Rell goes out popular, but state's in a mess

After 25 years in elective office, Gov. M. Jodi Rell is entitled to her retirement and a happy new life as a grandmother. But as remarkable as her public approval ratings are — 64 percent in the Quinnipiac University poll published the day after she announced that she will not seek another term — Rell will leave Connecticut in a desperate and worsening mess.

All the credit bestowed on Rell after her announcement — her restoration of integrity to the governor’s office following her predecessor’s scandal, her signing legislation for public financing of political campaigns and same-sex civil unions — won’t get Connecticut out of this mess.

While the governor said her work had  “renewed faith in public officials,â€� that faith, such as it is, doesn’t go much beyond Rell herself. The General Assembly is little more than a nest of locusts, Hartford’s mayor is being prosecuted for taking kickbacks, and the public financing of campaigns is stalled by a constitutional challenge. Even the new Q poll found Rell defeating the leading contender for the Democratic nomination for governor, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, by only 6 percentage points, down sharply from previous polls.

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No one could blame her, but Rell lately has seemed tired of the job. That is the evidence arising from the fraud of a Democratic budget the governor recently allowed to become law without her signature, a budget she is rewriting on the fly every week as its deficit explodes. Rell must know that, amid Connecticut’s economic collapse, almost everyone will be upset by her doing what she will have to do over her remaining year in office just to keep state government from running out of money as California’s state government did and New York’s is about to do.

If the governor is only 6 points ahead of someone who has been able to avoid every tough issue since becoming secretary of the state, Rell well could have lost the next election if she wasn’t able to mobilize the public behind what needs to be done. She has never seemed interested in doing that. In the end her enormous political capital went unspent and now is dissolving. It’s use it or lose it. You can’t take it with you or bequeath it to your grandchildren.

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Rell’s withdrawal creates heavy odds that Connecticut’s next governor will be a Democrat, since the Republican bench is so thin.

Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, the favorite for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, is leading Dodd in polls and won’t be switching races. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays would be by far the next strongest Republican candidate for governor, but he recently sold his house in Bridgeport and seems to want to try making a living in the Washington area after 20 years in Congress and 14 years in the state House.

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele says he will have Rell’s support for the gubernatorial nomination, but he is not well known; it is hard to imagine Rell bringing much influence to bear on Fedele’s behalf, especially as her influence in the party has been fading.

Also thinking about running for governor is the House Republican minority leader, Norwalk state Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero, but he, too, is not well known and this year his “superminority� in the House has been irrelevant.

The most interesting prospect for governor on the Republican side could be state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury. Caligiuri is running for the Senate nomination but is being crowded out by front-runner Simmons and three multi-millionaire political neophytes financing their own campaigns.

But in the race for governor Caligiuri might shine. More than all other Republican legislators he tells the truth about the need for fiscal discipline, and he has some executive experience from his stint as acting mayor of Waterbury. No Republican nominee for governor is likely to get far without standing for something, and a Republican who stood for something might actually get listened to if people are as angry next year as they are now.

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The question raised on the Democratic side by Rell’s withdrawal is whether Connecticut’s attorney general for 18 years, Richard Blumenthal, at last can be tempted into the contest for governor by what he has always insisted on: the virtual certainty of winning. The problem is that Blumenthal has never much wanted to be governor but rather U.S. senator, and the term of maverick Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is 67 and not terribly popular, will be expiring in 2012, probably Blumenthal’s last chance to become senator.

Given Connecticut’s finances, the governorship may be a stepping stone only to oblivion, so Blumenthal probably will remain what one of his young children called the “eternal general.�

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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