Gov. M. Jodi Rell was a calming, reassuring presence in July 2004, when John G. Rowland was chased from Hartford by an impeachment inquiry and federal investigators. She leaves office knowing something else is required now, someone with a harder edge. And that’s not her.
“My mother used to have this expression, I’m sure all mothers do: ‘You’re at any given place at any time for a reason,’ ” Rell said Tuesday, sitting in the corner office she will yield to Dan Malloy on Jan. 5. Ten days later, she boards a southbound cruise ship in Cozumel, Mexico.
On July 1, 2004, Rell was an obscure lieutenant governor, unknown to a majority of the state even after 9½ years in office. The reason for being in that place at that time, she said, was an ability to project calm as Rowland resigned as governor, eventually bound for federal prison.
“I am pretty much a calming effect,” Rell said, smiling.
She stunned the state that first Christmas with news of breast cancer. Nine days after a mastectomy, she delivered a State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly. The ovation was heartfelt, thunderous and sustained.
Her first six months were so pitch-perfect that one gleeful Republican operative called her the GOP’s own Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
The winds have changed. No one’s pronounced her perfect in a while, not as the economy stagnated and the estimated deficit has grown to more than $3.5 billion. The Republicans who fought to succeed her were not kind. Neither was Malloy.
“It’s politics, and I understand that. I understand that when I’m gone, there are going to be more shots,” Rell said. “I think the public understands it. And I hope the press understands.”
She seems to find comfort in that Connecticut is one of 47 states in crisis.
“All of the states are suffering right now from the worst national recession we have had since the Great Depression,” Rell said. “And I think the public recognizes that it’s not any one individuals fault. It’s not any one party’s fault. Frankly I think it brings to the surface that we need to work, really work, together if we are going to address it.”
Rell was making these observations during one in a series of 20-minute exit interviews, each timed by a press aide, who gave a two-minute warning, allowing inquisitors to lob one last question at the buzzer, hoping to score a bit of insight. She said the questions all are about her legacy, her proudest moments, her regrets, all variations on the same themes.
“Ask something different,” she pleaded.
She was asked about the cumulative effect of the serial interviews. What is it like to sit through an effort to sum up a career, to prepare the first draft of history, the place where obituary writers no doubt will begin one day?
“It’s been interesting. It gives me a chance to think about some of the things we’ve done over the years,” Rell said.
Then she recited a familiar list: Campaign finance reform, saving the Groton sub base, new rail cars for Metro North, a program to encourage stem cell research in Connecticut. Unmentioned is the legalization of same-sex civil unions and, after a court decision, gay marriage.
On none of those issues, did Rell conceive, propose and deliver legislation without significant change or collaboration with others, beginning with an early victory: passage of the most sweeping system to publicly finance campaigns in the U.S.
Rell proposed banning contributions by lobbyists and state contractors. Legislators countered with public financing. It passed without GOP support, save for Rell’s signature. It makes for an awkward legacy.
“I hated public financing. I hated the idea of it. But if we were going to get the other things, you had to give a little,” Rell said.
Her successor, Malloy, was the first statewide candidate to qualify for public financing, eventually collecting $2.5 million in grants for a primary and $6 million for the general election.
Her pitch to create a $10 million program to fund stem cell research quickly was judged too timid. The legislature turned it into a 10-year, $100 million plan.
“I remember meeting with some of the leaders on that,” Rell said. “I said to them, ‘I’ll put the $10 million out there for a year, but I gotta tell you, I don’t now if we can commit ourselves for 10 years.’ “
She was persuaded that a one-year commitment would attract no serious research proposals, that she needed to be bolder. During the interview, Rell conceded that the 10-year plan was correct, even though she proposed cutting it last year.
Rell could be thin-skinned as governor. After a dour appraisal of a budget speech in 2007, Rell arrived unannounced in the Capitol press room to react to press coverage, staring directly at an offending reporter who had written that her budgets lacked boldness.
But on this day, Rell seemed at peace, barely reacting to questions that implied she fell short in budget fights with the Democratic majority. She was reminded she was the only Republican governor to get an F on her fiscal policies from the conservative Cato Institute.
“That’s all right. I understand,” she said.
In 2007, Rell proposed raising the income tax to increase aid to education by $3.4 billion, which she called “the largest single investment in education in Connecticut history.”
But she abandoned the idea after an outcry from her own party. Tax collections also improved that year, making a tax hike unseemly.
In 2009, her long standoff over the budget ended with her seeming to throw up her hands in exasperation. She let a budget become law in September without her signature, a gesture meant to protest pork-barrel spending added by Democrats to a compromise spending plan.
“Not only had we settled on a bill and a budget, but then some people just frankly became pigs. And it just irritated the living bejesus out of me,” Rell said. “And if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been so angry.”
“It was the principle. ‘You guys, not only can’t you cut spending, but even when we have agreed in principle on what we’re going to do, you come in and throw in whatever it was, nine, twelve million in pork,’ ” she said.
She was told that sounded like the beginning of a pretty good veto message, one that GOP legislators had hoped she would deliver.
“It was, but it also was September and we were one of two states” without a budget, she said. The standoff ended.
Malloy is promising to be tougher. Rell said she wishes him luck as he delivers his first budget to the General Assembly.
“This will be the one and only true opportunity for the next administration to stand up be heard and be counted,” Rell said. “If it takes a bull in a china shop, good luck. If it takes someone who is going to sit down with the Democratic leaders and say, we’re going to sit in this room and we’re going to bang heads together until we come up with something we can live with, good luck.”
“I’ve been there.”