Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy speaks during the gun-control-law-signing event at the Connecticut Capitol on April 4, 2013, in Hartford, Conn.
Christopher Capozziello—Getty Images
By Zeke J Miller
February 22, 2015

Governors tend to pull their punches when it comes to criticizing their peers. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy is playing a different game.

Attacking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by name, taking a shot at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s concern over terrorist attacks in Milwaukee, and mocking Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s presidential aspirations, the New England Democrat has no qualms about taking the fight to the GOP. “Such a charitable man,” Malloy said of Christie, with a proverbial tongue in his cheek. “He has spread goodwill to so many places. He’s really quite remarkable, isn’t he.”

Moments earlier, in an interview with TIME on Thursday, he muffled a laugh as he described Jindal, whose remarks he once called “the most insane statement I’ve ever heard,” as the “toughest one to beat in the Republican field.”

Seizing an opportunity in a party depleted of household names not Clinton or Obama, Malloy is rising to the occasion, positioning himself as one of the party’s top attack dogs as the 2016 cycle approaches.

But Malloy is also envisioning a larger role for himself within the party too.

Addressing the winter meeting of the Association of State Democratic Chairs on Thursday he delivered a fiery speech, imploring the party to refocus on its core values.

“When we run as Republican-lite we lose,” he said. “Let us be Democrats once again,” he added, earning a standing ovation and whooping cheers.

Malloy was one of the few Democratic success stories of 2014, expanding his margin of victory in a repeat of his 2010 grudge match with Republican Tom Foley. He holds up his support of gun-control laws and minimum-wage hikes as a model for other Democrats.

As the chair designate of the Democratic Governors’ Association, it will be Malloy’s job next year to try to pick up seats from Republicans, who now hold a near record 31 governorships.

Speaking to TIME, Malloy wasn’t shy about attacking his GOP colleagues, and expanded on his call for the Democratic Party to stop being “Republicans-lite.”

Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript:

Republicans-lite?
My message is first of all we’ve got to elect a Democratic President. Otherwise the hard fought gains that we made under this president will be swept away. We’ve got to begin the process of changing the Congress and each election we need to pick up seats and we need to be on the offensive. What I’m hoping to do is see Democrats get elected. That’s what I’m trying to contribute to.

But you’re saying the right type of Democrat, right?
I think any Democrat is better. But I think what my message is, it’s about running as a Democrat. It’s about talking about Democratic values. I think we have to talk about Democratic values in this country again, because I think Republicans and their allies on Fox and elsewhere have done a good job of confusing people about who is actually pulling for them. You know and I know and economists know that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. But we’ve got all kinds of people in this country who are confused by what they hear on Fox everyday or elsewhere everyday and actually believe that somehow that’s going to trickle down to them even though during the last 25-30 years when trickle-down has been so often rolled out by Republicans, the middle class has not gotten bigger, wages are not up, quality of life for many of our citizens is not increasing the way that it should. So I think we need to be talking about our values vs. their values. Listen, I’ve got rich friend. I don’t mind the rich getting richer, but the poor shouldn’t be getting poorer and there should be more people moving into the middle class.

Are some Democrats in Washington not doing enough of that? Did that contribute to the defeats in 2014?
I think there are a lot of people who consciously or unconsciously, ran away from the President and the ideals of the party, and I’m not going to name names, but I think it’s important that we do what Republicans do, and view elections as a portion of the continuum, not as a stand-alone event. And every election needs to be built in part on the prior one and every new success needs to be built upon a prior success. And if we do that I think we’ll be stronger.

Looking ahead to 2016, should there be other Democrats entering the race to have this sort of dialogue?
That’s up to other people. I think people have to make their decisions about whether they want to run. I think there are a lot of Democrats who want Hillary to run and I think she would be an extremely strong candidate for the nomination and to be elected. I’m glad we don’t have 23 people running for President right now, although, as I said, I think the toughest one to beat would be Bobby Jindal. So we have to worry about him. People are either going to run for President or not, she’s going to either run for President or not, I think it looks more and more like that she’s going to, but she’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.

Have you ever given it any thought?
No. Whenever people say you should President, I say, ‘I thought you liked me.’ Listen, I thought being mayor of Stamford was a wonderful job. Being governor of a state for a period of time is a wonderful job, and I’m not sure I’m at all attracted to Washington.

Governor Chris Christie to your south seems to be having a bit of a rough turn.
Such a charitable man. He has spread goodwill to so many places. He’s really quite remarkable, isn’t he?

He’s been facing some budget issues and dealing with pension reform …
Dealing with pension reform. He’s in the process of destroying public pensions, which by the way comes out of the Republican playbook. He hasn’t told the truth about what he’s doing, but that’s what he’s doing. The level of defunding that’s taken place under his administration is remarkable and I think the state’s bond rating will pay perhaps not a permanent price, but a long-term price. He’ll saddle that problem to some unfortunate Democrat who’s going to have to come in and do the right thing. That’s the hard part about being a Democrat, you have to clean up after Republicans.

Are you concerned that momentum Republicans are showing?
Yeah, that’s why I gave a speech. That’s why I think we have to rise as Democrats. I understand that everybody’s got to make tough choices in elections, but to defund your pension system by billions and billions of dollars, which is what New Jersey has done is not the right thing to do. To take away people’s rights to collectively negotiate their contracts, that’s not the right thing to do. And neither one of those things is going to help the middle class of those states. It’s just not going to. In some states it works to bash people who are a little bit better off than you to maybe make you feel better, but it is not a proven way to raise up the middle class, to raise the size of the middle class or to raise people’s standards of living.

On gun control, do you see a path to revitalizing the national conversation around gun control?
There will be more and more events like Sandy Hook. Look at the number of children that have been killed in schools since Sandy Hook. I’ve stopped counting, it’s astronomical when you think about the killing of children or babies. This discussion is not done. People actually understand that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns, that people with violent-felony backgrounds should not be able to buy guns. They understand that. It’s when the other side wraps it with rhetoric like ‘they want to take your gun away.’ Well, no one wants to take your gun away, unless you’re, you know, a violent felon or you’re mentally ill, or you’ve threatened someone with it. That’s not happening anywhere. This conversation’s going to play out over a long period of time, and then the states that have done something about it, like my state, we continue to see a precipitous drop in homicides, and crime falling in Connecticut at three times the national average.

Where do you stand on the legalization of marijuana?
That’s not something I’m interested in. I decriminalized marijuana. We have 6,000 fewer arrests as a result of decriminalizing it, and we passed medical marijuana and I’m comfortable with where we are. I think it would be a mistake to become involved in the sale of marijuana for income purposes. It should be a stand-alone decision, it shouldn’t be based on whether you’re going to get a little money for it.

You’re taking over as chair of the DGA next year, what are you hoping to accomplish?
There are not a lot of Democratic governors, and we need to go our and fight the fight and take some of those states back and lay the groundwork for taking others back four years from now. I’ve always played a leadership role in any organization I’ve been apart of and I certainly have been the beneficiary of other governors, so I want to pay that back. I think this is important work. I think what Republicans pulled off in state legislatures following the census and their wins in 2010 has been very hurtful to the country. We have too few districts in the country that are in play, and as a result the Congress of the United States doesn’t do what it was intended to do, and that is to actually represent the majority will of the people. They’ve in other words, been gerrymandered.

Do you plan to step up your role in the party?
Obviously I’m here, and I was asked to speak, and there weren’t a whole lot of wins, so they’ve asked me to participate. And yes I’m going to play a role in trying to get more people elected as Democrats to the Houses and Senates and Assemblies, and more governors, and I’m on the lookout for good candidates for governor in the 2016 cycle. Some of those are pretty well set and some of those are going to be pretty wide open.

Have you started the recruitment process?
We are engaged in the recruitment process. That begins with talking to people who are expressing interest and making sure that people understand what it is to be a candidate in a statewide election. You have a lot of folks who want to run who’ve never run statewide and it’s not an easy thing to do. Part of our job is to make sure people understand and are sufficiently committed to doing that.

What are your thoughts on the Republican governors who have warned about the threat of ISIS as their party is embroiled in a shutdown fight over the Department of Homeland Security?
Those Republican governors should talk to the Republican members of Congress who are threatening to defund the agency that they are otherwise relying on. You know, it’s a wonderful thing, Republicans have both sides of their mouth and they’re able to use them well. The governor complains that there is a threat of ISIS in Milwaukee, but the Republican members of the Congress vote against funding the agency that’s charged with protecting us from it because they have a disagreement with the President over the ability of the people who were brought to this country as children and who have graduated from our school systems, to stay in this country. When they only speak English. That’s what this fight’s about. Republicans — they want to have both sides of the immigration issue, they want to have both sides of the job issue, they want to have both sides of the healthcare issue, and it’s incumbent on some of us not to let them get away with it.

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