacare. He acquiesced to calls from the Tea Party, whom he publicly decried at times, to shut down the government that year.

Boehner resigned from Congress in 2015 amid an attempt by anti-government Tea Party members to oust him as an establishment member of the old Republican party.

Boehner said Friday that he had “no regrets about when and why I left.” As for whether he’d ever run again for political office, he said: “I’d rather set myself on fire.”

Lamont, a wine glass filled with pomegranate juice in front of him — perhaps an ode to Boehner’s love for Merlot — sought advice for a “rookie governor.” Boehner said establish close relationships with Democrats and Republicans in both legislative chambers.

“Where they have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, and you have a clear idea of what their challenges are or desires are in terms of helping you accomplish them,” Boehner said.

Perhaps that advice will be useful as Connecticut lawmakers tackle one of the lingering issues of the 2021 legislative session: whether the state will establish a recreational cannabis for adults — the focus of a special session likely to happen in the coming week.

Boehner, asked to comment on Connecticut’s prospect of legalization, said his views have changed since his time as speaker. He’s now a lobbyist for the cannabis industry.

“Listen, if people want to smoke a joint or eat a gummy, what do I care?” Boehner said. “Hell, I smoke cigarettes and drink red wine.”

“I don’t advocate states should or shouldn’t do whatever they want to do,” he continued, “but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of where Connecticut is going and what the views of the people in Connecticut are — but not like the governor. I’m sure he and the legislature will figure it out.”

“I think we will figure it out, Mr. Speaker,” Lamont said.