Rell leaves mixed legacy as governor
Ken Dixonand Brian Lockhart, Staff WritersPublished
Gov. M. Jodi Rell front-loaded her legacy.
Taking over after the scandals of the Rowland administration in 2004, Rell presided over historic ethics and election reforms, culminating in the landmark 2005 campaign-finance changes that banned lobbyist and contractor money from state politics.
Today, as she prepares to leave office, Rell is still widely popular. But critics say she refused to gamble that popularity to push for solutions to the crushing debt facing state taxpayers. During the last few years, they say, Rell became detached and disinclined to personally engage both Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol, culminating with her absence on the campaign trail on behalf of her fellow Republicans during this year's campaign.
Supporters say Rell's hands were essentially tied by veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.
Both sides agree Rell will always be remembered for changing the tone of a state sickened by revelations of corruption. Rell's reformist credibility, after Gov. John G. Rowland's cronyism landed him in federal prison, was a breath of fresh air for a Connecticut eager for change.
"She obviously came into office under difficult circumstances," said Howard L. Reiter, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. "It's hard to clean up after a mess like that. She gets points for the quiet and dignified way she governed. Obviously there were a number of issues that accumulated, particularly the budget, so I think to some extent she governed in a way to protect her political capital."
As Rell, 64, readies to leave for a Caribbean cruise and an extended vacation in a house she and her husband Lou, a retired airline pilot, own in Florida, Connecticut's 87th governor prefers to be known as an average person who rose to the challenges of office and did what she could.
"I want to be remembered, as one lady said to me, `You're just normal. You're an everyday kind of person.' And I think that is what I hear the most," Rell said. "As far as issues, I think everyone will agree trying to restore confidence and the integrity of government right after I took office."
CONFRONTATIONS AND STANDOFFS
Perhaps no other episode in Rell's terms illustrates the debate over her governing style -- or has more profound implications for Connecticut residents -- than the protracted budget fight of 2009.
The battle between Rell and Democrats in the Legislature took place against a backdrop of huge state revenue shortfalls, rising unemployment and growth in social-service costs.
As the ballooning deficit threw off state financial projections, Rell used her authority to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, during a protracted stalemate between her and the Legislature. July 1, the start of a new, two-year budget, came and went without a deal.
For months, neither side would budge. Rell wanted deeper cuts in state spending, while Democrats sought a mix of tax increases and borrowing. Both sides eagerly included federal stimulus funds in their plans.
Finally, on Sept. 1, Rell announced that she would let the Democratic budget become law without her signature. But she made an unintended blunder. She announced, erroneously, that she would veto several line items, not realizing that to do so she would have had to first sign the budget into law.
"I could have vetoed that budget until December, January, February, but the truth is that we reached a point where we were one of two states that didn't have a budget," Rell recalled of the standoff with whom she described as stubborn Democratic leaders, including Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, Jr., D-Brooklyn.
"We were getting calls daily from municipalities, not-for-profit organizations: `We can't keep living like this.' And while (Democrats) knew it, the fact remained that they weren't going to change their position," Rell said.
"The simple fact is that the governor chose to not fight on a critical issue, which was the financial health of the state," Healy said. "We did not have the debate to cut the budget structurally or incrementally for the greater good. She certainly had the political capital to do it and she chose not to. That's her legacy. She's never given an answer for it. I don't know what the motivation was."
"I believe she was somewhat bullied by the Democrats," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who was at the bargaining table during much of the 2009 talks. "I wouldn't fault her if she wants to be liked, because everyone in politics wants to be liked. There was frustration and exasperation in the negotiating room. Democratic leadership failed to compromise in any way shape or form. We as Republicans continued to put spending cuts on the table that they refused to consider."
Donovan said last week that the problem began when Rell presented a spending package in February that was under-funded by $2 billion.
"Our disappointment was, given the tough reality on the budget, the governor de-emphasized the problem and didn't present the true problem to the public," he said. "People were skeptical as to the extent of the problem because she didn't back up her numbers."
"Gov. Rell's budgets were not that different in tenor and technique than Rowland's," Williams said last week. "What changed was the economy, in the worst recession of our lifetime."
Joseph F. Brennan, senior vice president for public policy with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said it is difficult to say whether Rell was right or wrong in allowing the 2009-2010 budget to pass.
"The Legislature, particularly in the House, had dug their heels in. At the time I felt it was going to be very, very difficult to ultimately get a better deal than was there," Brennan said. "And given the potential harm with the state's credit ratings by dragging out (the budget battle) further, it made it a very difficult decision."
Rell acknowledged in Friday's interview that Gov.-elect Dannel Malloy and the General Assembly are now backed into a corner as they seek to plug Connecticut's $3.4 billion budget gap, because the state's $1.4 billion emergency reserves and $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money are long gone and the state's structural deficit is exposed.
"I make no apologies for using the stimulus funds," she said. "Our state was in desperate need of cash to keep us going, even after we made cuts and I made the cuts, the rescissions and the deficit-mitigation plan."
THE ACCIDENTAL GOVERNOR
Before the 1994 campaign, Rell was faced with a decision: Should she run for re-election to her safe state legislative seat -- perhaps making a run at being chosen House minority leader -- or take a chance and seek the lieutenant governor's job with the man who was her former congressman?
"I do remember saying to John Rowland `don't ask me because I'm a woman; I won't do it,' " Rell said. "And I remember him saying, `You of all people should know I wouldn't ask that.' So I ran, we won and the rest, as they say, is history."
Rowland, who spent 10 months in federal prison after admitting to a corruption charge six years ago, now is an economic development official with the city of Waterbury and the host of an afternoon radio show in Hartford. "I'm not doing any interviews," he said last week, in response to a request for comment about the woman he asked to be his running mate in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
In addition to presiding over the state Senate, Rell's job as lieutenant governor took her all over Connecticut, building good will that would pay off when she ran for governor on her own in 2006. She ended up crushing Democrat John DeStefano Jr., the mayor of New Haven, by nearly 312,000 votes. By comparison, Malloy's plurality over Republican Tom Foley last month was 6,404 votes.
The budget battles between Rell and legislative Democrats drew much of the attention, but they weren't the only issues that marked her tenure.
Rell was a supporter of rail projects and service improvements. She signed the state's civil-union law that gave additional rights to same-sex couples. And she signed a subsequent bill setting into motion the marriage law for gays and lesbians after the state Supreme Court ruled that civil unions did not go far enough.
She also vetoed bills that would have repealed the death penalty and legalized medical marijuana.
State Senator Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen, who represents Rell's hometown of Brookfield, said while 100 years from now people might not know a lot about Rell, she was a key supporter of preserving the open space and farmland they will enjoy.
But Roraback is clearly frustrated with his fellow Republican when it comes to management of the state's finances. He took the unusual step at a recent State Bond Commission meeting, of voting against borrowing money for several projects. Rell, he said, failed to make the tough decisions necessary during hard economic times.
The governor flatly disputes the notion that she wanted to protect her popularity at the expense of major, possibly controversial initiatives.
"One of the bills I'm disappointed in was that we didn't get a cap on the local property tax," she said. "If I could have used more political capital to get that done, I would love to have. But there was simply no cooperation. That was one of those disappointing bills. I've used political capital to get the bills that were important and campaign-finance reform was one of them. Ethics, reform, changing the Ethics Commission. Because we got those things done, I believe I've used political capital."
HER LEADERSHIP STYLE
Rell gave her chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, great latitude over day-to-day operations in the governor's office. To lobbyists, nonprofit social service providers, even legislative leaders and Rell's closest staff, Moody was the governor's gatekeeper and most trusted adviser, the go-to person to get anything done.
Reiter, the emeritus politics professor, said Moody also gave the governor's office a bunker mentality.
"There was a tendency, or impression, (Rell) gave of running things very tightly, particularly her top assistant, Lisa Moody, running things close to the vest and in a very political way. Governor Rell restored respect to the office, but in terms of top decisions, she should be faulted. Her top assistant didn't always serve the state well."
Moody on Saturday questioned Reiter's perspective.
"Who is Mr. Reiter?" she said in an e-mail. "I have never met him or even heard of him. How could he be so expert then to offer opinions or make judgments? Governor Rell accomplished a great many things during her time in office and I was honored to work for and help her."
The State Elections Enforcement Commission still has a pending case involving UConn Professor Kenneth Dautrich, who allegedly gave polling advice to Rell's former political campaign.
There also is an active investigation by state auditors and the attorney general's office into Dautrich's $225,000 state contract with the Office of Policy and Management, the governor's budget office, as a potential misuse of public money for political purposes.
The governor also suspended Moody in Dec. 2005 for soliciting members of her cabinet for a Rell campaign event during a staff meeting in the Capitol.
Rep. Livvy Floren, R-Greenwich, said "Those malfeasances -- if there were those -- I don't think rise to the level of a lack of integrity or honesty or transparency in government. I think it's a lot of to-do about very little."
The people who complained loudest about limited access to Rell often were her fellow Republicans, who already felt marginalized by their status as the Legislature's minority party.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said Rell more or less left Republicans out of the loop when it came to budget policy, especially the annual end game in search of a deal with majority Democrats.
"All I asked for as head of the Republican caucus, was to keep communicating with us," Cafero said. "I thought it was important for government and our party so we could agree to disagree if we had to. Unfortunately that communication never really took place."
`THE ADULT IN THE ROOM'
While time will take the full measure of Rell's six-plus years as governor, those who worked with her and watched her since she swore the oath of office on July 1, 2004 say she hasn't changed.
"Jodi Rell is a very honest person, a person without ego or guile," Cafero said. "You knew that this was a huge responsibility dumped on her that she didn't look for and she stepped up to the plate. She gave a sense of maturity, as if she was the adult in the room. Those are very important things to have and they reflected in her high poll numbers."
A grandmother four times over now, the 64-year-old Rell, a breast-cancer survivor, said she'll fondly remember running into ordinary residents.
"I'm in the Christmas Tree Shop the other day and people come up and say, `I can't believe you're here.' Or people come up and say, `Could I have a picture with you?' Those are the people I'm going to miss, not because they asked to have a picture with me, but because they're normal, everyday people. They're not government officials. They're not congressmen or presidents. They're everyday people and that's what I'm going to miss the most."
But now, she's looking forward to spending more time with her family and traveling.
She has some words of advice -- and hope -- for Malloy as legislative Democrats, after 20 years, finally have a governor from their own party.
"Is it going to be different because they have a Democratic governor with a Democratic Legislature?" Rell asked. "I think you're still going to see that same folded-arm attitude. But the difference is that they are all saying the right things now. We need to consolidate, eliminate commissions, boards. I put all those things on the table. Will it be different with a Democratic governor? The only difference is they will have no one to blame but themselves."