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New Leader Rocks the House
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Sitting at his desk in his new spacious office in the Legislative Office Building, Chris Donovan wears a flag pin on the lapel of his suit. But it's not the conventional shape.

"A red white and blue electric guitar - so it's kind of like, two loves at once."

Politics and rock 'n roll, that is. Donovan even has a band with some of fellow legislators. They're called the Bad Reps. Seriously. They played on rock radio station WPLR last month.

Donovan started playing guitar only about ten years ago. His roots in political organizing go back much farther than that, to the mid-70s. When he was just starting out, he couldn't picture himself sitting behind this big desk in state government.

"Not at all. I mean, politics, it was post-Watergate. Everybody was so sick of politics. And government was not doing things."

Donovan came to Connecticut from Pennsylvania for grad school. He got his masters in social work -- specializing in community organizing.

"An occupation that people haven't known for a very long time, but now every body knows about it."

Because of another community organizer-turned-politician, Barack Obama.

When Donovan finished school, he did organizing stints with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Most recently, he worked for the Service Employees International Union, representing community college professors. 

He came around to the idea of elective politics after an early internship with then-Congressman Toby Moffett.

"I saw here an activist, legislator, Congressman. So I got to understand the political process and how much that has a bearing on community."

After 16 years in the General Assembly, Donovan doesn't call himself an activist legislator. But he does say that pressuring power brokers as an organizer is not so different from brokering the power himself.

"My job hasn't changed in thirty years. I still have a cup of coffee, sit down with people, and say what do we need to do? What are the problems we have and who has ideas on solutions, and then we figure out a way to do it."

Donovan has changed his day job as he prepared to become speaker. His last day as an SEIU employee is this week. He has brought a union colleague on to his staff as a policy analyst, but Donovan bristles at the notion that he is too close to organized labor.

"You know, it's not an illegal job, being a union organizer. It's actually a very good job and I'm proud of the work I did to help people increase their wages, feel good about their work, and get health care. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm stepping down from it because people ask questions like that. As if it's...If I was a business guy, do people say, you're too close to business? If I was a health care worker, would people say I'm too close to health care. But it's a question people ask, and I'm not going to get too defensive about it, just a little defensive."

Donovan is assuming leadership of the House as the state is staring down an enormous budget deficit -- an estimated 6 billion dollars over the next two years. Governor Jodi Rell has looked at the numbers, and called for major cuts and streamlining of state programs.

Donovan sees it another way. He says before the financial crisis started on Wall Street, Connecticut was doing just fine.

"And then low and behold, these robbers, ripped off the country, ripped off the world. These are like pirates that have just come in and devastated things, so when a pirate attacks, do we just say, well, the pirates came, that's just the way it is? No, as government, we have to say, hey, we have to work for the common good and restore the peace and tranquility that we had."

How to pay for that restoration, he says, is something that will have to be hashed out over the next several months - with lots of voices chiming in.  

"It's not like me as Speaker saying, hey you know what, I've sat in a room and thought these deep thoughts, and here's the plan. That's not the way we get out of this."

Donovan does warn against across-the-board cuts, which he says will hit the poorest towns hardest. He says there's room to save money by cutting ineffective programs, but the state tax rates should also get close scrutiny.

"We have an income tax. Let's look at that and see what's fair and not fair. Who's paying and not paying within that. We need to look at the sales tax. Is that hurting growth or helping growth." 

He's not expecting it to be a simple or pretty process -- but he says the House's rough and tumble style is part of the fun. 

"I like the House better. It's more like a big family. If you have a fight with someone, there's always someone else to play with in the House. In the Senate, eh, you've got a grudge for the rest of your life.

Chris Donovan is set to be sworn in as Speaker of the House when the General Assembly opens its regular session on January 7.