Tough budgets may mean short tenure for governors

Is there a 20-year curse on Connecticut governors? Chief executives elected in 1950, 1970 and 1990 served only one term; will the pattern recur in 2010?

Whoever is elected this fall can expect to start work in January 2011 with the same problems faced by Thomas J. Meskill in 1971 and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1991: a structural deficit and no painless way to balance the budget.

Meskill and Weicker

Govs. Thomas J. Meskill, left, and Lowell P. Weicker had to tackle severe budget problems and served only one term.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell will deliver her last budget proposal today. The state’s most popular governor since the advent of polling, Rell has decided to leave office with predictions of a $3 billion deficit looming over the horizon.

The situation is so dire, Sen. John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, says, that the next governor should just assume he or she will be around for only four years.

It will be liberating, McKinney said. Of course, the Senate minority leader made this observation shortly after announcing he would not be seeking the governor’s job.

Those still in the race are more upbeat – to a point.

Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, one of the Republicans vying for the job, said politicians are optimists by nature, confident they are right for whatever challenges lay ahead.

But  he conceded, “The next governor will not have a statue erected to them.”

Ned Lamont, who is leading the Democratic pack of unofficial candidates, told supporters Sunday that the next governor should approach the job like it’s a one-term gig.

Oz Griebel, a Republican business leader, said during his recent campaign kickoff he would tackle the state’s problems without regard for polls or re-election.

No one, however, is running on the explicit promise they will come in, do what needs to be done, and ride off in January 2015. They say they just have to act that way.

“I’m not running to be a one-term governor, but no governor can be an effective governor unless they govern in such a way that people understand it’s not about the next election,” said former Mayor Dan Malloy of Stamford, another Democratic contender. “It’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”

Lawrence DeNardis, a Republican who last held office as a congressman in 1981 and 1982, comes closest to a one-term pledge. He is 71.

“I’m not on the political make,” he said. “I’m not looking for the next rung on the political ladder. I’m not thinking in terms of my political career.”

Most candidates approach the question like Tom Foley, the early frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

“I think good leaders in a crisis aren’t thinking about whether they are going to get re-elected,” Foley said.

Like the others, Foley sees himself as being able to make necessary changes to government early in the term. The next governor will have time to prove they deserve another term.

“It’s a four-year term,” Foley said.

Four years wasn’t long enough for Weicker. It might have been too long for Meskill.

Meskill and Weicker each succeeded Democrats who had been in office for 10 years. Each inherited a fiscal mess and each resorted to an income tax to balance their first budget, setting off a political firestorm.

In Meskill’s case, the tax was a Democratic initiative that was repealed before taking effect. Weicker, who had been elected as an independent, proposed a broad-based income tax as the only solution that made sense.

Meskill did not seek re-election, but the proximate cause of his unpopularity was as much about his inability to get back to Connecticut from Vermont during an ice storm that paralyzed the state as it was the income tax and cutbacks he ordered.

Richard Nixon named him to the federal appeals court.

Weicker was 59 when he became governor, rebounding from losing his U.S. Senate seat to Joseph I. Lieberman in 1988.  During the campaign, he said that imposing an income tax during economic hard times would be “like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

A month after he was inaugurated, he proposed an income tax as the only sane solution to the state’s tottering tax structure. He vetoed three budgets before the legislature gave him a tax reform bill.

But even Weicker did not view his first budget as a suicide mission, according to Stanley Twardy, who was Weicker’s co-chief of staff.

“Did he ever say, ‘If I do this this, am I not going to get re-elected?’ That was never said,” Twardy said. “When I left [the administration] in 1993, he still was thinking about running.”

Ultimately, he didn’t

As depressing as gubernatorial candidates might find the 20-year cycle of one-termers, they can always look to Democrat Wilbur L. Cross.

He was elected in 1930 and survived eight years during the Great Depression. And this was when Connecticut governors stood for election every two years.

The trouble started in 1950 with Republican John Lodge, but his problems were not fiscal. Political lore blames his loss after one term on Fairfield County voters upset with being inconvenienced by the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike.

His consolation prize: The completed highway was named for him.