Jodi Rell's Race

After replacing Rowland and pushing for reforms, her poll numbers soar. But she still wants the seal of approval by a win on her own in November.



Photographs by William Taufic

Talking with M. Jodi Rell in the governor’s Hartford office about her run for another term, you want to warn this amiable, even-keeled, decent woman that she should get out while the getting is good. Not that Rell would heed you. Her mind is made up. And it is not that she won’t win. With approval ratings in the stratosphere and an opponent, whomever the Democrats ultimately pick, unknown to many voters, it would probably be harder for her to lose.

Doesn’t she know that the critics are waiting out there? Even when the headlines were preternaturally positive when she ascended to the top job in the wake of John Rowland’s seismic betrayal of public trust, they were ready. “The accidental governor,” someone called her. “The governor we got stuck with,” wrote somebody else.

While she surely expects the Democrats to have the long knives ready, doesn’t she know that many of the Republicans who express adoration today will endure only so much surrender on their pet issues before they too start taking potshots?

Jodi Rell turns sixty this month. A year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. And though she’s healthy and her outlook is good, you want to say: Governor, who needs the stress, the backbiting and the infighting? Go enjoy your husband, children and new grandson. Go to the beach. Devote more attention to your German shepherd (named Marshall after Rell’s favorite store.) You’ve been in state politics for more than two decades, the last two years in this much-coveted, second-floor office. You’ve restored public confidence in the governorship and in state politics at a time when people were rightfully disgusted, largely through your character and dignity. Godspeed.

Instead, you simply ask her why she wants to sign on for another tour of duty. “It’s a very big step to run for governor,” she says. “You’ve got to raise a lot of money. You’re putting yourself out there to be the target of everybody that wants to beat up on you. You think you’ve done a really good job, but you’re not sure how people are going to respond to you as a candidate. You’re thinking about all these things.

“My son came home, and I can still see him standing in the dining room, in the archway. ‘Don’t run,’ he said. ‘Quit now. You’ve got great poll numbers; you’re doing well; everybody likes you. Quit while you’re at the top of your game.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that.’ And as he starts to walk out the door, he turns around and looks at me and says, ‘Of course, you don’t know if you’re at the top of your game or not, do you?’ So I think that’s it. You don’t know.”

Over the coming months, you will see a lot of Rell. Besides her official duties, she will be found at fundraisers, on the hustings, on television commercials and on the Internet, where she has a campaign website (JodiRell06.com), including a blog. In November her name will appear on the ballot for governor at a polling place near you.

“You have to assume that anybody, even someone who inherits the office as she did, is going to want the vindication, the affirmation, of a second term,” says Howard Reiter, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. “You want the voters to pat you on the back, and say, ‘Job well done. We want to keep you.’ And especially since she’s been doing so well in the polls, I’m sure there was a strong message from the party saying we really need you.”

Two years ago this month, then-governor Rowland, awash in scandal, called Rell, his lieutenant governor, to the executive residence and informed her that he was resigning. She would take over on July 1.

Despite the possibility of impeachment and a federal grand jury investigation, Rowland had long insisted he would not quit. Rell wasn’t expecting this turn of events. “I actually remember holding a cup of coffee and thinking, ‘I better put this down because I’m going to start shaking any minute,’ ” she says.

Among the many tasks before her, Rell had to prepare an inauguration speech. She remembers getting Gerald Ford’s address from the day he replaced Richard M. Nixon and reading it. In several respects, her speech would echo Ford’s brief but powerful statement, but in other ways it was pure Rell.

“Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford said, famously.

“The time to heal has begun,” said Rell.

 Indeed it had. Rell, only the second woman governor in Connecticut history, represented a new start for a state both weary and embarrassed by scandal. Despite serving nine and a half years as his lieutenant governor, Rell seemed to be the antithesis of Rowland. He was the politico, a backslapper from blue-collar Waterbury. Rell, on the other hand, was a homemaker from suburban Brookfield. And while Rowland was ambitious, Rell seemed never to have longed for the job of governor or to wield the power that came with it.

Originally from Norfolk, Virginia, Rell grew up as the youngest in a stepfamily of five kids. Her father Benjamin Reavis worked at a naval base. (Her mother Foy died when she was seven.) Rell dropped out of Old Dominion University to marry a naval pilot, Louis Rell, who would go on to fly for TWA and who today runs a medical transport business. They moved to Connecticut in the late sixties. Rell’s daughter Meredith is a kitchen and bath designer in Denver. Her son Michael is a researcher for the state House Republicans Office.

Growing up, Rell wanted to be a teacher. And though she would become active in Republican politics, she never considered running for public office herself. That is, until State Representative David W. Smith, whom she had worked for, decided eight years was enough and recommended that Rell run for the job representing the 107th District.

Having school-age children, she resisted at first. But when her husband said he would take vacation time and watch the kids during the legislature’s busiest period, Rell said okay. In 1984 she ran, won and has yet to lose an election.

Ten years as a representative, followed by nine and a half years as lieutenant governor, she suddenly found herself in the top job. Six months into her term, her cancer was discovered. Nine days after her surgery, Rell gave a State of the State address that had even her adversaries misty-eyed and cheering.

“I am looking at things a little differently now, with different eyes,” she said at the time. “Eyes more focused on what is truly important, what is truly necessary.”

Shortly afterward, a Quinnipiac University poll showed her approval rating to be 83 percent. This May she remained in rarefied air, coming in at 77 percent.

Rell wants to be known as a reformer. She is proud of her efforts to reform campaign finance and establish stricter ethical requirements in the aftermath of Rowland’s corruption. “This is not business as usual,” she says. “There’s a new governor in town.”

She is also aware that her persona is a big part of her appeal.

“A lot of people will say to me, or the press guys, or even to other people, ‘You know what I like about her? She’s just a normal person,’ ” says Rell. “I know it’s an old cliché, but I’m a lot like the lady next door.”

Rell’s ratings will no doubt dip as the election nears and her Democratic opponent-to-be, either New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. or Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, gains traction with their party’s faithful and dissatisfied others. And though they still have each other to contend with until the Democratic primary in August, neither considers it too early to hurl brickbats at the Republican.

“Our former governor just got out of federal prison,” sneers DeStefano. “Of course she’s popular.”

“She’s done an absolutely fantastic job of separating herself from the Rowland administration,” says Malloy, “almost to the point where people have forgotten that she was No. 2 in command, lieutenant governor, partner, in on the meetings, in on the discussions, from time to time referred to as the right hand or the left hand.”

To her credit, Rell has been largely taken at her word that she knew nothing of the corruption. Since late last year, however, ethics questions have dogged her chief of staff, Lisa Moody. The chief state’s attorney’s office investigated Moody after an incident in which she distributed invitations to a campaign fundraiser to state commissioners, who in turn handed them out to subordinates. Though Moody was found not to be in violation of the law, Rell suspended her without pay for two weeks.

Given Rell’s push for reform and a campaign fundraising effort that shuns donations from a host of sources, from special interests to state contractors, the contretemps over Moody has to be embarrassing. The incident has also given the Democrats ammunition as the election season heats up.

Similar to the stance she took regarding Rowland, the governor says she was unaware of Moody’s actions. “The joke around, with all due respect to Watergate, is what didn’t Jodi Rell know and when didn’t she know it?” says Lieutenant Governor Kevin B. Sullivan, a Democrat.

For Rell, such talk might be making her family, the beach and her dog seem a lot more attractive these days. She started her political career as part of a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, but as governor, Rell has been vastly outnumbered by the opposition party, which has forced her to wrangle and compromise more than she would like. Democrats control the House, 99–52, just two seats short of the two-thirds majority needed to override her veto. In the Senate, a veto-proof majority has already been achieved, with the Democrats holding a 24–12 advantage. “Jodi Rell has as difficult a job as any modern governor in our state in terms of the strength of the opposite party holding majorities in both houses,” says State Senator William H. Nickerson, a Republican from Greenwich.

Still, she has played her political cards well. She is a traditional, good-government, moderate Republican who has a sound feel for her constituency. Last year Rell implicitly repudiated President Bush by signing legislation to make Connecticut among the first states to fund stem-cell research. She also ushered in a historic same-sex civil unions bill.

“She’s close enough to the Democrats or what might be called liberal to be popular,” says Scott McLean, chairman of the political science department at Quinnipiac University. “But she doesn’t go along with the Democrats on a lot of their taxes and spending programs. Voters like her for that because she’s protecting their pocketbook.”

Thus far, Rell has passed what tests of intestinal fortitude have been placed before her. She showed grit, emotionally and physically, in giving her State of the State speech so soon after her mastectomy. Her supporters also point to the way she mobilized forces and helped to beat back the Bush Administration’s plans to shutter the Groton submarine base. And no matter how one feels about the death penalty, no one can deny that it took a significant gut check for Rell to stand by and allow Michael Ross, who killed eight women, to die by lethal injection, the first execution in New England since 1960.

“No one knows how you’re going to respond in any given situation,” says Rell. “But I know how comfortable I am when I have facts before me.”

Preparation, she says, is the key to crisis management, and she drives the state’s Homeland Security officials half mad in an endless quest for information. “I want an evacuation plan,” she says. “I want to see it on paper, and I want to know how it’s going to work, who’s going to execute it and what time frame we are under. Whether it’s a hurricane, blizzard or
whatever.”

Democratic candidate Malloy, for one, thinks that Connecticut currently faces a number of crises under Rell. What about jobs? he asks. The growing number of residents without health insurance? High property taxes? And transportation, particularly the congestion on I–95 and the Merritt Parkway? All, he says, are major disasters. “I’m not sure I would compare her to Governor Blanco [of Louisiana], but Nero comes to mind.”

Of all the issues that need addressing, transportation might well be the No. 1 challenge facing Fairfield County, if not the entire state.

In 2005 Rell pushed through a $1.3 billion transportation plan, the largest in the state since the early eighties. At the heart of that plan, $667 million was earmarked for 342 new Metro-North railcars, plus $300 million for a maintenance facility in New Haven.

This year Rell proposed spending $600 million over the next decade in a plan that called for commuter rail service from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield, as well as a New Britain to Hartford busway. House Speaker James Amann, in election-year fashion, answered with
a supersized $6 billion plan. In the end, Rell signed a $2.3 billion package that included her main proposals, along with $60 million for improvements to parking and stations along the Metro-North and Shore Line East commuter lines.

“Some would say I’m frugal,” Rell says. “Some would say I’m cheap sometimes. But I think I am a conservative in that I want the taxpayer to know that he is getting what he’s paying for. And right now I don’t want to be paying for things that we’re not going to be getting results on relatively quickly.”

The way to ease congestion on I–95, Rell says, is to get people into mass transportation. Adding new railcars is a starting point. Ferry service for trucks, out of Bridgeport and New Haven, she adds, is another consideration.

Senator Nickerson points out that of the four governors he has worked with since he arrived in Hartford, Rell is the first to do anything substantive for Fairfield County rail renewal. “Now we can talk about expanding railroad stations, expanding access, expanding shuttle buses and all those things that go with that,” he says. “But that’s all in the wake of the big boat that she’s steering with her path-breaking achievement of last year.” 

Also looming large for Fairfield County is the estate tax. Last year Rell disappointed Republican lawmakers and many constituents by conceding the tax in order to pass the budget. As a result, any estate of more than two million dollars is taxed from 5 percent to 16 percent, no small matter in towns where homes are commonly valued at one million dollars and up.

With the federal estate tax being phased out, states last year lost their portion of that revenue and have been looking for ways to make up for it. In Connecticut’s case, the tax brings in $150 million a year.

Rell had hoped to raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, but Democrats rejected that. In the end, she says, it came down to the millionaire’s tax, which would have kicked in on anyone earning $125,000 or more, or an estate tax.

State Representative Claudia “Dolly” Powers of Riverside, deputy minority leader, is a big supporter of Rell. But she also remembers the day that the governor told her that she was in a jam, that she had no other direction to turn on the budget but the estate tax. “I said, ‘If it’s there, I’m not voting for it,’ ” Powers says. “ ‘And I’ve got to tell you, I’m going to tell my delegation not to vote for it.’ She kind of winced and said, ‘I understand.’ ”

Fearful of an exodus of wealthy residents to states like Florida, which has no estate tax, Rell wants to phase out the levy. If residents change their primary residence — and it is happening already, she says — estate tax dollars are lost, but so are income taxes, sales taxes and philanthropy dollars.

Any change, however, will have to wait. In the horse trading that is the state budget process, this year Rell once again was willing to barter with the estate tax to get a budget passed. She also surrendered on her much-ballyhooed State of the State proposal to eliminate the local car tax. In exchange, the Democrats retreated from their plans for an earned-income tax credit and a $500 low-income tax credit.

More than one observer noted how a certain civility had entered the process with Rowland gone and the kinder and gentler Rell now in command. “I was especially pleased with the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for this pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-family spending and tax package,” Rell told reporters in the wake of the Senate passing the budget.

But that is just Rell’s way. Frankly, she likes her job — the give and take, meeting everyday folks, the ability to effect change. And politics being politics, she feels it is important that the state have a different voice, a Republican voice, in a capitol brimming with Democrats. Others might want to pack it in early, she says, but she is having none of it.

“I’m too young to retire, in spite of the fact that I’m old or I’m going to be old,” she says. “You know, everybody wants to kind of kick back ... but there’s work to be done. I know I’m making a difference; that’s what keeps me going.”

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