In the fall of 1979, an ambitious young athlete named John McKinney was chosen as one of only three sophomores on the varsity soccer team at Fairfield Prep.
The young McKinney looked up in those days to the team’s seniors – one of whom was J. Brendan Sharkey. McKinney remembers Sharkey as a fine athlete, while Sharkey remembers McKinney as the better player.
“He was the son of the Congressman [Stewart McKinney], and I was nobody,’’ recalled Sharkey, the youngest of seven children in a large, Irish Catholic family.
Today, 33 years later, each of those two young soccer players has become somebody. McKinney is now the Republican leader in the state Senate, and Sharkey was elected last week as Connecticut’s new Speaker of the House – one of the most powerful positions in Connecticut.
Back in his high school days, and even after he arrived for the first time as a state legislator in Hartford in 2001, Sharkey says he never expected to become Speaker.
“I am a steadfast believer that as a politician, you cannot and should not ever plan for anything,’’ Sharkey said, “because when you plan and create expectations, you wind up doing things for the wrong reasons to achieve that goal. So the best you can do is do the best you can do and allow everything else to happen the way it’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to put yourself in a good position. You’ve got to establish yourself to be in a position to take advantage of the situation when it arrives. But when you plan things out, you’re doomed to failure, it seems to me.’’
Only three years ago, Sharkey was still a rank-and-file state legislator, working on bills to promote regionalism and foster “smart growth’’ to stop suburban sprawl.
But then a series of dominoes started to fall. Sharkey’s rapid rise to the speakership moved along faster than usual as some key politicians above him decided to seek higher office. Then-House Majority Leader Denise Merrill decided to run for Secretary of the State in 2010, thus giving Sharkey a shot at becoming House majority leader. Then one of Sharkey’s key rivals for majority leader, state Rep. Steve Fontana of North Haven, lost in his reelection bid as a state legislator in 2010 and could not run for the leadership post. After that, House Speaker Chris Donovan ran unsuccessfully for Congress, opening up the spot for the highest leader in the House.
Little-known to the general public, Sharkey has flown completely under the radar for much of the state – other than his constituents in his hometown of Hamden.
A moderate Democrat, Sharkey bucked his party in a big way by voting against mandatory paid sick days for businesses – a bill that was hailed by liberals.
“I consider myself to be a solid Democrat with solid Democrat values,’’ Sharkey said. “I come to that with a slightly different perspective than perhaps others do. I own a small business. I have an appreciation for the need to make Connecticut competitive economically. Not to say that others don’t, but that’s something that’s very much a part of my thinking when I think about what my job is here.’’
Sharkey added, “Somebody recently pointed out that I’m the first speaker in decades to actually be a small business person. To have that background gives me a slightly different perspective than perhaps some of my colleagues. Some might consider that to be more moderate or conservative. I’m not sure it is. I think Democrats generally understand the need for doing what we can to make our state economically competitive.’’
Sharkey, 50, is grateful for the chance to step up at a time when the state is facing daunting problems and seeking solutions. Connecticut’s psyche has been rocked by gun violence in Newtown, and the sluggish economy has created a projected deficit as high as $1 billion in the next fiscal year.
Both Republicans and Democrats said Sharkey is well qualified for the job – a daunting position with ultimate power over which bills are debated and which ones fail.
Deputy Speaker Bob Godfrey, who has dealt directly with the past five Speakers since first being elected in 1988, said Sharkey’s track record and personality give him the chance to be a successful Speaker.
“The better ones have a sense of humor,’’ Godfrey said. “Not every decision we make here is historic. They have to be organized in a place that is designed to be disorganized. It’s really a juggling act. He can multi-task.’’
Former state Sen. Andrew Roraback, who watched Sharkey in negotiations in recent years, said the Hamden Democrat has the right temperment for the job as the legislature tackles major problems facing the state.
“I’ve never found him to be an ideologue,’’ Roraback said. “I‘ve always found him to be pragmatic and flexible, and I think those attributes will be assets because the last thing that’s going to be needed – given what we face – is an individual who is rigidly ideological.’’
While Donovan was seen as a hard-core union supporter, Sharkey has spent time balancing the books at his law firm and in a small business that he runs.
“He is a Democrat, but he has more experience in the private sector than his predecessor had,’’ Roraback said. “I think that will help him take a more holistic view toward problem-solving.’’
His former teammate – McKinney – said Sharkey takes a thoughtful, measured approach on legislation and does not overreact on emotion. While lawmakers were highly optimistic on the opening day of the legislative session, the veterans know that there will be bitter debates ahead on guns, the budget, and other issues.
“He’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican,’’ McKinney said. “There’s a reason for that, so we know there are areas where we disagree. But he’s always willing to listen, even if at the end of the day you end up agreeing to disagree. He completely understands, respects, and is honored by the enormous position he has as Speaker of the House, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That is a really good quality for all elected officials.’’
After graduating from Fairfield Prep two years ahead of McKinney, Sharkey received his degree in English and philosophy in 1984 from Georgetown University. The Hoyas won the NCAA basketball championship that year during the heyday of famed center Patrick Ewing and Coach John Thompson.
“There’s nothing like being on a campus where you’ve just won a national championship,’’ Sharkey recalled. “You just feel like the whole world is looking at you, and you’re kind of like the center of the universe for those few days after you win. It’s just a really fun experience.’’
Two years earlier, Sharkey traveled to the Final Four in New Orleans when Georgetown reached the finals against a famed North Carolina team with future NBA players Michael Jordan and James Worthy.
A diehard Georgetown fan, Sharkey also started rooting for the UConn Huskies as he graduated in 1989 from UConn’s law school.
After obtaining his law degree, he worked as an attorney and became the chief aide to Hamden’s mayor, Lillian Clayman, before winning his first race for the legislature in 2000. Since then, he has won re-election six times. During that time, he has worked to grow a small business that is headquartered at his Hamden home.
Through a company called AmeriZone, Sharkey operates a consulting business that helps companies with their commercial zoning and permitting, as well as offering renewable and alternative energy options for businesses. He helps retail companies obtain permits for renovations at various sites or for moving into a shopping mall. He was previously the only zoning attorney for a company that is now T-Mobile in Connecticut, doing extensive zoning and permitting work in front of the Connecticut Siting Council.
“I was making a lot of money before I came here and then had to take quite a hit financially to be here,’’ Sharkey said, noting that he no longer appeared in front of the siting council.
Sharkey says that his small business background gives him an understanding that Connecticut has become an unfriendly place to do business – a notion pushed widely at the Capitol by the business community.
“It’s hard to turn that perception around,’’ Sharkey said. “You do it with good policy, and you do it with consistency. Sometimes you un-do it by proposing ideas that, even if they don’t have a huge impact, can perpetuate that perception that you’re trying to un-do.’’
The business community, led by the 10,000-member Connecticut Business and Industry Association, lobbied extensively against the bill as bad for business. As the bill changed through the years and affected fewer businesses, Sharkey eventually changed his position. But he said the legislature must be careful to foster Connecticut’s business image.
“I think it was watered down enough that I thought I could support it when we did it this last time,’’ Sharkey said. “When we consider our competitiveness, we always have to be mindful of how we are perceived outside our boundaries.’’