Democrat Loses Election, Then Gets $85K State Job During Hiring Freeze
Sometimes when you lose in politics, you win.
Case in point: Emily Bjornberg, a Democratic political newcomer from Lyme, who was soundly defeated by first-term incumbent state Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, in the Nov. 4 election for the 33rd District state Senate seat in the lower Connecticut River valley.
Next thing you know, Bjornberg, 34, is on the state taxpayer-funded payroll as of March — with an $85,000-a-year position as “senior executive assistant for financial literacy” in the office of Democratic state Treasurer Denise Nappier. More later on what that job title means and what her duties are.
Bjornberg didn’t go through a competitive process or take a test to get the job, because it’s a politically appointed position, not part of the classified civil service — and high-ranking officials such as Nappier and the attorney general and the governor can hire whoever they want in such budgeted positions. There were no other candidates for the job, records show.
There’s constant talk of hiring restrictions during the state’s ongoing budget crisis — including not filling vacancies — but there always seems to be room for somebody with the right connections.
Bjornberg’s work experience, as shown in documents obtained by Government Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, isn’t typical for one seeking a position in a state agency that handles billions of dollars in state investments. Since 2006, she had worked as director of youth and family ministry at the Deep River Congregational Church, a 22½-hour-per-week, part-time position.
Other entries on the resume include: administrative assistant at an accounting firm in Norwich from February 2005 to July 2006; and a volunteer coordinator from August to December 2003 for a Christian-based organization in Johannesburg, South Africa, that offered services including free home-based care for inner-city patients with HIV and AIDS. She also was a unit leader in summer 2003 at the Hole In The Wall Gang Camp in Ashford for children suffering from cancer and chronic illnesses.
So how did Bjornberg get the job, and who helped her?
It appears to be the latest version of an old story of who you know, and who thinks you have a future in politics. People in the state’s Democratic establishment thought that Bjornberg was intelligent and impressive — with a campaign-flier-photogenic family of two kids and an Iraq war veteran for a husband — and that she did well enough in defeat to justify accommodating her desire to work in a government job in the state’s capital city.
Sources said that she liked her first real taste of politics, and that Democrats saw her as a possible candidate for local or legislative office in the future, sources said.
“I have not made a decision” about whether to run again for the 33rd District seat in 2016, Bjornberg said in an interview Friday.
Even with the expected boost that any Connecticut Democrat gets in a presidential election year such as 2016, it would still be a challenge for her to beat Linares (if he runs again that year instead of trying to win election to something bigger, as many believe he will someday). Bjornberg didn’t come all that close last year: Linares got about 56 percent of the vote, compared with Bjornberg’s 43 percent, with just over 1 percent for Green Party candidate Colin Bennett.
Anyway, the basics of what the political sources were saying about Bjornberg and her new state job was confirmed Friday by Howard Rifkin, a veteran Democratic aide who has served for decades in top-level positions for political figures ranging from Gov. William A. O’Neill to Nappier. He’s now retired from full-time service and works part-time for Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. But Rifkin still is in close contact with Nappier, for whom he served for years as deputy treasurer.
Rifkin said of Bjornberg: “I met her several times in the campaign, and was very impressed.” After the election, Rifkin said, the state Senate’s Democratic caucus asked him “whether I could keep an eye out for potential opportunities for her in state government. … They reached out and said she’s great, and I agree, so I referred her over to Denise Nappier.” Nappier had a couple of vacant, politically appointed executive-assistant positions that she wanted to fill. “I sent her the resume … and they talked and one thing led to another and she was offered a position.”
Rifkin took about less than three minutes to give a clearer and more concise explanation than Nappier’s office has produced in the three weeks since Government Watch sent written questions about how the hiring occurred as well as the FOI request for documents involving it.
What does the “senior executive assistant for financial literacy” do? The treasurer’s office provided a long explanation involving phrases like “assist in carrying out the duties of the Treasury’s corporate governance function.”
According to Nappier’s director of communications, David Barrett, the term “financial literacy” means: “To promote an understanding of personal money management that will empower the people of Connecticut with information and training that can help them build a better future.”
That involves competency in managing finances in ways such as opening personal bank accounts and planning for a family’s financial future, starting with school-age children and ranging up through adulthood, according to treasurer’s office officials and Rifkin. Nappier’s office has worked with corporations and banks on such programs to assist the public in past years, and although “financial literacy” is part of Bjornberg’s job title, she’s not the first employee in the office who has ever worked on it, officials say.
Bjornberg also will assist in administration the Connecticut Higher Education Trust and its annual scholarship program, and will provide “administrative support services and assist in coordinating and conducting research in various areas.” One example is helping the office perform its statutory responsibilities concerning more than a dozen “quasi-public authorities,” a treasurer’s office document says.
One of the big Connecticut Democrats she was in touch with about getting a job was U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, an email from last December showed.
Asked about it Friday, Courtney said in a statement: “I got to know Emily well over the past two years, learning about her work overseas and in eastern Connecticut. On the campaign trail, I saw firsthand that she is a powerful advocate who connects with young people and cares deeply about her community. After the election, I met with her to discuss how she could exercise her passion for public service, and sent her resume to a contact in Hartford in case a suitable opportunity for her came along.”
Bjornberg was interviewed Friday by speaker phone from a room in Nappier’s office where Barrett, the communications director (who was editor of The Courant two decades ago) also was present.
She didn’t have much to say.
“We have instructed Emily to answer factual questions that amplify the responses that we sent to you,” Barrett said, referring to written answers that Nappier’s office provided Thursday night in response to questions that The Courant submitted April 16. Those responses were far less specific than Rifkin’s comments.
When Bjornberg was asked how she learned of the availability of the job in Nappier’s office and how she landed it, there was a long pause as she and Barrett consulted at their end of the line. When they came back, Bjornberg said she would not go beyond the office’s written response. She also declined to disclose her most recent salary.
Here are some of the written responses that Barrett referred to, which were prepared and sent to The Courant by the office’s general counsel, Catherine E. LaMarr:
“Before discussing the specific hire [of Bjornberg], it may be helpful to understand something of the Office’s needs in the areas of the position’s responsibilities and the Office’s tradition of leadership in corporate governance and promotion of financial education — especially under the Nappier Administration. It may also be helpful to understand the number of the Treasurer’s ex officio board seats and attendant responsibilities.”
In the category of “Corporate Governance,” LaMarr wrote: “Institutional investors have long appreciated the benefits derived from investment in companies with sound corporate governance, responsible environmental practices and appropriate treatment of employees and communities where such companies do business. … [W]ith recent enhancement of available analytical tools for assessing performance, data gathering, research and analysis is necessary as this Office prepares and files shareholder resolutions and works to advance shareholder friendly legislation and rulemaking.”
Under “Financial Education,” she wrote: “With a desire to ensure that adults and youth, particularly those among Connecticut’s under-served populations, gain access to financial education programs to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency and greater personal financial management skills, this Office has collaborated with businesses and non-profits to develop and launch more than a dozen programs to serve both general and targeted populations.”
LaMarr also wrote: “Emily Bjornberg came to the attention of the Office of the Treasurer in multiple ways. Ms. Bjornberg recalls spending time with Denise Nappier during the campaign season, affording an opportunity to learn something of this Office and build a rapport. In addition to this interface, Ms. Bjornberg was also referred to this Office by individuals with knowledge of both the needs of the Office and Ms. Bjornberg’s skills.”
“During courtesy interviews,” LaMarr wrote, “the Office of the Treasurer learned more about the depth and breadth of Ms. Bjornberg’s research skills and her experience working with people in the lower half of the income spectrum, which is undoubtedly where the rubber hits the road for financial literacy. Emily Bjornberg has spent her professional career working inside of non-profits and communities of faith all over the planet. She has run an AIDS clinic in downtown Johannesburg, founded a non-profit that provides services for children living with serious illness, and nurtured broad coalitions of community organizations that work together to make this world a better place for people living at the lower end of the income spectrum.”
“These experiences have developed a critical skill set that is transferrable from her work in the non-profit and faith-based communities to that of the Office of the Treasurer. Demonstrated cultural competency, proficiency in communication and coalition building, and a demonstrated understanding of and experience with critical resources (i.e. WIC, food pantries and soup kitchens, youth educational and enrichments programs and healthcare providers) established Ms. Bjornberg as an inspired and unique candidate to fill the position of Executive Assistant responsible for financial education and other activities of the Policy Unit.”