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Thursday, April 19 Local

Obama boosts minimum wage, Malloy

NEW BRITAIN -- With winds of war stirring in Ukraine and a tough midterm election test looming at home -- one that endangers first-term Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in a reliably Democratic state -- President Barack Obama promoted his initiative to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 Wednesday in the gritty hardware capital of Connecticut.

Obama, echoing talking points from his State of the Union address in January, called on the nation to follow the lead of Connecticut and a handful of other states that have already embarked on similar plans to boost wages.

The 44th president was greeted lustily by a cross-section of leaders of the state's Democratic political machine, the black community and student body members at Central Connecticut State University, where he was joined on stage by four New England governors, including Malloy.

"Nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," said Obama, who was interrupted by applause multiple times. "And that's why it's time to give America a raise."

The glowing reception belied what has been a steady erosion of public confidence in Obama in Connecticut, where the Democrat's 45 percent approval rating is the lowest of his presidency in a state he carried twice by huge election margins.

It was also somewhat tempered by isolated demonstrations outside the packed gymnasium, as protesters waved the Ukrainian flag to protest the White House's response to the escalating aggression of Russia.

To help make his case for minimum-wage reform, Obama singled out Doug Wade, owner of Bridgeport-based Wade's Dairy, in the crowd. Wade took part in a recent round table in Hartford with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, in which the disillusioned former Republican embraced the cause of raising the minimum wage, as he has done on newspaper opinion pages and in testimony before the General Assembly.

"The secret to success is to treat employees as part of the family," Obama said. "Doug showed me his paycheck when he was flipping burgers in 1970. He was paid the minimum wage, but it went 25 times farther (than today)."

Wade, 60, could not have predicted that he would become a household name in the national debate over the minimum wage when he met Perez, who also joined Obama on Wednesday.

"Two days later, I get a call from the White House," an "elated" Wade told Hearst Connecticut Media after the president's speech.

For Malloy, the ink barely had time to dry on a new Quinnipiac University poll showing the governor in a dead heat with 2010 foe and would-be Republican challenger Tom Foley. Malloy's job approval rating remains stalled below 50 percent, with slightly more of those surveyed saying he does not deserve a second term.

"I absolutely believe that if you work 40 hours a week, you shouldn't be living in poverty in Connecticut or any other state," said Malloy, who introduced the president to some 3,000 people inside the William H. Detrick Gymnasium.

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Republicans, who claimed control the mayor's office in the labor bastion of New Britain last November, gave Obama and Malloy low marks for their handling of the recession.

"The president and the governor are a perfect fit for each other. They each preside over an underachieving economy of their own making," state GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. told Hearst Connecticut Media. "We have no problem with setting the minimum wage at a reasonable rate. However, the best way to pull people up from poverty and create jobs, especially for women, is through economic growth. Unfortunately, those words are not in their vocabulary."

Malloy used the spotlight to get in another dig at Bobby Jindal, his GOP counterpart from Louisiana, with whom he exchanged barbs outside the White House last week on the direction of the economy after a meeting of the National Governors Association with Obama. The fracas has boosted Malloy's stock with the political left and cable news schedule makers.

"Let me just say as I look around this room, I don't see anyone waving a white flag," Malloy said, referring to Jindal's criticism of Democrats. "Bobby Jindal didn't make it to Connecticut."

Some academics questioned whether Malloy, the former longtime mayor of Stamford, would get a bounce from Obama's visit.

"I don't necessarily know if that moves the needle one way or another," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Kondik has the Connecticut governor's race rated as a toss-up, one of four such contests nationally.

"Connecticut is a place where it's probably not bad to be identified with the president, which isn't the case in many other states," Kondik said.

On Jan. 1, the minimum wage increased 45 cents in Connecticut to $8.70 an hour as part of legislation signed into law by Malloy.

Malloy supports subsequent increases of 45 cents in 2015, 45 cents in 2016 and 50 cents in 2017 to bring the minimum wage up to $10.10.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch expects the minimum-wage agenda of fellow Democrats to resonate with residents in his city, where he said one in four people lives in poverty.

"The president is as popular in Connecticut as he is anywhere," Finch told Hearst. "Why wouldn't I be here rolling out the blue carpet?"

Finch sat in the third row for the president's speech, next to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, at one point high-fiving the 26-year-old Republican before the program.

In the week leading up to Obama's visit to "Hard Hittin' New Britain," as Stewart referred to her city in an interview, the rising GOP star found herself under pressure from some on Facebook to give the president the cold shoulder.

"Whether you like President Obama or not, I still have a responsibility to welcome him here with open arms," Stewart told Hearst. "This is historic."

The home of Stanley Black & Decker, New Britain provided a strategic backdrop for the president to roll out the centerpiece of his midterm agenda, which the White House branded on banners as "Opportunity for All." Fifty percent of the city's children, based on local estimates, live below the poverty line.

"It would immediately raise millions of Americans out of poverty," Obama said of his proposal, which faces a headwind in the GOP-controlled House. "Too many Americans are working harder than ever just to keep up."

Matt Siracusa, 24, a CCSU student from South Windsor who works for his uncle's moving company in New Britain, combed press row for an iPhone charger, afraid he would miss out on a potential photo opportunity.

"One day, I'm going to be able to tell my kids I saw the president of the United States," Siracusa said.

At one point during his remarks, Obama was interrupted by a woman in the crowd, who said, "We love you, Mr. President."

The feeling was mutual.

"I love you back. But we can't just spend all day talking about how we love each other," Obama said.

neil.vigdor@scni.com; 203-625-4436; http://twitter.com/gettinviggy