Rell takes her place in gallery beside Rowland, Weicker, O’Neill and Grasso

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who took office in the wake of scandal and left as Connecticut’s most popular governor, briefly returned to the spotlight Wednesday to unveil her official portrait in the Connecticut State Library.

“I have to tell you, I’m a little bit pleased to help Ella take on a few of these men,” Rell said, casting an eye toward portraits of many of her 86 predecessors, all but one a man. Her portrait will hang near the sole exception, Ella T. Grasso.

Her successor, Dannel P. Malloy, who has criticized her fiscal policies, was there to applaud and praise her to reporters for “restoring faith in Connecticut.” Her predecessor, John G. Rowland, who resigned facing impeachment, was not.

It was a simple ceremony, informal in tone. Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, was the only speaker, and when he noted he had arrived without his reading glasses, Rell walked over and gave him hers.

McKinney said it was time to see portraits of more women hanging in the gubernatorial portrait gallery, a surefire applause line. The crowd laughed when McKinney, who is running for governor, added, “Not immediately.”

“We all know that she took over under very difficult times,” McKinney said of Rell. “We all know that when she took over, the confidence of the people of Connecticut in their government, in their office of the governor, was as low as it’s ever been and as low as it possibly could be.”

Her legacy was less what she did than how she did it, he said.

“She governed with class and character,” McKinney said. “That to me is the great legacy of Jodi Rell. We cannot do what we do, we cannot serve the people of Connecticut, if they don’t trust and believe in their government leaders. She restored that trust.”

Rell surprised herself by choking up during her brief remarks, saying the portrait about to be unveiled was of “yours truly.”

“But it really should include all of you, all of you. My family…“

Her voice broke.

“…my friends, my staff and the people of Connecticut. Because it was all of you who made it possible, all of you who helped me in so many, many ways. I was honored to serve.”

Her grandchildren came forward to help her tug the cover off her portrait by Laurel Stern Boeck, who stood next to the work.

Rell and her husband, Lou, sold their Brookfield home to their daughter, Meredith, who is married and the mother of two. They now divide their time between a house in Florida and a condominium in Connecticut, as well as overnight babysitting visits to the Wethersfield home of her son, Michael, who also is married with two children.

Does she miss it, the public life?

“Not at all. I miss some of the people, but I don’t miss the politics,” Rell said.

Rell called McKinney a friend, but she is endorsing no one in the contest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, calling it inappropriate. She is endorsing and raising money for her lieutenant governor, Michael C. Fedele, a candidate for mayor in Stamford.

Fedele sat in the second row, behind Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and Comptroller Kevin Lembo. 

Rell chatted with Malloy prior to the unveiling. They also spoke to each other the previous day in Westport, at a ceremony at the state’s memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Separately, each told reporters there is no awkwardness in the relationship, despite Malloy’s regular reminder that she left him a $3.5 billion deficit to resolve and a history of no net job growth.

“I have the highest regard for the governor, and I think she has pretty high regard for me, and we get along very well,” Malloy said. “In fact, we have some pretty great conversations.”

Rell did not contradict him, though she made clear she is aware that Malloy, like other chief executives, still blames his predecessor for many of the challenges he faces more than two years after he took office.

“Someone said to me the other day, and I thought it was worth repeating, it was kind of cute, [they] said, ‘Well, it’s either George Bush’s fault or Jodi Rell’s fault,’ “ Rell said, then she smiled.  “So, I thought that sort of summed it up.”

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