A top aide moves on as the Rell administration enters final months

A milestone in the life every lame-duck governor will come today as legislators confirm the appointment of Anna M. Ficeto as a commissioner of the Public Utilities Control Authority.

Ficeto, the legal counsel to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, appears to be the first high-ranking administration official to leave for a more secure job since Rell announced this term would be her last.

She is departing for a four-year term and a six-figure salary as a utility regulator. No successor has been named as legal counsel.

Don’t expect a rush for the exits; Rell’s term doesn’t end until January. But Ficeto’s departure is a reminder that Rell is headed for retirement and, sooner or later, her people are going to be job hunting.

“You have to keep the ship of state going,” said David J. McQuade, who helped bring down the curtain on William A. O’Neill’s 10 years and 10 days as governor. And in fact, on the other side of the ledger legislators today also are expected to confirm the appointments of Amey Marrella as commissioner of environmental protection and Richard Nicholson as tax commissioner.

But, McQuade noted, “It gets difficult during the end.”

The countdown to retirement is not a topic the Rell administration wants to discuss. Her press staff had no comment, and Rell declined to share her thoughts on ducks, lame or otherwise.

She is not alone in her reticence.

In announcing his retirement in late 1993, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. warned against mistaking him for a lame duck. Transgressors, he said, would face not a duck, but “something coming out of Jurassic Park.”

Rell has more in common with O’Neill. Both are lieutenant governors who succeeded their bosses. O’Neill and Ella Grasso combined for 16 years, as will Rell and John G. Rowland.

As was the case with O’Neill, Rell is leaving during a bad economy with the expectation that her legacy will include a towering deficit for the next governor.

It is not the best political environment to find jobs for subordinates.

After 16 years of Democratic rule, the O’Neill administration had its share of political appointees who were not eager, or necessarily equipped, to join the private sector in a down economy.

McQuade, who was O’Neill’s last chief of staff, was given the task of trying to find places in state government.

“I was receiving phone calls at 2 o’clock in the morning from people desperate to find employment,” McQuade said. “It’s tough. You’re basically locking the door.”

Chris Cooper was one of the lucky ones. He was an executive assistant – a political appointee who served at the pleasure of the governor. He took an exam for a classified job as communications director and scored high.

Rather than go out the door with O’Neill in January 1991, Cooper stayed on through the administrations of Weicker, Rowland and Rell. He retired last year as Rell’s press secretary.

McQuade said he expected Rell to look out for her appointees, even though the state is in dire fiscal straits and loyalty might entail taking some political heat.

“I think she’ll be helpful to them. The loyal opposition might not look at it too favorably. That’s politics. That’s the way it is. Somebody who served a governor in a political position like that can’t be tossed out the window,” McQuade said. “That would be shameful.”

Legislators already are warning Rell that she should leave judicial vacancies open, saying that the court system has enough judges and too few dollars. It is unclear which Rell will heed: the advice of the legislators or the example of O’Neill, who swore in a judge on his last day in office.