OP-ED | Florida Bound: The Puzzling Popularity of Jodi Rell
As a recovering English teacher, one of best things about covering politics is it’s rich with irony — which coincidentally happens to be my favorite literary device. Within days of each other last week, we learned two things: lawmakers in Hartford had passed what state Rep. Roberta Willis described as an “unpleasant” budget that closed a nearly $1 billion deficit. And they did so without major tax increases.
Meanwhile, former Gov. M. Jodi Rell told Hearst Connecticut’s Neil Vigdor that she’s moving to Florida, where she and her late husband, Lou, have had a vacation home for years. Rell cited a number of factors in changing her state of residence, including the “downward spiral” of Connecticut’s economy and the lack of “predictability” and “stability” in the state’s policies.
She’s right, of course. The businesses that decide to leave the state, including most recently General Electric, often cite the volatility of the state’s economic climate, burdensome regulations, and what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget chief Ben Barnes has called “a period of permanent fiscal crisis,” marked every year by not knowing whether another whopper of a tax increase will be necessary just to meet the payroll and stave off harsh cuts to essential services.
But Rell was really leading with her chin when she complained of the state’s poor fiscal shape. After taking over from disgraced ex-Gov. John Rowland in 2004, Rell encountered rough seas in her attempt to inject some fiscal sanity into the goings-on at the Capitol and, as a result, she basically gave up. That’s a strange reaction from a popular governor. Instead of using her popularity to build coalitions and push through reforms to make ends meet, Rell chose to use budget gimmicks such as one-time revenues, borrowing, selling state assets, and draining the rainy day fund.
It was Rell herself who conceded in her final state-of-the-state address that, “the dire circumstances we are facing today will pale in comparison to the challenges that will face the next governor, the next legislature.” In other words, she helped set the stage for our current woes and simply left messes for others to clean up.
Something of a backbencher in the state House of Representatives, the Brookfield resident was hardly a well known figure when Rowland named her his running mate in 1994. It’s hard to assess her performance as lieutenant governor since it’s such a nothing job that should, in my estimation, be eliminated.
During virtually her entire governorship, Rell struggled to transition out of LG mode. Even after becoming the state’s chief executive, she was forever schlepping around to ribbon cuttings and giving interviews to 500-watt radio stations.
Rell’s enduring popularity has always baffled me. She is, by all accounts, a nice person who loved her state — the state which ironically she has now decided to abandon. But it’s now clear that she was not much of a leader, though that, too, shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
It’s seems that presidents and governors have two types of running mates to choose from: an established gray eminence to shore up the credentials of the outsider (e.g. Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Wyman, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden) or second fiddles who are smaller than the boss in every way (Dan Quayle, Harry Truman or the Trumanesque Bill O’Neil).
Rell clearly fit into the latter category. Rowland was obviously an insecure person, as his need to ingratiate himself with bigwigs, feed at the public trough, and cling to relevance has demonstrated. He simply did not want to be upstaged by someone as driven and ambitious as himself.
Nor should we read too much into Rell’s move to Florida. Snowbirds retire there all the time, and not just to lower their tax liability. In 2014, more than 96,000 Connecticut residents moved out of the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The leading destination was New York — hardly a tax haven — with 14,649 Nutmeggers moving there. The Empire State was followed by Massachusetts at 13,287 (maybe they’re going to work for GE), and Florida at 12,944. More than 10,000 others left for places like California and North Carolina.
So Rell can take her $60,000-per-year Connecticut state employee pension and head to the Sunshine State, where almost 20 percent of the population is retired. Connecticut’s Grandmother can take comfort in the certainty that she will not see Rowland, who will be serving his second prison term in upstate New York. Come to think of it, we can all take comfort in that last fact.
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