John Rowland, the former governor of Connecticut, walks out of the federal pen this month. No doubt he'll be a changed man, but the state that he last governed 18 months ago may have changed even more. In the absence of the man who ran it for 10 years, Connecticut has become an outpost of liberal experiment.
The state legislature last year became the first, without court pressure, to offer the option of civil unions to same-sex couples. It rewrote guidelines in crack cocaine cases by erasing the distinction between crack and powdered cocaine, in effect making crack penalties less severe. The state now has the country's highest minimum wage-- $7.40 an hour--and plans to spend $10 million a year in public money on stem-cell research. Recently, Connecticut lawmakers passed the most ambitious campaign finance law in the nation.
In 2008 and 2010, Connecticut will not only offer public financing to legislative candidates and statewide office-seekers but outlaw any contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. (A similar bill passed four years ago, but Rowland vetoed it.) The new law isn't the only significant public financing effort recently undertaken around the country--"clean campaign" laws have been funding elections in Maine and Arizona for several years--but Connecticut's contribution ban makes it the most far-reaching. "Just a few months ago, Connecticut was the most corrupt state in the union," says Andy Sauer, head of Common Cause in the state, "and now it's the model for campaign finance reform."
It's far too early to say that Connecticut has fully inoculated itself from corruption. Bribery and kickback practices in the Rowland administration, after all, provided the impetus for the reform effort. Republican Governor Jodi Rell, who replaced Rowland, has twice vetoed legislation meant to address contracting abuses that landed Rowland in prison, because the Democrats who control the legislature and their union allies have insisted on anti-privatization provisions she found unacceptable.
As in other states with public financing, outside interests will still find ways to influence the political process, most notably through independent expenditures and contributions to PACs run by legislative leaders. Rell recently suspended her chief of staff for a violation of internal fundraising policies.
But regardless of what impact the new campaign finance law ultimately makes on Connecticut's political culture, for now the state is looking like the bluest of the blue.