Rell joins legislators as gubernatorial race target

With an anemic 28-percent approval rating, the General Assembly has been a handy target in the race for governor. Republican candidates have blamed the Democratic majority for Connecticut’s stagnant economy and its staggering deficit projections, and some Democrats have mildly chimed in.

Now, with Gov. M. Jodi Rell and legislators struggling over how to even begin to ease the state’s fiscal crisis, the Republican governor is catching flak alongside the unpopular legislature.

Democratic candidates are suggesting publicly what has been privately whispered at the Capitol for months: Having decided against a re-election campaign, Rell is disengaged; there is no sense of urgency in Hartford. Even Republicans, who might otherwise embrace the popular incumbent, are keeping their distance.

Rell after the vote 3-16-10

Gov. M. Jodi Rell: Now a target (file photo)

In response to reporters’ questions last week, Democrat Ned Lamont said that Rell abdicated a leadership role by vowing to veto the Senate Democrats’ most recent deficit mitigation plan, rather than negotiate changes.

“I thought the Senate Democrats had something reasonable,” Lamont said. “If you want to fine-tune it, fine-tune it. But hurry up, because we can’t keep this cloud hanging over Hartford.”

The legislature’s constitutional adjournment deadline is midnight May 5.

Democrat Dannel P. Malloy has zinged Rell and the legislature for seeming to talk past each other on the deficit, posturing as opposed to working on stabilizing the state’s finances. House and Senate Democrats were at odds, and Rell phoned in a veto threat while visiting her grandchildren in Colorado.

“Am I critical of the governor as well as the Democrats? Yeah, I am critical of everybody,” Malloy said. “I don’t think we did a good job in pointing out it’s her way or the highway. That’s not how good legislation is made.”

Mary Glassman, another Democratic candidate, has been blunter, calling Rell an absentee governor. In public forums, Glassman has said Rell’s empty parking space at the Capitol and a light appointment calendar are symbols of her administration.

“This government is not engaged,” Glassman said. “You hear this from the business community. You look at her calendar.”

Press access to Rell has been limited in recent weeks, but her staff says she hardly is disengaged. She conferred all day with her budget staff on the Thursday before the long Easter weekend, and she met with legislative leaders after the holiday.

The budget “obviously continues to be a high priority,” said Rich Harris, a spokesman.

But with Connecticut failing to win federal stimulus grants for transportation projects or to score well in the competition for “Race to the Top” education money, Rell suddenly seems more vulnerable to criticism about her aversion to networking in Washington.

She was one of the few governors who failed to attend the National Governors Association meeting in February. Her predecessor, John G. Rowland, was a regular at NGA meetings and served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Even one of the Republican candidates, Hartford business leader Oz Griebel, seemed to question Rell’s absence on WFSB’s “Face the State.”

“I really believe it is vitally important the governor be the face of the state, that the governor be the chief business development officer of the state,” Griebel said. “Not only do other governors go to these events, but many major businesses do as well. And I think it is important that the governor communicate to business that Connecticut is open for business.”

Another Republican candidate, Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh, has noted the dysfunctional relationship between Rell and the legislature’s Republican minority, especially in the House.

Tom Foley, the Republican front-runner, is careful to aim at legislators in public comments, but his television commercials are even-handed in their condemnation of state government: “Hartford isn’t getting the job done.”

Only Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, who told reporters minutes after Rell’s retirement announcement that he believed he had her endorsement, has tried to use Rell to attract Republican voters. His first television ad features a picture of Rell and Fedele.

“Do she and I agree on all issues? No, but I think, overall, she has done a great job steering the state,” Fedele said Wednesday.

The criticisms are not without risks. Rell’s approval rating no longer is other-worldly–it dropped by 5 percentage points from January to March in the Quinnipiac poll–but her job performance still is viewed favorably by 59 percent of residents.

Seventy-two percent of Republicans give her a thumbs up, even though 61 percent say they are “somewhat dissatisfied” (35 percent) or “very dissatisfied” (26 percent) with how things are going in Connecticut.

Even among Democrats, her approval rating is 54 percent.

The candidates are aware of this. Some of the Democratic candidates temper their criticism, praising Rell for becoming governor under difficult circumstances: She succeeded Rowland in 2004 after he resigned during a corruption scandal.

“She stepped in with grace,” Glassman said. “You can understand her popularity and poll numbers.”

Roy Occhiogrosso, a former Democratic strategist at the legislature who is advising the Malloy campaign, said he finds most of the criticism carefully focused on her policies, not the person.

“The fact is she has been the governor for almost 6 years and much of what has gone wrong, and the list is long, has gone wrong on her watch,” Occhiogrosso said. “Talking about those issues is not as much talking about her. It’s taken on less of a personal tone and more of policy critique.”

Richard Foley, the former Republican state chairman, said there is little advantage in anyone criticizing Rell.

“What my Democratic friends should remember is that they can beat up on her all they want, and I’m sure they will, but at the end of the day, her name is not on the ballot,” Foley said.

But some of the Democratic criticism is wrapped around a compliment: Even as a lame duck governor, Rell is necessary to breaking a three-way budget deadlock among the House, Senate and executive branch.

“Gov. Rell, she’s extraordinarily popular. She’s not running for re-election. She’s got bipartisan appeal,” Lamont said. “Come forward and say, ‘Look, at least we’re going to fix this year’s budget.’ “

And if Rell believes the Democrats still are spending too much? “Fine,” Lamont said, “then come forward with an alternative. But come forward with a constructive alternative.”

This week, Rell continued to criticize legislators, finding fault with a proposal to retain a surcharge on electric rates, which was due to expire, and then securitize, or borrow against, the revenue.

“The Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee’s proposal to securitize revenue from charges on consumers’ electric bills is not the solution I would pursue,” Rell said.

But she offered no alternative.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney,  R-Fairfield, whose relationship with Rell is warmer than that of his House counterpart, Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk, said the Democratic candidates have little credibility on the budget.

“Until Mary Glassman and Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont are willing to criticize the people who ran the legislature for the last forty or fifty years, which is their party, they should just quite frankly talk about their own ideas,” McKinney said.

McKinney said none of the gubernatorial candidates have demonstrated they can guide Connecticut back to fiscal stability.

“Let’s see all the candidates for governor — Republican, Democrat — present their budget plans,” McKinney said. “The governor has presented one. [Legislative] Democrats have presented one. [Legislative] Republicans have presented one. The people who want to run our state want to criticize, but they don’t want to propose.”

McKinney exaggerates, though only slightly, about the Democrats’ dominance. And he discounts a bit of criticism that Malloy leveled at his own party in a commentary piece on his campaign web site that attracted little attention.

On March 25, Malloy accused everyone of grandstanding.

“Let’s be clear about what’s going on with the budget deficit,” Malloy wrote. “This is a bipartisan train wreck that isn’t going to be solved by political grandstanding.”

When Malloy posted that commentary, Senate Democrats were preparing to vote on a deficit package without House support.

The next day, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, agreed that each chamber would vote on the Senate plan to eliminate most of a $518 million gap in the current budget.

The Senate approved the plan 21-15. But the House canceled its vote after Rell issued a statement promising a veto.

“The House was in one place, the Senate was in another place, and the governor was in Colorado,” Malloy said in an interview. “That was kind of my comment on the whole thing. What we really need is to a break with the past. This is like ‘Groundhog Day.’ We’ve done this before.”